Kindergartens without borders for the best start in life
The poorest families – including Roma – are the least likely to send their children to pre-school.
Albena is the very picture of a model kindergarten pupil.
With bright eyes, a wide smile and an easy laugh, the six-year-old happily follows all her teacher's directions.
And she obviously gets on well with her classmates, paying special attention to Milica, a shy little girl who sometimes finds the activities rather overwhelming.
But Albena is also a model in another way.
She comes from a Roma community in Sremcica, a small town which perches in the hills surrounding Belgrade and forms part of the city's Cukarica municipality.
Many children from Roma families miss out on pre-schools. Up to the age of five-and-a-half, only around one in twenty attend.
That is a statistic which needs to change. Pre-school education can be vital to a happy, prosperous future.
It forms the basis of life-long learning: children who go to kindergarten are likely to stay in education longer.
That can make all the difference in terms of lifting families out of poverty.
But the poorest families – including Roma – are the least likely to send their children to pre-school.
There are numerous reasons for this – among them, geographical and social isolation.
Lack of funding plays a part – as does the reluctance of Roma families to deal with a bureaucracy which can seem opaque or even hostile to them.
Opening Places and Improving Quality
That is why UNICEF is supporting the Kindergartens without Borders project, in cooperation with Serbia's government, academic institutions, municipalities and NGO partners, and the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation.
It is opening up places for children – especially those from socially disadvantaged backgrounds – and improving the all-round quality of pre-school education.
Albena attends classes in the Gorica pre-school organised within the Kindergartens without Borders project.
Her classmates include other children who otherwise might have missed out on this vital stage of their education – not just those from ethnic minorities, but children with disabilities, as well as other children from the neighbourhood.
Serbia's system legally gives priority to children from vulnerable groups, as well as those from families in which both parents are working. But in practice, at the local level, the lack of funding and demand from working parents can overwhelm the system.
That has the effect of ruling out a large section of the population. As a result only half of the country's children can take up a pre-school place, well behind the figure in most European Union countries – a group which Serbia is in negotiations to join.
It all amounts to a major lost opportunity – especially if all the country's kindergarten teachers are as good as Nevanka Vukolic.
The principal of the Gorica pre-school takes a hands-on approach, marshalling Albena's class with enough enthusiasm to leave her visibly glowing after the session. But she insists that the energy expended is more than worthwhile.
“Pre-school education makes it possible for the children to meet their basic needs, such as socialisation.”
“For the children in the Kindergartens without Borders classes, this is their first time in pre-school – and now they can meet their peers and become adjusted to the education system. All of this is very enabling and stimulates their development.”
Nevanka notes that the Kindergartens without Borders classes are there to benefit children from vulnerable groups.
“We have had good results in promoting Kindergartens without Borders with those families – we want to tell them that their children are welcome.
We also work with the health and social centres to identify which children we could include in pre-school education, including Roma and children with disabilities. They get particular benefits from socialisation.”
But it is not just down to the kindergartens to promote the importance of pre-school. It is perhaps even more important for members of the communities whose children could benefit the most to act as advocates.
In Albena's case, that is not a problem. When she arrives back at her home in a well-established Roma community, her mother, Gunaj Kasumi, is happy to talk about the importance of education.
She shares her enthusiasm with her extended family and neighbours – and also liaises with the local authorities to improve the availability of pre-school places.
“I graduated from secondary school myself,” she explains.
“I have been advocating for all the children in my neighbourhood to take part in the Kindergartens without Borders project – especially Roma children.”
Albena is a walking example of the results pre-school education can produce – and Gunaj says that she's delighted with the welcome she and other Roma children have received at the Gorica kindergarten.
“I'm very satisfied with the pre-school teachers. They've welcomed our children as if they were their own.
Albena is always happy at school and I have seen a big difference since she has been attending. She has learned a lot, is more communicative and social and speaks Serbian fluently – that's very important.”
More than 60 children are taking part in classes created by the Kindergartens without Borders project in Cukarica municipality alone.
Similar projects are running in other parts of Serbia – and UNICEF and its partners are making efforts to improve pre-school provision around the country.
This includes work on the legal framework, raising the awareness of key decision-makers about the importance of early education and helping education professionals to improve their skills.
“The partnership has been very fruitful, and we will have good results in the end,” says Dragana Koruga of the Centre for Interactive Pedagogy, one of the partners in the project.
Those results should include reduced drop-out rates higher up the education system, improved social integration for minority communities and higher future earnings for the children who are now enjoying their playtime.
A little early education can go a long way.