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Azerbaijan: Kindergartens in Danger

BAKU, Azerbaijan - Children at the UNICEF pilot kindergarten in Sumgayit, 27 km from the capital Baku.

The future of Azerbaijan depends on the education that children receive today” ,
 says UNICEF Representative Hanaa Singer

By Sandra Iseman

BAKU  - All over Azerbaijan public kindergartens are disappearing, falling victim to privatization. But many families can not afford private kindergarten, so mothers are staying home, robbing the family of additional income, perpetuating the cycle of poverty.

But that is not the only problem.

“Pre-school education is necessary for child’s communication and socialization for their development so that they are ready for primary school,” says Jamila Sultanova, a kindergarten teacher for children aged four to five.

According to UNICEF Representative in Azerbaijan Hanaa Singer,“regardless of their economic status, background or ability, children should have access to a proper education, which includes early childhood development facilities.”

During the Soviet regime, kindergarten was a state-run educational service, available to all children. Since early 90s, however, there has been a drop in children aged two to six attending classes, and it is further complicated by the ongoing privatization.

 “What makes the situation even worse is that out of thirty kindergartens that were recently privatized, twenty-seven are now closed for renovations and are being turned into offices or other places of business,” says Ulviya Mikailova of the Centre for Innovations in Education in Azerbaijan. Ms. Mikailova, an impassioned woman works closely with UNICEF, who she considers to be her organization’s number one partner. “UNICEF’s role is the Centre’s greatest hope and supporter. They are stronger than us in policy, they are very persistent and people trust them.”

Kindergarten is becoming less and less available for those who suffer from poverty, IDPs, refugees, children with disabilities, or those in rural areas, where only 8% have access to kindergarten. Experts believe that because these children are more likely to not attend kindergarten, it means that they enter the educational system a step behind other more privileged children. With a late start, it means their academic performance will be poorer, resulting in lower grades, less opportunity for university and employment, perpetuating the poverty cycle.

UNICEF and the Centre for Innovations in Education are also working on including the active learning approach, which means classrooms are fun, interactive, and lively, stimulating children and increasing their learning potential. The new approach also invites parents to participate in their children’s classrooms, which according to several parents made them more interested in their children’s problems as they could relate better to their offspring’s’ daily lives.

At one kindergarten, where new approach is chosen, children enjoy singing, arts and crafts, and working quietly. At one kindergarten, during the mid-morning several classrooms are out playing in the schoolyard after their morning walk.

Boys and girls are busily running in herds, digging with shovels, or sitting on swings enjoying a push. Rufat, aged four likes “toys, friends, and playing outside” best about kindergarten, for Lala, aged five, it is “naptime, toys as well, but also learning and sitting at our desks”.

In order to protect children’s rights to education, UNICEF and the Centre for Innovations in Education are both working towards reforms that will result in more state-owned kindergartens, meaning that families only have to pay a nominal fee to enroll their children. “The issue is not just about children’s right to education but also a question of the long-term depletion of human capital. The future of Azerbaijan depends on the education that children receive today,” says Ms. Singer.

Another important direction that UNICEF and the Centre for Innovations in Education are working on is towards inclusiveness in the schools. Some people have ironically asked Ms. Mikailova, “do you really expect EVERYBODY to attend regular schools?” and she answers, “Yes, I do expect the disabled, and all minorities to attend public and kindergarten schools together.”  She mentions how policies are normally directed at “normal” children and “gifted” but seldom do they try to address the needs of other children.

“Inclusive schools will mean that children, regardless of ability, status, or background will learn together, integrating those children into society which have been excluded in the past.”




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