In Armenia, ‘Pre-school has brought back hope’

A new model for early learning

Tigran Zaqaryan
May 2018 Village of Shamut, Lori region, Armenia. Children in preschool. This alternative preschool is developed and established by UNICEF Armenia, ensuring early learning for children in small communities.
UNICEF Armenia/2018/Malkhasyan

09 April 2019

Parents in the world’s wealthier countries can often take for granted that their children will have some form of early learning. They may well be able to pick and choose from a selection of early childhood programmes – all of them designed to make sure their children learn in an environment that is stimulating and fun, and that prepares them for a lifetime of learning. The picture is more or less the same in Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, where parents can choose to enroll their young children in a variety of preschools, both public and private.

But just 100 miles from Yerevan the reality is entirely different. Until recently, children in Shamut village in Armenia’s Lori region had no access to any early childhood education at all. And Shamut was not alone, as Alvard Poghosyan, UNICEF Armenia’s Chief of Education explains:

“Access to preschool education has been a major problem in Armenia, especially in some 400 remote villages scattered across the country.”

UNICEF’s new report A World Ready to Learn: Prioritizing quality early childhood education reveals the global scale of this challenge, with more than 175 million children of pre-primary age – around half of all children worldwide – not enrolled in pre-primary education.

By missing out on early childhood learning, children in villages like Shamut across Armenia and around the world miss out on many of the crucial ingredients for their physical, mental and social development. It is in during the first five years of life that the human brain develops most rapidly. Children under five are ‘sponges’, absorbing, memorizing and learning from every new experience.

A nurturing preschool not only enhances this development, it also inspires an enthusiasm for learning that can last a lifetime. Children who go to preschool do better in primary and secondary school and are more likely to have better career prospects in the future. Research shows that they will earn, on average, 25 percent more than adults who do not go to preschool, and that their higher earnings will help cut poverty by 13 percent. Equally, a lack of early learning only deepens inequalities and represents a lost opportunity. Across 64 countries, the poorest children are seven times less likely than children from the wealthiest families to attend early childhood education programmes.

Until recently children in the village of Shamut in Armenia’s Lori region had no access to early childhood education.
UNICEF Armenia/2018/Malkhasyan
Until recently children in the village of Shamut in Armenia’s Lori region had no access to early childhood education.

In Armenia, for example, only 30 percent of children under five are enrolled in preschool programmes. And there is a gap between urban and rural enrolment: while 35 percent of children are enrolled in preschools in urban areas, this drops to just 17 percent of children in rural areas like Shamut. 

The village has only seven children of pre-school age. And as the local teachers report, that makes it hard for this remote community to sustain a standard kindergarten. As well as the small number of children, Shamut – like many other villages in rural Armenia – must also contend with a chronic lack of financial resources.

The geographic remoteness of a community should never deprive a child of the chance to enjoy early learning. That is why UNICEF has developed an alternative model to enable children in remote villages to enjoy early learning, just like children in Yerevan.

In this model, the preschool operates for only four hours each day and has just one or two teachers. This makes it more cost-effective than regular kindergartens, but it also delivers the same results in terms of child development. As research shows, regular attendance is more important than the total number of hours a child spends at preschool each day. As a result, this model is five times cheaper to run than a regular preschool.

Children engage in learning through play at preschool of Shamut village, Lori region, Armenia.
UNICEF Armenia/2018/Malkhasyan
Children engage in learning through play at preschool of Shamut village, Lori region, Armenia. This alternative preschool is developed and established by UNICEF Armenia, ensuring early learning for children in small communities.

Nushik Revazyan, mother of four-year-old Meri, is delighted with Shamut’s alternative preschool.  

“My elder son did not attend a preschool, and I can see what he has missed,” she says. “Ever since my daughter went to preschool, she has become more confident and self-organized.  Preschool has helped her overcome her shyness and become more sociable. She has developed the vital skill of concentration. And while she is at preschool, I can make time to work.” 

Another advantage is that the preschool is environmentally sustainable. It uses solar panels installed with the help of UNDP’s Global Environment Facility Small Grants Program, which saves the community money, while helping to preserve the environment.

Shamut’s preschool maintains close ties with the standard kindergarten in Tumanyan region, which is ready to support children and educators in the small village whenever necessary. Such ties to the regular preschooling system are essential for the long-term sustainability of this alternative model.

Children play at the preschool of Shamut village, Armenia.
UNICEF Armenia/2018/Malkhasyan
Children play at the preschool of Shamut village, Armenia.

“Following the implementation of this model, more than 140 children aged three to six in Armenia’s regions of Lori and Syunik already attend preschool, and another 100 will join them in the next five years” says Poghosyan. “We’re monitoring these alternative preschools on a regular basis to make sure that the quality of education provided to the children meets the high standards set by the Government.”

The alternative preschool in Shamut inspires hope and optimism about the future of the community. “Before this, I would often hear people say that children have no future in the village because they don’t live a normal life here,” says preschool educator Mane Kocharyan. “Gone are those days. The preschool has brought back hope.” 

UNICEF knows that investment in early childhood learning pays off. It helps children reach their full potential as adults and become well-rounded citizens. The alternative preschool model shows that even small interventions can have a real impact, upholding the right of each and every child to an early education and ensuring that no child misses out on this crucial opportunity.