20 february 2017

Central Asia news

Preschool Education in Kyrgyzstan

25.07.2016 12:30 msk

Symon Lord

Analytics Ferghana Valley Politics Kyrgyzstan

My interest in Kyrgyzstan

I am a citizen of the United Kingdom who is currently living in Bishkek. I was asked to contribute an article on life in Kyrgyzstan to Fergana.ru from the perspective of an expat, explaining for example, what I found surprising, interesting, unusual, what I liked or did not like about life in Kyrgyzstan.

I have to say from the outset that there are different types of expats who work in the various countries of the post-Soviet space. Some people are here for the first time, and so would be well qualified to write an article which views life in Kyrgyzstan through fresh eyes. Other expats have previously spent lengthy periods of time in several, or more ex-post Soviet Republics, in some case going back to the 1990s. I know a lot of people from western Europe and North America who have done this, and to an extent could perhaps be described as being ‘post-Soviet foreign nationals’. These people seem to have the tendency to spend several years or so in Moldova, Russia, Georgia, or Uzbekistan, and then move on.

Many of these people obtained their first major work experience after completing their higher education in one of the fifteen ex-Soviet republics, for example as English teachers, Peace Corps volunteers, or NGO interns. They may go back home for a while, or work in an entirely different part of the World, but like addicts, always seem to be drawn back to Azerbaijan, Latvia, or Kyrgyzstan and stay there. It seems that this part of the World that ‘gets into the blood’ of some people. Why this is the case, is however, not the main theme of this article.

I fit into the latter category of people. I first studied Russian and taught English in Belarus in the 1990s. Later on, I worked for the UN Refugee Agency in Azerbaijan, mainly overseeing the education and training needs of refugees and displaced peoples. After this I worked as a freelance Consultant in Tajikistan for UNICEF and several international NGOs. I have also conducted a bit of experimental filmmaking in Tajikistan and in Russia, the main theme of which was human stories around the theme of migration. For this reason, I’m not really in much of a position to say that I really find anything to be surprising or unusual in a post-Soviet country.

Now, I find myself again back in the CIS, working as a freelance Consultant in the development sector in Kyrgyzstan, working mainly in the area of Monitoring and Evaluation. It is possible to say that after several years in the UK, where I did keep up-to-date with events in the post-Soviet states via the Internet, I felt drawn back to this part of the World, and the need to experience another post-Soviet country. I chose Kyrgyzstan, because I wanted to return to Central Asia. I had travelled in Kyrgyzstan as a backpacker in 2007, and liked the country with it’s stunning mountainous scenery, fascinating, though sometimes tragic history, and hospitable population.

My interest in post-Soviet education

I have had an interest in Soviet/post-Soviet education going back some time now. Whilst teaching English in Belarus in the early1990s, I remember people talking about the strengths of the Soviet education system, and worrying that the advantages of it might be lost. I recall that many of my students had a wide general knowledge and rigorous understanding of the basic academic subjects taught at school. This was particularly noticeable in science and technical subjects, mathematics, geography, literature and foreign languages.

I was also struck by their ability to recall information very quickly, through what they called ‘memory training’. This was something I had not previously encountered. Some subjects, such as History, Economics, Philosophy and ‘Scientific Atheism’ were taught from the perspective of the Communist Party’s interpretation of ‘Marxism-Leninism’ of that period. However, even then, people I spoke to did seem to have a fairly thorough knowledge of these subjects, and those who were able to use a bit of discern and ‘read between the lines’ could still obtain some useful knowledge.

Curiously, I recall hearing at this time that a teacher who had taught ‘Scientific Atheism’ had been struck dead by a lightening bolt. Readers can decide for themselves if there is a lesson to learn from this story, and what that lesson might be.

Meeting with a group of parents at a Community-based Kindergarten in Batken region

People talked about how accessible education had been during the Soviet period, and how it had given a potential chance to people from un-influential families from villages, small towns and big cities to educate themselves and advance in their careers. Arguably, at the end of the Soviet period, access to higher education was wider than it was in North America, and some Western European countries. Perhaps, ultimately, this was the greatest achievement of the USSR. Since that time the situation with post-Soviet education has not ben easy, particularly in the ex-Soviet countries, like Kyrgyzstan, which do not have oil and gas wealth to help fund it.

