Preparing remote children for their best chance at schooling success

Where students have often missed out on attending preschool, a new UNICEF-supported project is helping them transition smoothly and successfully into Grade 1

UNICEF Timor-Leste
UNICEF Timor-Leste/2019/Soares
22 July 2019

Ermera, Timor-Leste - The sound of singing children’s voices carries on the warm midday breeze. The students are belting out a Tetun-language rendition of “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” as they wrap up their first training session on their way to becoming young facilitators of the new School Readiness Project.

The project is being piloted here at EBF No.680 Hatulailete school, in the remote village of Urahou 2, Ermera municipality. The road to get here is oftentimes narrow, and always bumpy and winding. But to reach the aldeia is to reach a place full of blooming bougainvillea, dotted with carefully constructed houses and home to dozens of children, many of whom are students at EBF No.680 Hatulailete.

Beautiful photographs of smiling students adorn some walls of the school, while brightly coloured artworks hang on others. There are outdoor hand washing basins big enough to accommodate 20 or more students at a time, tiled bathrooms with disabled facilities, and a huge, rolling green field for the children to run around in freely.

Today, however, is dedicated to training - training the 20 young facilitators and 25 family members who will support the school’s preschool-aged children as they transition into Grade 1, as well as current Grade 1 students. The young facilitators range in age from 11 to 13 years and are in Grades 5 and 6. They are being trained in how to teach the three-to-six-year-olds basic numeracy, literacy, colours, shapes and actions through play.

Supported by UNICEF and the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport, the School Readiness Project aims to prepare students who are going into Grade 1, especially those who may not have had the opportunity to attend preschool and those who are repeating the grade.


UNICEF Timor-Leste/2019/Soares
Grade 5 and 6 students are taught how to playfully interact with younger students, so they may help them learn basic numeracy, literacy, shapes and colours.

A little help from my friends

Nilton G. Leite is 12 years old, in Grade 6 and a newly trained young facilitator. “I feel happy because I’m going to be teaching the younger kids,” he says. “It’s good to teach children, because it will make them better in school and help them to read and write, and to keep studying longer.”

Nilton says he can’t wait to share what he has learnt and read stories to his seven-year-old brother at home.

“Our trainer was good, and the teachers helped us, too,” says Izaun De Jesus Pinto, a Grade 5 student and young facilitator following the learning session. “I liked playing bingo, doing the puzzles and dancing. I think the younger kids will love these things, too.”

These are simple activities that facilitate learning but are not common in rural Timor-Leste.

Both Nilton and Izaun say they would like to be teachers when they grow up.

UNICEF Timor-Leste/2019/Soares
Young facilitator Izaun De Jesus Pinto (left) uses play to teach a younger student how to do a puzzle.

The benefits of change

Sonia De Carvalho, a Grade 1 teacher, has been working at the school since 2006 and took part in the teachers’ training session. “I now have the skills to teach children through play, which is different to what I have done before,” she says. “I think these teaching methods will help us to create child-friendly learning environments, especially for those new to school. I think these materials will really help them pick things up quickly.”

Sonia is referring to the 12 different learning aids that have been introduced during training. They include basic games such as puzzles, as well as flash cards, building blocks and story books.

“The biggest obstacle in school is children finding Grade 1 difficult,” says Jorge Manuel Mouzinho, the UNICEF consultant responsible for designing the training. “These children have never had any experience in reading or writing. Some children, their parents have only ever taken them to the coffee plantation or the field. They are not familiar with being around teachers, or with colours or numbers, so this helps them.

“The parent’s manual is not text-heavy; it is full of pictures to help parents understand that doing different things with their children will help them to learn and develop,” Jorge says while flipping through its pages. “For example, it shows that mums can play ball with the kids in the home. And if the parents work in the fields, they can use different plants and objects to introduce children to different colours and tell them stories.”

UNICEF Timor-Leste/2019/Soares
Jorge Manuel Mouzinho shares some learning aids with the class of young facilitators and their teachers.

Layers of support

The School Readiness initiative targets not only young facilitators and teachers to support children transitioning into formal schooling - their parents and other family members have important roles to play as well.

“I want to do at home the things I learnt in the training,” says Eusita da Cunha, who participated in the training session for caregivers. “My children are all grown up, but I have two grandchildren in preschool. They live nearby so when they come to visit me we can play together; I can apply my learning to them. It is important for them to start learning because if they don’t, it will be difficult for them when they go to primary school.”

This layered approach to preparing the children to learn, engage, achieve and progress – or LEAP – works to ensure that families, schools and the students themselves have the skills and knowledge necessary for success.

A learning journey

Nicolau Goveia Leite is EBF No.680 Hatulailete’s School Coordinator, a position he has held for the past 13 years. During his tenure, he and his staff, with the support of UNICEF and the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport, have elevated the school to become one of the best of its kind in the country. “This school is an example to which other schools can look for inspiration,” says Cidalio Leite, the Director-General of Preschool, Basic Education and Recurrent Education at the Ministry of Education. “This is due to its infrastructure, because it is well-managed and, although it is in a rural area, it looks modern.

UNICEF Timor-Leste/2019/Soares
Parents of preschool-age students flip through the pages of a manual designed to help caregivers support their children's learning at home.

“The school also has good relationships with the community and parents,” he adds. “I hope this continues, because children’s futures are in our hands. I hope that one day someone successful will come from this place. If that is to happen, teachers’ contributions are crucial. Teachers are needed to help change and improve children’s lives and bring change to the community, too.”

For Coordinator Nicolau, his focus as a teacher and school principal has been clear from day one - to bring quality education to his rural home village and ensure that as many children as possible have safe access to it. “For me, the most important thing now is that the preschool continues to be up and running,” he says, referring to the school’s youngest learning group, which got started earlier this year. “We have lots of three-to-five-year-old in the community, and many are still being left behind. My hope is for all children in our community to attend preschool before they start Grade 1.”

While that goal slowly becomes a reality, with 78 students now attending the UNICEF-supported community preschool at EBF No.680 Hatulailete, the School Readiness Project is meanwhile filling an important gap. And it’s working. “The children are learning quickly,” says Jorge, smiling as he watches over the young facilitators and preschoolers playing games in pairs. “These materials, their bright colours… they’re really helping them.”

UNICEF Timor-Leste/2019/Soares
Sonia De Carvalho is a Grade 1 teacher and says she now has a new skillset to draw from when teaching her students.

It’s a numbers game

As illustrated by national data, the importance of preschool education cannot be underestimated. According to the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport, just 22 per cent of children in Timor-Leste are enrolled in preschool, while almost 24 per cent of students repeat the first grade. Statistics also show that one in 40 children in Timor-Leste drop out of primary school altogether, but the likelihood of this occurring is dramatically reduced when a child has attended preschool. With this initiative, it is hoped the numbers will soon start painting a different picture; one in which Sustainable Development Goal 4 - inclusive and equitable quality education and lifelong learning opportunities for all - is achieved.

EBF No.680 Hatulailete is among 11 basic education schools and 15 public and community preschools across Ermera and Liquica municipalities where the School Readiness Project is being piloted, and with the continued funding support of UNICEF Australia, it aims to reach 1,200 children by 2020.

“The School Readiness Project helps to improve and reinforce children’s learning,” says Director-General Leite. “Learning is a process that begins when people see new things; it makes them curious and want to know more.”

As tiny, eager hands reach out to grasp a new set of building blocks, these words ring true today at EBF No.680 Hatulailete.