DR Congo + 4 more

UNICEF plans to expand innovative pre-school programme

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By Chris Niles

NEW YORK, USA, 9 January 2012 – A quality education is the cornerstone of every child’s rights, yet across the developing world millions of children’s futures are stunted because they don’t have the opportunity to learn.

VIDEO: UNICEF correspondent Chris Niles reports on an innovative programme in which older children prepare pre-schoolers to enter primary school.

UNICEF is addressing this deprivation with an innovative approach that aims to remove barriers to success in primary school by giving pre-schoolers the knowledge to successfully enter first grade.

Called ‘Getting Ready for School: a Child-to-Child Approach’, the programme is a low-cost way to provide supplemental education to pre-schoolers, especially the most marginalized.

Learning from friends

The programme is succeeding in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the poorest country on earth, and one with an entrenched cycle of exclusion from education. Half of adults there have either never attended school or only completed primary school.

“In class, I love to read, write and sing,” said Mariam, 5, who lives in Kinshasa, capital of DR Congo. She attends pre-school with a handful of young friends.

The unique part about the programme is that Mariam’s teacher is not much older than she is. Child-to–Child builds on the natural phenomenon of children learning from their older friends – in Mariam’s case, her neighbour Nefa Kabeya.

“It’s important to help the younger kids so they can avoid having problems in first grade. If they’re not well prepared in first grade they’ll never ask questions and won’t participate in class,” Nefa said.

A successful pilot

The Child-to-Child programme was launched as a pilot programme in 2007 in partnership with the Child-to-Child Trust. Six countries participated in the pilot: Bangladesh, China, DR Congo, Ethiopia, Tajikistan and Yemen. It has proven successful in communities with strong community support, such as the Tigray Region of rural Ethiopia.

“The main reason for this is that the programme was designed to work within our culture,” said Maekelech Gidey, a UNICEF education specialist in Ethiopia. “It is our culture that neighbours work, eat and play together. The programme supports this, and that is why people can easily and happily participate in it.

Child-to-Child is filling a critical gap for pre-schoolers, giving them the social and academic confidence to begin their formal education on time and to stay with it. Ba-ati Primary School in Tigray is seeing the changes first hand.

“When I compare this year’s first graders to the last year’s, I can see a big difference. Ever since the Child–to-Child programme started, the children’s understanding has increased,” said teacher Tigist Araya.

In Bangladesh, 30 schools were selected for the Child-to-Child pilot because of their high drop-out and low school completion rates. In 2009, only 23 per cent of children between ages 3 and 5 attended pre-school.

Liton, 10, is making his own contribution to reversing that trend. Once a week he teaches two younger children the basics of reading, writing and counting. Guided by his own teachers, Liton makes lessons fun.

Benefits to students and teachers

But the programme’s benefits go further than getting little ones ready for school. Since he’s been mentoring his young friends, Liton has discovered that, not only are his young charges improving in their studies, he is too.

“Since going into the Child-to-Child programme, I’ve learned a lot. My reading is much better. That’s been very good for me,” he said.

It’s also been good for Bangladesh, which aims to achieve universal primary school education.

“I have seen that enrolment has increased, school drop-outs have lessened in the areas that have the programme,” said Director General of the Director of Primary Education Shyamal Kanti Ghosh.

The programme is simple and cost-effective, which UNICEF and its partners hope will enable it to be expanded into more countries and regions and integrated into other UNICEF quality-education programmes.

“The most important thing for this innovation is that it's less costly. And it is community-based, so everybody can see the changes. And the attachment of the teachers to the process is very strong,” said UNICEF Early Childhood Development Specialist Mohammad Mohsin.