Early Childhood Learning

I decided to make preschool education in Kyrgyzstan the main theme of this article. The reason being that I recently completed a report on the subject of Early Childhood Learning in Kyrgyzstan for UNICEF Kyrgyzstan, and felt that I had some authority to speak on the subject. I had not previously worked in Preschool Education, as my English teaching work had always been with young people and adults.

I discovered that ECL, which covers the age group of three to six was an entire discipline in it’s right, and one upon which education and development planners are attaching increasing importance to. To help readers have an idea of the thinking behind ECL, I have prepared a summary of some of it’s main features below. A more detailed version can be found on UNICEF’s websiate.

The development of every individual is most rapid in childhood. The early years of life are crucial to establishing a sound foundation for cognitive, social, emotional and physical development for the rest of a person’s life. Children who receive assistance in their early years achieve more success at school than those who do not have the opportunity to develop adequately. As adults, those who received the possibility to develop in childhood, have higher employment and earnings, better health, and lower levels of welfare dependence and crime rates than those who do not.

Unfortunately, many children, mainly as a result of poverty, do not have the possibility to receive access to educational opportunities, supportive community, nutrition or even basic sanitary facilities. Frequently both parents of children in this situation are forced to work, so that the kind of family care that can be educational to a child is limited. Subsequently, these children do not have the chance to develop their full human potential and do not become well equipped to contribute to the economies and societies of the countries where they live.

Fortunately, these children and their families can be helped by ECD programmes supported and implemented by developmental organizations. These children are also more likely to have higher earnings and participate more in society later in life, than if they had not participated in the ECD programme.

In a wider perspective, ECD can be seen as central to sustainable development and one of the most cost efficient investments in human capital. Economic analyses from the developed and developing World largely shows that investing in a child’s earliest years leads to some of the highest rates of return to families, societies and countries. As such, ECD can be viewed as an investment, rather than a cost.

How does all this relate to Kyrgyzstan now? In order to understand the present, it is important to understand the past. Based on my recent research, I have put together a short summary of the background history to Preschool Education in Kyrgyzstan that should help to make clear the context in which ECL programmes are now being implemented in Kyrgyzstan.

Background to Early Childhood Learning in Kyrgyzstan

In Kyrgyzstan during the latter half of the Soviet period, those children that attended preschool kindergarten did so all day. Educational activities took place in the morning, and after lunch, the children slept in beds for much of the afternoon in special ‘sleeping rooms’. The majority of these kindergartens were established in urban areas, which were seen by Soviet planners as being of much higher priority than the countryside.

When the Soviet Union came to an end in 1991, most sources estimate the number of 3-6 years olds in Kyrgyzstan in preschool education to be around 30% at maximum. Estimates vary, but the number of children receiving preschool education in urban areas was probably around 50%, whilst in rural areas access was much more limited, with coverage being below 20%.

Following the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, many of these kindergartens ceased to operate due to lack of funds. In some cases they had been linked to government enterprises, such as a factory or collective farms, and closed down when the enterprises themselves became financially unsustainable. Some kindergartens were illegally privatized and their premises used for other functions. Those kindergartens that remained had to struggle to survive on the limited resources available. Insufficient funds for maintenance at this time meant that schools’ premises became increasingly dilapidated.

During the Soviet period, teachers, like most working people had received a regular salary, which was usually enough to live on relatively comfortably. The breakup of the Soviet system was followed by a period of economic uncertainty, which included hyper-inflation and non payment of salaries for state employees. Salaries paid to teachers were not always paid, in the fifteen newly independent ex-Soviet countries made teaching an unattractive, un-prestigious profession for some people.

Many teachers left the profession to engage in some form of trade in the newly emerging market economies, or engaged in other work at the same time as teaching. The latter point negatively impacted on teaching performance, and relatively few people chose to enter the teaching profession at this time. Almost no resources were available to invest in modernizing curriculums, textbooks, teaching methodology or training which remained unchanged since the Soviet era.

Another factor that reduced the number of preschool teachers in Kyrgyzstan at this time was outmigration. During the Soviet period, many teachers, particularly in urban areas had been Russian, other Slavs, Tatar, Jewish or German. Outmigration firstly of Jews and Germans started from Gorbachev’s Perestroika period in the mid-1980s, and outmigration of all non-Kyrgyz nationalities has been ongoing since that point. Many observers regard this ‘exodus’ as a brain drain, which still negatively effects the country’s education system today.

