Early learning centres expand access to vital preschool education in Azerbaijan
Centres supported by UNICEF contribute to early childhood development in vulnerable and rural communities of Azerbaijan.
In 2019, UNICEF and the European Union launched a joint three-year programme to develop community and family-based integrated social services for the most vulnerable children in Azerbaijan. In the framework of this programme, eight early learning centres were established by non-governmental partner organizations in four regions of the country. The centres were specifically designed to address the needs of young children who have limited or no access to early education.
The early learning centres provide quality preschool education to underprivileged communities in the western city of Ganja, the Garargah settlement of internally displaced people, the rural villages of Garavelli and Ranjbarlar in Agjabedi district, the southern city of Shirvan, and in remote villages of the Absheron peninsula. While the European Union financed the programme, UNICEF provided technical supervision and capacity-building to the partner organizations, the Regional Development Enlightenment Public Union (RDEPU) and the BUTA Humanitarian Public Union.
The manager of the RDEPU, Rovshan Novruzov, explains how the centres have improved equitable access to early education: “community-based early learning centres were set up in villages and settlements where there are no kindergartens or child development centres. There was a great need for these centres. Our early learning centres have brought a breath of fresh air to the communities.”
Our early learning centres have brought a breath of fresh air to the communities.
The centres were developed in synergy with existing local institutions. They use rooms in local schools and make cross-referrals with the community-based rehabilitation centres, which are also supported by the EU-UNICEF programme. According to Leyla Hasanova, a UNICEF education specialist, this integration enables local social services “to provide a family and a child with disability with a comprehensive support system”. Last year, 354 children benefited from the activities offered by the centres. UNICEF led advocacy efforts to showcase the model to stakeholders, including local authorities, private businesses and community representatives.
The launch of the centres, planned for 2020, was derailed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Once the centres were finally able to open in February 2021, parents were at first worried about bringing their children to group activities and attendance was low. But strong measures were put in place to ensure proper hygiene and safety. Enrolment took off, helped by the gradual easing of restrictions, and most centres had to open additional groups to accommodate the number of children who wanted to register.
The centres hold group sessions three times a week for children between three and five years old, a critical period in their development. Each centre is run by a preschool teacher, helped by a teacher assistant, both of whom have been trained in early childhood education, inclusive education and on how to best cooperate with parents, using resources provided by UNICEF and the Ministry of Education. After an initial 5-day training, they receive additional on-the-job mentoring sessions and refresher trainings on targeted topics.
The sessions aim to encourage the physical, cognitive, social and emotional development of the children, including children with special educational and developmental needs. The sessions include various activities to foster a better acquaintance with the world around, speech development, numeracy and logical thinking, as well as physical education, arts and crafts (drawing, playdoh modelling, etc.), and music.
Since children started attending the sessions, they show significant signs of progress. Four-year-old Kanan was brought to the Ganja centre by his parents. Kanan has congenital microcephaly, a condition which causes communication problems, including speech delays. Khayala, Kanan's mother, describes the positive changes she sees in her son: "before my son came to the centre, he ran away from other children, he did not want to be touched, he did not play with other children, and he did not even want to get up. He did not recognize fruit or vegetables. After just one month, I see significant improvement in Kanan. He knows fruit and vegetables, holds hands and plays games with other children. It makes me very happy as a mother."
Pre-school teacher Aynur Aliyeva confirms the impact early learning sessions have had on Kanan: "Kanan started learning to communicate with the other children and sharing his toys. He comes to our centre with great enthusiasm. Kanan raises his hand first when we ask questions, although it is hard for him to answer. We are very glad about the positive changes in Kanan, and our goal is to help him integrate further into society."
From 2022, the centres will become self funded by providing fee-based services. The fees remain affordable for underprivileged families and children from very disadvantaged backgrounds are exempt. The preschool teachers have been trained in entrepreneurship, tax reporting and basic accounting so that the centres can continue to function as small social businesses. This model is being promoted among unemployed women in rural areas as a viable and rewarding self-employment option.
The eight early learning centres have brought crucial services to underserved communities and vulnerable children, providing not only access but inclusivity. With communities recognizing the positive influence the centres have had on their children, demand is increasing and their number should continue to grow. These outreach efforts contribute to giving all children the best possible start in life.