Early childhood education as a renaissance breakthrough
When every child has the opportunity to learn
Probably many of you in your childhood have played a game like 'zilina'. In my country a famous game for young children is '1, 2, 3, stella'. What if I told you games like this could change the world? It may sound impossible, but UNICEF is here to prove that it’s not!
This is little Mariam. In this photo, she was 3,5 years old. This photo was taken in 2018, four days after she started attending the alternative model of preschool that UNICEF helped set up in Shamut, Lori marz. This was quite extraordinary for Mariam, her family and the whole village, because Shamut, like many other small and remote settlements, did not have a kindergarten until then.
24% of children under 6 years old in Armenia go to preschool. And among children in rural areas, only 16% do.
Why is early learning important?
- Scientists tell us that our early years shape us as children and the adults we become.
- Absence of early learning has negative effects on learning outcomes during school years, which means less opportunities in adult life too.
- If we are talking about children from poor families, ultimately this also limits their ability to escape the poverty trap.
- Investment in early childhood development actually makes sense from an economic perspective. Evidence from the World Bank claims that for every dollar invested in early childhood interventions there is a return on investment that can range between US$ 6 to 17, depending on the preschool enrolment rate in the country.
So what are the root causes of low preschool enrolment in Armenia?
The causes are multiple.
On the demand side (parents, caregivers, communities), there is lack of awareness on the crucial importance of early childhood education.
From the point of view of the supply of services, one of the most critical bottlenecks, especially in rural and remote settlements, is the limited resources to sustain the traditional model of kindergartens:
- the traditional kindergarten covers morning and afternoon hours, provides educational services as well as lunch, snacks, the afternoon nap.
- For small and remote rural settlements that have a limited number of children of that age, five children in Mariam’s case in Shamut, the cost per capita is simply too high and unaffordable.
How to tackle this issue?
Again, scientists tell us that successful early learning outcomes for children have to do with duration, which is the number of year children attend preschool, rather than intensity, which is the number of hours in the day that they stay in preschool.
If intensity is not so critical to maintain good early learning outcomes for children, we could consider an alternative model that provides educational services, but does not need to deal with kitchen services and afternoon nap arrangements, which add significant costs.
In 2015, UNICEF started testing this idea together with the Ministry of Education and other partners. We piloted an alternative model in 8 villages in Syunik marz and 4 settlements in Lori marz.
The model that we came up with, provides education services to small groups (10-15) of mixed-age children from 3-6. Children come to the center 3-5 hours per day, 5 days a week free of charge.
We didn’t need to build a new space from scratch, as small communities are usually able to identify a suitable space at the local school or in the municipality or elsewhere that can be converted into a classroom with little refurbishment and with educational materials.
UNICEF further worked with communities to identify caregivers and train them in early learning and how to stimulate children through activities and play.
Then, each alternative preschool service was legally linked to a full-time traditional preschool at the center of the consolidated community for monitoring, for ensuring continuous training of teachers and for methodological support.
By keeping it this simple, we were able to significantly reduce costs so that the communities could afford sustaining this service.
In 2019, UNICEF commissioned an independent evaluation of our work in Syunik and Lori marzes, which concluded that the alternative model worked well in the pilot settlements and it could be effectively replicated in other rural settlements. Based on these findings, UNICEF’s alternative model was adopted as an integral part of the national pre-school education policy in Armenia and reflected in the 2021 Law on Preschool Education.
Since then, this model has been used together with full time kindergartens to progress towards the national goal of achieving 70% preschool enrollment by 2026.
Since then, UNICEF has helped to establish 16 alternative preschools in remote rural settlements and is working in collaboration with donors, including the EU and the Government, to establish 25 more by the end of 2023.
We also expect that this alternative preschool model will contribute to reducing the gap in preschool enrollment rates between small rural communities and the rest of the country, so that more children like Mariam can have more opportunities in life.
Today, Mariam is almost 8 and she is preparing to go to second grade at Shamut public school. This year 4 more children have successfully graduated from the alternative preschool that UNICEF helped to set up.
Mariam’s mother, who is a teacher at Shamut school, recently told us, in her words, “The first grade at school was a piece of cake for Mariam because she had already learned so much at the preschool and become so social. As a teacher at school and a mum, I have seen first-hand what a big difference early learning can make in a child’s life!”
Education is a powerful equaliser when it starts early enough.
For all children, early childhood provides an important window of opportunity to prepare the foundation for life-long learning and participation.
So, my ask to you today is to come together and work with UNICEF and other partners to prioritise vulnerable children and invest in early childhood education to close the learning gap in Armenia.
Because to children, it’s so much more than just a game of 'zilina' or '1-2-3 stella'. It’s their future!
This talk was delivered at 405Forum in Yerevan on 22 June 2022, organized by Teach for Armenia foundation and the Ministry of Education, Science, Culture and Sports.