From around 2000, many teachers and potential teachers from Kyrgyzstan have worked in Russia and Kazakhstan as migrant workers. The reason is that the income they can earn in these countries, even doing unqualified jobs -at least until the recent sanctions were put on Russia- is/was considerably higher than what can be earned as a teacher in Kyrgyzstan. In some cases, teachers, or potential teachers from rural communities move to urban areas to do non-teaching jobs in Kyrgyzstan, as they can earn more doing this than teaching at a school in the countryside.

For these reasons’ attracting suitable personnel to the teaching professions, and keeping them in the profession can be viewed as an issue of vital importance to the development of the country’s education system.

By 2004, when international aid organizations started to focus attention on early Childhood Learning, total coverage of children in state kindergartens was estimated at around 9% by most sources. In rural areas the statistic would have noticeably lower than this figure. School premises at this time were for the most part more rundown and the quality of teaching, curriculum and study materials of lower than during the Soviet period.

There were some private schools in Bishkek, and still are, for those who could afford them, but relatively few elsewhere, especially in the impoverished countryside where almost two thirds of the population live. Clearly, there was, and still is, much work to do in preschool education in Kyrgyzstan.

Foreign assistance money and Early Childhood Learning

From the early 1990s, a lot of aid money from a wide variety of international donor organizations has poured into Kyrgyzstan and other CIS countries. Donor organizations include The World bank, USAID, The EU, The UK’s Department for International Development, The Swiss Cooperation Agency and Germany’s GIZ.

Due to the fact that Kyrgyzstan is not an oil or gas producing, unlike Russia, neighbouring Kazakhstan or Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan has to accept and make the best possible use of this type of aid money in order to design and implement it’s development projects. It will be interesting to see if Kyrgyzstan’s entry into the Eurasian Economic Union will mean significant developmental aid from Russia.

Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, Early Childhood Learning received little attention from developmental planners. Tis started to change around 2004. Since this time, attention to preschool education has gradually increased, and in 2014 it was decided that a new grant from the Global Fund for Education, a US-based charity, worth twelve million dollars was to be dedicated entirely to funding activities in the Early Childhood Learning sector.

One of the reasons for this decision was the fact that children in Kyrgyzstan scored very low in the Programme for International Academic Assessment, or PISA tests in 2009. PISA tests taken are taken by fifteen years to test pupils’ abilities in Mathematics, Science and Reading. By giving children a thorough background in learning skills, it is hoped that they will, over time, become as well prepared as resources allow to complete their primary, secondary, and in some cases higher education.

The two main areas of Early Childhood learning/Preschool Education in Kyrgyzstan are Community-based Kindergartens and the recently started 480-hours National Preschool Preparation Programme. The rest of this article will be dedicated to giving the general reader an idea of what Community-based Kindergarten

S (CBKs) and the 480-hours National Preschool Education Programme are all about.

Community-based Kindergartens (CBKs)

What is known as the Community-based Kindergarten, or CBK model was adopted by UNICEF and other developmental organizations in Kyrgyzstan as the main component in their Early Childhood learning programmes. The reason for this is that a CBK is the most cost-effective way to allow the maximum number of children to obtain preschool education. All of the CBKs established with the assistance of developmental organizations are in rural areas, and are intended for the poorest members of Kyrgyzstan’s society.

A lesson at A CBK in Batken region

Statistics vary, but as of writing, around 20% of children in rural areas in Kyrgyzstan have access to a kindergarten. This might not sound like a huge number, however, it is probably more than double the number of twelve years ago, when CBKs first started to be established in Kyrgyzstan. Currently, there are plans to establish at least 120 more CBKs using the financial resources of the Global Fund grant from September 2016.

CBKs are established in existing buildings that are legally municipal property, which means that resources are not spent on the construction of new buildings. I noticed quite an inventive utilization of old buildings on my visit to CBKs in Batken. In one case a former cinema was used as a CBK, in another case, a former ‘Chaikhana (teahouse). Playground areas were designed using a creative use of local resources, such as car tyres, whilst classrooms were also nicely decorated with educational posters and examples of children’s work.

