Across the developing world, poorly performing public education systems have long been seen as an impediment to economic development.
Now after a decade piloting “community-based” preschools in Mozambique, experts say the approach has raised education outcomes significantly — and could be one of the most cost-effective ways to improve the country’s human capital.
The current phase of the pilot project, in which three NGOs are running 350 preschools, will end in June with the NGOs handing over control of the establishments to the Ministry of Education. Supporters of early childhood education are hoping the government will then expand the preschool system to reach all 3-5 year olds in the country.
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Mozambique, which only emerged from a devastating post-independence civil war in 1992, is one of the world’s least-developed countries.
Despite two decades of strong economic growth, a 2011 survey classified 42.6% of children under age five as stunted due to poor nutrition and a lack of health care. Although there is high enrolment in the first year of elementary school, around half of children drop out before finishing the primary grades.
Experts say this because teachers are poorly trained, classes are over-crowded, and many children are developmentally unprepared to begin school.
Part of the problem is familiar to children across Africa – the language used in school is generally not the language they speak at home. So, most children start classes not understanding the language of instruction, which in Mozambique is Portuguese.
Mozambique’s experiment with early childhood education (ECE) got off the ground in 2008, when the NGO Save the Children started a two-year pilot project to test whether ECE could be effective in Mozambique.
The group established 30 small preschools in the country’s Gaza province. It was designed, as much as possible, to involve the poor rural communities where the preschools were to be put.
The physical structures would each contain one to three classrooms, washrooms, and a playground. To participate, communities had to donate land, labor, and locally available construction materials to build their preschool.
The community – typically under the leadership of a local headman – had to appoint a 10-member committee to supervise preschool activities. Finally, parents of enrolled children had to commit to participating in monthly meetings to discuss child development topics such as health policy, nutrition, and literacy with the aim of strengthening positive parenting practices in the home.
“The idea was that the community had to feel the pre-school was theirs,” says Marina Bassi, in charge of education at the Mozambique office of the World Bank, which has been a major supporter of the country’s ECE efforts.
A year after the pilot ended, an impact evaluation by the World Bank found significant gains in cognitive development, communication skills, fine motor skills, and socio-emotional skills among preschoolers compared to children who had not attended. The gains were largest among the poorest and most vulnerable children.
Moreover, preschool leavers were 21 percentage points more likely to be enrolled in primary school.
But the effects went further. The evaluation “showed significant impact not only on the kids who participated, but on their families too,” says the World Bank’s Bassi.
The mothers of children in pre-school were 26 percent more likely to work, and older siblings were six percent more likely to stay in school. The reason, Bassi says, is that both mothers and siblings were freed from the need to look after the young children.
With the positive results from the first pilot, the government, supported by the World Bank and a number of international donors, decided to expand the project to selected areas in five of the country’s 11 provinces.
The National Holistic Strategy for Development of Pre-School Children (known by its Portuguese acronym, DICIPE) brought in seven government ministries and two public universities to help create a second, larger phase of the pilot.
Starting in 2015, 350 pre-schools, known as “escolinhas” (little schools) were established and run by three NGOs: Save the Children, the Aga Khan foundation, and ADPP – a Mozambican organization.
The new preschools were created with the same community engagement-based approach used in the first pilot, and each was built alongside a primary school, which helps supervise it. A total of 32,000 children have been enrolled for half-day classes each weekday for as long as three years.
A World Bank-led evaluation is due out by July, and those working on the project expect substantial gains for participating children.
In recent years, preschool education has attracted a great amount of attention from education authorities and donors. Dozens of developing countries have set up preschool projects of one sort or another. Target 4.2 of the Sustainable Development Goals states that by 2030, all countries should “ensure that all girls and boys have access to quality early childhood development, care and preprimary education so that they are ready for primary education.”
Although Mozambique has a long way to go to expand and improve its preschool system, its community-based approach is seen as a useful model.
“The Mozambique example is important for several reasons,” says Aisha Yousafzai, from Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
Policy makers there have made a “long-term investment to find out what works and to scale up incrementally” while “engaging country-wide stakeholders [and] building a robust evidence base,” she said.
Suzana Duarte, project coordinator with ADPP, the Mozambican NGO that runs about 70 of the 350 preschools, says one the project’s strengths is that it has “brought people together from the government, NGOs, communities, and even the private sector to talk about pre-schools.”
As the government considers whether to expand the system, a key issue is the qualifications of those hired to teach – two per class of 35 children. Up to now, they are not certified teachers but “facilitators” – typically local people with at least a seventh grade education who receive only two weeks of training. Most are women. They do not receive a real salary but are paid a stipend equivalent to $10 per month. This very low pay is seen as the main reason for their high turn-over.
This model has kept down costs. It is estimated that it currently costs just $3 per month to keep a child in preschool. The fact that significant improvements in educational outcomes have been seen even with this low-cost model suggests there is potential for greater improvements if better trained teachers are brought in.
“Money should go to building capacity and competencies,” says Duarte. “We need the best teachers.”
With control of the existing 350 preschools scheduled to be handed over from the NGOs to the education ministry in June, observers are now eagerly waiting to see what the government decides to do with the sector. Supporters of early childhood education say the success of Mozambique’s two pilot phases demonstrates that building a nation-wide preschools system would be more than worth the investment.
But experts warn that the task is not as easy as it might appear. It would take considerable time, effort, and expense for the national education authorities to build up the expertise, which they currently lack, to manage and monitor such a system properly. — Burton Bollag
(Picture Credit: Flickr/Mashhour Halawani)