Mongolia is known for its endless steppe grasslands, its vibrant horse culture, and its yurts. But the country is also distinguished by another feature: it spends more than almost any other nation on early childhood education (ECE) — consistently between 22-24% of its education budget, compared to a global average of 6.6%.
The result: after a doubling of enrollment rates over the last two decades, more than 80% of preschool-aged children in Mongolia now participate in ECE, compared to an average of about a third in lower-middle-income countries as a whole.
But Mongolia faces a special challenge as it tries to reach the last 15-20% of kids. They are mostly from among the country’s nomadic herders, who make up roughly a quarter of the population, scattered across the vast steppe with their herds of yaks, sheep, goats, camels, and horses.
To reach them, Mongolia has introduced mobile “ger kindergartens.” More recently, the country has been piloting a home-based school preparation program that appears particularly promising. So can these projects reach the youngest citizens of the world’s least populated country?
Two Gers for kindergarten
“Ger” is the Mongolian name for the circular, collapsible structures with thick felt walls, used by Mongolia’s nomadic herders (“Yurt” is actually the Russian name). In the mid-1990s, with the support of Save the Children, UK, the first ger kindergartens were carried by truck during the summer months to remote areas of the country near where several families were pasturing their herds.
Teachers from fixed kindergartens, on their summer break, are sent with the mobile preschools, which stay for 2 to 4 weeks before moving on to a new location. In some particularly remote areas, inaccessible even to trucks, the structures and equipment must be transported by horse.
These days, each mobile preschool is made up of two gers — one serves as a somewhat cramped classroom, with low tables and chairs, learning materials, bed mats for napping, with a small dung-and-wood-burning iron stove in the centre. The other is for cooking and sleeping. Each ger pair is intended for 20-25 children, age 2-5.
Typically, herder parents or other relatives drop off children at the preschool in the morning and pick them up at the end of the day. Those who are based far away leave their children for the entire 2 to 4 weeks.
Of 261,354 children ages 2-5 attending ECE this past school year [2018-19] , about 10 percent attended a ger kindergarten.
Experts say this alternative ECE—there were 675 ger-kindergarten classes in 2014—has contributed to the country’s very high rate of school attendance and near-universal literacy by helping make children ready to enter primary school at age 6.
The challenge for young herder children is not only cognitive, but emotional too. Often they have to separate from their parents when they start first grade and go to live in school dormitories or with relatives who reside in town.
“Before, children from nomadic families used to drop out of school or run away,” said Ariunzaya Davaa, with Unicef in the capital, Ulaanbaatar. “But children who go even for a month to a mobile kindergarten show better school readiness and much better social-emotional skills.”
Formal education is highly valued in Mongolia, including among nomadic herders, said Davaa. “If they can afford it, they send all their children to school. If they can’t, they send their girls. That’s the traditional approach. They think boys can do hard labor, but girls need to be educated.”
Although surveys have shown that the ger kindergartens are highly valued by herder parents, supporters of ECE, including the World Bank, caution that their benefits are limited.
“Mongolia has shown a real commitment to serving difficult-to-reach populations,” through expansion of the ger kindergartens, the Bank said in a 2017 report. But “there is no evidence available from anywhere in the world on positive impacts of preschool with less than two months of exposure.”
The Bank has urged policymakers to weigh the costs of expanding the mobile preschools further against other alternative ECE approaches. One promising home-based program was piloted between 2012 and 2016 in 30 of the country’s 331 soums or districts by Save the Children, Japan.
In this program, parents play the role of preschool teacher. They go to a fixed kindergarten or library and pick up a box containing 10 children’s books and 3 toys. There are 10 different box sets, which parents are urged to exchange every 1 to 2 weeks. The whole programs lasts 96 days.
Parents get a guidance book and children get a workbook. Parents are urged to work with their children 20-30 minutes per day or 3-4 hours per week. (The guidance book is available on a small digital player for parents who are not fully literate).
Parents record their child’s development by answering questions in a special notebook, and children draw pictures about storybooks read by parents. Librarians or teachers then check the notebooks when parents come in to exchange kits. Children are assessed on cognitive, behavioural, physical and socioemotional developmental needs at the start and end of the program through the use of a simple questionnaire.
As of November 2016, a total of 8,084 children had participated. Evaluations have concluded that this is a cost-effective way to prepare 5-year olds for school in situations where they do not have access to traditional kindergartens. It also appears more effective than the ger kindergartens, mainly due to the latter’s short duration.
Education authorities have ordered this home preschool model to be introduced across the country, but experts say implementation has been slow and it has not yet spread much beyond the original pilot sites.
Mongolia’s 2016-2020 education plan calls for the provision of ECE to all 4 and 5 year olds, but advocates say big efforts will be needed to reach the remaining 15-20 percent of preschool-age children currently without access. In addition to children from the nomadic herder community, those with disabilities have been almost completely excluded until now.
As the authorities push to expand ECE, they have turned again to their traditional gers. All over the country, from the smallest villages to the capital, the authorities, with help from outside funders, have erected permanent large ger kindergartens to provide places for more children while they wait for new kindergarten buildings to be constructed. — Burton Bollag
(Picture credit: Michael Foley/Flickr)