A CBK is set up with the active participation of the local community. Material support provided by the developmental organization consists of the supply of chairs, desks, cupboards, toys, firefighting equipment and washstands. An agreement is made between the CBK and the developmental organization about what contribution the community where the CBK is established will make to the establishment of and then running of the CBK.

The contribution from the community usually consists of a supply of some building materials, supply of labour for restoration work, and some volunteer work by parents of the children who will attend/attend the school. Volunteer work by parents or other family members of the school could, for instance, take the form of covering for an ill teacher, or escorting groups of children home. Parents also take part in a Parents Teachers Association that meets monthly to discuss and find solutions related of the running of the kindergarten. Teachers and other staff are recruited locally as far as is possible, which aside from adding to the community involvement, provides jobs for local people. All staff receive training related to their work at the CBK, in addition to refresher trainings. The involvement of the community helps to achieve the sustainability of the CBK.

A CBK operates what is known as a ‘shift-system’, which means that that children attend in shifts of three to four hours instead of a full day with the afternoon taken up by the children sleeping in beds in rooms of the premises that are not use as classrooms. The rooms that would be used as the ‘sleeping room’ in the ‘traditional’ kindergarten, are used as additional classrooms in the ‘shift-based’ kindergarten.

This means that twice as many rooms can be used for lessons at the same time, and the classrooms are used for separate groups of children both in the morning and the afternoon. As a result, four times as many children are able to get education at one institution for approximately the same financial outlay. The argument for CBKs is strengthened by the fact that international studies have shown that children who attend kindergarten for half a day, are just as well prepared for attendance at primary school, as those who attend for a full day.

The CBKs I visited seemed to be working very effectively. The lessons observed to be conducted well and staff seemed to be enthusiastic and happy. All CBKs seemed well supplied with toys, books and stationeries. Attendance and punctuality of children enrolled was reported as good and registers were kept, as was a file of work completed by each child. The schools seemed to meet all government health and safety standards. All in all, the CBKs felt like welcoming places to be and after the warm reception from staff and parents, I was sorry to have to leave them.

When CBKs first started to be established in the mid-2000s, they had a rather unclear, problematic relationship with local authorities. However, as a result of advocacy by UNICEF, and the acknowledged quality work done by the CBKs are now recognized as being part of the state education system. Full acceptance of the CBKs into the governmental education system can be seen in the fact that CBK teachers now receive a state salary paid by local government. In December of 2015, teachers even received a pay rise.

Whilst CBKs can be viewed predominantly as a positive success story, it is never good to think that everything is perfect. It never is. It is always more constructive to constantly review what is going on, and identify areas for improvement. This is particularly true in view of the fact that CBKs are a relatively recent innovation in Kyrgyzstan.

Creative decorating of a CBK in Batken region by a member of the community

In my view, CBKs could be strengthened by implementing the following recommendations:

• A standardized system of Monitoring and Evaluation could be developed, which includes an annual check of each CBK. ’ Suggested areas for attention would be: health and safety standards; management/financial/administration system; staff performance; attendance; a check of school inventory.

• The exact relationship between local authorities and CBKs, which outlines the responsibilities of each, should be set down in law. This can help to ensure transparency in relations between the two.

• Government CBK specialists should be trained at the national and regional levels. Such specialists should make it easier to resolve any issues related to CBKs.

• Self-help groups for teachers for teachers of different CBKs should be established which could meet monthly. Such groups would allow teachers to discuss and resolve together. In particular, the more experienced teachers could help the younger ones.

All in all, it can be concluded that a lot of good work has been done to date with CBKs. After a CBKs is set up following the developed procedures, if it is well managed, it is sustainable. Additional state spending is largely on staff salaries. In order for the good work of establishing more CBKs is to continue, financial support will need to be forthcoming.

Future budgets can be difficult to predict, particularly in times of possible future economic uncertainty. For now things are looking fairly good. However, funds both from domestic Government revenues and external sources are influenced by economic factors beyond the control of education planners. A relatively stable and growing World economy means that ample finances can be available for aid programmes. Expanding domestic economies mean that funds are available for Government budgets. As the economy of Kyrgyzstan is closely linked to that of Russia, it is to be hoped that the economic situation in Russia will not get too bad. Likewise, it is to be hoped that the World economy will not go in to recession, which undoubtedly would likely reduce aid budgets everywhere.

