In the village of Gantauda, 90km from Guinea-Bissau’s capital, Bissau, a child’s third birthday is a milestone: it is the age when they can start at the local kindergarten, which their parents know improves their chances of survival.
Enrolling in Gantauda kindergarten, Guinea-Bissau’s only pre-school centre, not only increases the chances of the children going on to primary school, but critically also provides a level of basic nutrition and health care most children are denied in a country where under-five mortality has risen from 203 to 223 per 1,000 live births, according to the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF).
The Gantauda programme provides lunch for the children, has clean latrines on-site, and will soon have a healthcare centre. It also hones children’s motor skills, encourages joint learning and establishes reading and writing techniques - the kind of integrated approach that can help improve children’s health outcomes, said Sophie Nadeau, human development specialist at the World Bank.
Numerous World Bank studies - including in Colombia, Bangladesh, Mozambique and Argentina - show introducing children to pre-school will up their likelihood of not only attending, but performing well in, and completing, primary school.
Only 28 percent of 7-12 year olds currently attend primary school in Guinea-Bissau, according to UNICEF, while just 12 percent of girls complete it, compared to 18 percent of boys. As such, Guinea-Bissau is still way off-track to meet the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) of primary education for all by 2015, estimates the World Bank, which has re-set the goal for 2020.
Though it is too early to study the links between this programme and primary school completion rates, or health indicators, teachers have tracked children’s performance. "Children who attend the kindergarten appear to learn faster once they go to primary school,” said Bacar Lano, who teaches the three- and four-year olds at the centre. “We work on all kinds of techniques here to help them do that, including the basics of handwriting and the alphabet. We also spend a lot of time encouraging the kids to play, which helps to develop creativity.”
According to Ingrid Kuhfeldt, director of Plan International which funds the Gantauda programme, the biggest initial problems children starting primary school face in this region are behavioural problems in the classroom, and language barriers - the official language of instruction is Portuguese, but most children speak local languages.
The World Bank’s Nadeau told IRIN studies in Ecuador, Cambodia and Mozambique showed that while socio-economic differences do not greatly affect children’s performance at age one, two or three, by age five, those living in poverty “lag behind considerably”. Pre-school education can change that, she said. If not, “if they are already disadvantaged then this, coupled with low quality conditions means it is not surprising they don’t learn much at school.”
Donors are currently testing the cost-effectiveness and impact of three early childhood development (ECD) models in different settings: government-run or “formal” early childhood development programmes; community-based schemes; and “parenting programmes”, whereby parents regularly meet to discuss ways to nurture their children’s development.
Plan International has adopted the community-based model: Villagers choose the teachers, pay into a joint fund to support families who cannot afford to send their children, and contribute 30 percent of the running costs. All the playground equipment was made by local carpenters from local materials so that it will be sustainable, says Kuhfeldt.
The Ministry of Education has a very low capacity in Guinea-Bissau. Its budget barely covers teacher salaries, and would be very hard-pushed to take on quality ECD programmes on a large scale, she told IRIN.
Currently, every child in the village aged 3-6 attends the kindergarten, teacher Lano told IRIN. “Nobody is left out.”
Donors catching on
The 30 donors and agencies involved in the Fast Track Initiative to help achieve universal basic education, are increasingly funding early childhood as well as primary education, said Nadeau.
UNICEF helps develop training materials and curricula for ECD teachers; and tries to push the agenda forward with education ministries.
MDG meetings in September will provide an opportunity for ECD experts to push their agenda further, Nadeau told IRIN. In an ideal world, some sort of ECD intervention would be part of all universal basic education projects, she said.
But to get there, they must collect more data to convince decision-makers, said Nadeau. “The magnitude of the problem [children arriving at school unprepared] is not documented enough.” And once armed with data, advocates must reach beyond educators, to try to convince ministries of finance to start supporting some of these projects in the future, she said.
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