A quiet revolution: pre-school education in Georgia
Kindergarten No. 17 in Kutaisi, Georgia's second largest city, looks at first glance like a typical Soviet-era establishment: large, imposing and utilitarian, surrounded by run-down apartment blocks.
Typically, a large state kindergarten of this kind – catering for some 600 children aged 2-6 – would have been run with almost military discipline. Children would sit in rows, facing the blackboard, with arms folded. Rote learning was the order of the day, and children were only to speak if spoken to. Otherwise the place would be unnaturally quiet. The walls were generally drab and bare, except perhaps for the occasional picture of classic Georgian poets such as Shota Rustaveli or Ilia Chavchavadze, and a smattering of religious icons.
Now, however, the building's austere façade belies the remarkable transformation that has only very recently taken place inside. Small groups of children are engaged in a variety of activities and guided play: some are sitting on cushions in the reading corner, some are making hand puppets inspired by a recent outing to a puppet show, and others are doing role play. The colourful walls are covered with the children's work on different themes. While the classes are still large – on average 40 children in each, with one teacher and an assistant – the child-centred approach is radically different from that prevalent in the past.
"There's no doubt that the new approach is far better for the children," says Maya Kakhiani, a teacher of 20 years. "We are now able to work much more individually with children, focusing on their particular needs and interests, while they are more independent, more able to make choices and take initiative, and are learning important social skills."
Eka Nutsubidze, a mother of two young children, agrees. "Children are now learning to think for themselves. Before, it was one approach fits all. Children were effectively brainwashed. That's the way the system worked."
So what has triggered this seemingly dramatic change in attitude and approach? Since the pre-primary education system in Georgia was decentralised in 2005, local governments have become responsible for the establishment and oversight of pre-school institutions – but most have lacked the knowledge and skills to implement contemporary approaches to pre-school education. UNICEF has therefore been supporting the Georgian government, at national and local levels, to reform and develop the pre-school education sector.
Working with civil society partners, and with financial support from IKEA, one of UNICEF's projects has focused on enhancing access to quality pre-school education in eight kindergartens in disadvantaged areas of Kutaisi municipality. Through the Centre for Educational Initiatives (CEI), UNICEF's local partner, the project has ensured the development of appropriate methodology and pedagogical materials, essential refurbishment, and the training and capacity building of both teachers and pre-school education administrators.
"The training seminars have really been remarkably successful," says Zurab Paghava, CEI programme manager. "Due to the motivation not only of teachers, but of the municipality itself, the project has extended to all 35 kindergartens in Kutaisi, and soon more than 400 teachers and administrators will have been trained in the progressive 'Step-by-Step' methodology. An important factor in this success is the peer training and staff development that continues well beyond the initial training," he adds.
"Sometimes it does take a little while to get things moving in these training sessions," smiles Zurab, as he looks in at a room of more than 30 pre-school teachers – all of them women – where the trainer, Giorgi, is explaining an "ice-breaking" game with the help of Post-It stickers and a whistle. "But the levels of enthusiasm and understanding are generally very high, and there is a genuine desire to improve the way things have traditionally been in our pre-schools."
Pre-school enrolment in Georgia and in the broader South Caucasus region has traditionally always been lower than in Central and Eastern Europe and Russia, and hit rock-bottom in the immediate post-Soviet period – from an already low figure of 45 per cent to 23 per cent for 3-5 year olds, and the number of kindergartens was halved. Although enrolment figures have started to rise over the past decade, they remain low – just 42 per cent, according to a 2011 Welfare Monitoring Survey. Low attendance has been ascribed partly to cost, and partly to the perception that young children are better cared for at home.
Kutaisi, however, has seen a markedly upward trend. While two years ago 4,990 children were enrolled in 35 kindergartens, currently 8,120 children are enrolled (including 2,620 aged 1-2). According to Maka Dogonadze, deputy director of the Kutaisi Municipality Pre-School Union, this increase is due to several factors: the new policy of accepting children from one year old (currently implemented in 15 kindergartens); the fact that children from the poorest families and minority groups have free access due to the social benefit voucher system; and the overall improvement in the quality of teaching and learning.
"The reform benefits everyone: children, parents, teachers and all professionals not just in the pre-school sector but in primary schools too, since children are now much better prepared for the next stage," says Maka. "And now that we have the training and the capacity, scaling up in terms of appropriate toys and learning materials will be easier. We have also learned how to adapt or recycle existing resources, to really make the most of what we already have."