480-hours National Preschool Education Programme

Aside from the establishment of CBKs, a very big recent innovation in preschool education in Kyrgyzstan is the National 480-hours national Preschool Preparation Programme. The Programms is run for children in the 6-7 age group, in the year before they start primary school. The first year of the Programme commenced in September of 2015 and ended in June of 2016. Children attend half-day classes, which take place on the premises of primary schools, and in some cases at CBKs in either the morning or the afternoon. In cases where there are not enough places for children in these shifts, a third evening shift is also run.

The Programme was widely advertised on different forms of media before it commenced, and is legally compulsory. It follows on from two short-term national preschool preparation programmes, the 100-hours Preschool Preparation Programme, which ran over the Summer months from 2006-2010, and the 240-hours Preschool Preparation Programme, which was conducted in the Spring between 2011 and 2014. In the first year of the new programme, 77,000 children were recorded as attending. It is entirely funded from the Global partnership for Education grant, and fits into the Ministry of Education’s 2012-2020 Preschool education Strategy.

A lesson of the 480-hours National Preschool Education programme in Osh

The programme is taught through interactive games and puzzles. It’s modern curriculum, which was developed by a team of experts and consists of the following components:

• Physical development.

• Getting to know the world around us.

• Speech development.

• Reading and writing.

• Introduction to mathematics.

• Developing creativity.

• Russian language.

The Programme’s sessions are conducted in existing primary schools in classrooms, which are refurbished and supplied with furniture, visual aids, methodological materials, toys, books and games. The rooms where lessons are taught which I saw were well decorated with educational materials and examples of the children’s work. As with the CBKs, they also had a pleasant atmosphere that was conducive to learning, and the lessons that I observed were conducted very well.

I checked the attendance records, which were well kept, and attendance was recorded as being good. Children produce a portfolio of work during lessons that is kept in their own files in the classroom. If a child cannot attend lessons, parents have to contact the school. If a child does not come to lessons without parents informing the school, the school phones the parents to enquire of the reasons, so that any actions deemed to be necessary can be taken. So, a good system in place.

All teachers of the course are qualified and experienced primary school teachers, who received 72 hours of training in June 2015 in addition to two five- days additional training during holiday periods. The lessons observed were interactive, and children seemed to be very involved in them. Some ECL experts I interviewed reported that in some cases, teachers are still learning to use the curriculum developed for the Programme correctly, as they are still used to using Soviet style methodology. This issue, however, can be remedied over time.

Some teachers on the 480-hours programme work full-time, while others work part-time, teaching only one shift. The Teachers of the programme I spoke to reported that they receive their salaries on time, but are not as yet paid for preparation time, or holidays. Like teachers in many countries, it can be argued that they receive less than their important, highly qualified, complicated and at times stressful tasks warrant.

As with CBKs, he running of the programme also includes the involvement of the community. At the schools and CBKs, there are Parents Teachers Associations that meet regularly to discuss, and as far as is possible resolves issue related to the programme. The Committee includes a Fund to which parents contribute for buying articles considered to be necessary for the programme, such as stationery.

There are, however, a few general observations that I think would be useful to make. My overall impressions of the course were very positive. The fact that the course has gone ahead successfully is in itself a great achievement, and can be viewed as a remarkable feat of planning and organization. After the initial expenses incurred to get the programme ‘on it’s feet’, future expenditure to ensure sustainability will be largely on trainings, staff salaries and running costs.

In planning for the 2016-2017 academic year, programmes organizers will need to take into account all external evaluation work done, feedback from school Heads, teachers and parents, and introduce any changes considered to be necessary. As with CBKs, overtime a standardized system of Monitoring and Evaluation could be beneficial, as could self-help groups for teachers of the Programme to exchange ideas and resolve any problem issues.

As with CBKs, ideally, it would be nice for teachers to get a pay rise. Aside from deserving one, I am sure that this would help to attract teachers to and keep them in the teaching profession, thus dealing with one of the most central problems in post-Soviet education. As discussed earlier, however, this issue is effecting by economic forces.

Symon Lord

Fergana international information agency