Our children, our future: pre-school education in conflict-affected areas of Georgia
By UNICEF Georgia
Just off the main highway westwards from the capital Tbilisi to the town of Gori, there is a striking reminder of the long-term consequences of Georgia’s short war with Russia in August 2008.
Khurvaleti is a strangely incongruous settlement of row upon row of identical tiny houses, surrounded by empty fields and with the backdrop of the towering Caucasus mountains in the distance, home to some 140 families who fled from nearby South Ossetia when the conflict erupted there three years ago. It is one of 38 similar settlements in conflict-affected areas such as the Shida Kartli region, housing around 19,000 people in total. The majority of the 138,000 people who were displaced by the conflict have since returned home or been resettled.
With its residents cut off from their houses, land and sources of income in South Ossetia, Khurvaleti is one of 40 vulnerable communities selected through the UNICEF project for the establishment of a pre-school.
When representatives of the Georgian NGO Civitas, UNICEF’s local partner, visit Khurvaleti to meet with parents and explain the objectives of the project and how it will work, they are given a warm reception. A group of about a dozen women with their young children are already waiting outside the community hall.
“The old Soviet approach to pre-school education was very different,” Aleksander Kalandadze of Civitas tells them. “Then, the approach was very formal and parents didn’t get involved. But now, it is very important for parents to get involved – not only in the interests of the child, but also to make the project viable by keeping costs down,” he says.
Although the traditionally low pre-school attendance in Georgia and the broader South Caucasus region – which hit rock-bottom in the immediate post-Soviet period – has increased significantly in recent years, there is still some way to go in changing attitudes and the widespread perception that pre-school is simply a “child-sitting” service and therefore unnecessary when there is an adult at home to care for the child.
Yet these mothers need little persuasion. They agree enthusiastically with Aleksander, and assure him that they would prepare a roster of volunteers to assist the teacher. Some 15 children aged 3-6 have already been identified to enrol in the class.
A two-year project on providing access to quality early education for disadvantaged children in Georgia started in September 2011, with financial support from IKEA and the participation of two local NGOs, Civitas Georgia and the Centre for Educational Initiative. The project envisages the establishment of 40 alternative pre-school centres in remote rural areas of Samtskhe-Javakheti, Kvemo Kartli and Shida Kartli, where presently there are no pre-schools. The centres will be established in existing municipal or school buildings, then refurbished and equipped, and staff recruited and trained. Local municipalities will take over the centres once the project is completed.
In Khurvaleti, the teacher, who will be trained through the project in a specially designed methodology, is Khatuna Sonishvili, a 34 year-old mother of three children – 4 year old twin boys and a 12 year-old daughter. A qualified primary teacher, who was teaching in South Ossetia before the war, Khatuna does not underestimate the importance of a good education for her children. “Pre-school is really important to teach children how to interact with others and to give them basic skills to start primary school. This project is a very welcome initiative,” she says. “My concern is that the nearest school, where my daughter and others here attend, is very small and cannot cater for all the extra children that came after the war, so the standards are low. For me, my children’s education and future opportunities are so important. In fact, our children are our future, because right now we have no opportunities here.”
Khatuna explains that the lack of jobs and lack of access to land means that her family of five lives on state benefits of GEL 126 (USD 76) per month. “Of course we can’t survive on that. Luckily we have some relatives in the region who help us with food and so on.” She adds that she still dreams of going back home, but only if it was really safe to do so. “The conditions are not right to return now. So we just have to get used to this situation, even though it is really hard.”
It is not only people displaced by the conflict who are suffering hardship. For many living near the administrative boundary line with South Ossetia and who never left their homes, the conflict has made life much harder for them too. Since the war, numerous villages whose economy depended largely on fruit-growing, particularly apples and peaches, have been cut off from the irrigation system on the other side of the boundary line. As a result, harvests have been poor, prices have gone up and poverty has increased.
Ditsi and Kordi villages, about one kilometre from the disputed border, are among those where UNICEF will establish a pre-school. In both villages, there is an impressive turnout for the visiting Civitas delegation. In Ditsi, more than 20 parents gather outside a community building that is being refurbished to accommodate, among other things, the new pre-school. They listen attentively and promise their full support and participation in the project.
Lela Palashvili, a 60 year-old grandmother who looks much older than her years, is anxious for the pre-school to get started. “I have my three year-old grandson to look after full-time, since his mother teaches in the school. Recently I broke my leg and I haven’t been able to cope. It has become harder than ever just to make ends meet. Little Niko should be among young children his own age rather than always just with me. It will be good for both of us,” she says.
For Ketevan Macharashvili, a local primary school teacher, the benefits of pre-school are also clear. “There is a huge difference between children who have been to pre-school and those who haven’t in terms of their readiness for primary school. There used to be a pre-school here long ago, which closed in the early 90s,” she says. “I’m very happy that we will have another one, and one with a much better approach.”
In many established pre-schools, old methods and approaches are still prevalent. Children often sit formally at desks rather than play on the floor or in groups. Activities tend to be highly structured. Breti village, for example, also near the South Ossetian border in Kareli district, has a run-down pre-school which the UNICEF project will provide with better furniture, toys, and various learning and teaching resources. Importantly, the teacher will receive additional training in the new methodology devised by the National Curriculum and Assessment Centre, with UNICEF support.
“Changing the old ways can take a long time,” says Olga Muskhelishvili, a teacher trainer for Civitas. “Slowly but surely though more and more people understand the importance of appropriate pre-school education for young children, especially for the most vulnerable and disadvantaged,” she says. “This UNICEF project will make an important contribution towards that goal.”