A new pre-school programme is helping Ethiopian Children to get ready for school
By Demissew Bizuwerk
Mengi-Benishangul Gumuz- Ethiopia 28 September 2016 – In one of the classes at Mengi Elementary School, in the Benishangul-Gumuz region of Ethiopia, Edidal Abdulkerim, six, and her friends sing about the five senses with melodious tone along with a small tape recorder. Before the next song starts, their teacher Abdulaziz Ahmed asks questions to make sure that the children got the message right.
The children are learning with stories, plays and songs and the expression on their faces says it all. This is their first ever school experience at the age six and seven. Perhaps, just before their critical age of learning passed by.
“It feels great to sing, write and colour,” says Edidal cracking a beautiful smile. “I have many friends here and we play together.”
Edidal, is one of the 30 students in Mengi Elementary School who are enrolled in an eight week education programme – during a summer break- called Accelerated School Readiness (ASR). This new programme is designed to prepare rural children, who have not had the chance to attend any form of early childhood education, for primary education by helping them develop cognitive, behavioural as well as foundational ‘pre’ academic skills.
ASR offers 160-hours of pre-literacy and pre-numeracy learning and helps children to develop social skills. It is an interim strategy which helps children aged between six and seven make a successful transition from home to school while formal pre-primary classes are gradually introduced across the country.
A daunting task of ensuring quality remains ahead despite Ethiopia’s significant achievement in expanding access to primary education. There are quite a number of children in early primary classes who do not acquire the minimum expected level of skills. And the numbers are alarming. The average mean score for reading skills in grade 4 for instance is found to be only 45 per cent, which is below the minimum passing mark of 50, set in the education policy. And this statistics even goes lower in remote rural villages such as Mengi.
“There are many reasons which can explain this poor performance of children in rural Ethiopia,” says Maekelech Gidey, UNICEF Education Specialist “But the main one has to do with school readiness”. The country lacks adequate pre-school facilities where children can be supported and encouraged to better understand their environment and develop skills, which are vital for success in school and later in their lives.
It is only 48 per cent of Ethiopia’s 7.7 million children aged between three and six who have access to early learning, and many young children, especially rural girls like Edidal, were not part of this statistics.
Children who start their formal primary schooling on weak early childhood learning are more likely to fall behind their peers and consequently drop out of school too early.
It is this challenge that prompted the development of the ASR initiative. In 2015 the programme was introduced and piloted in the Benishangul-Gumuz region after designing a well fitted curriculum and training of teachers.
How does ASR work?
First, teachers and community leaders identify the village children in the month of May each year. If the nearby schools have O classes already, then the children will be enrolled for eight weeks in the month of July and August. Otherwise, they will undergo the same programme during the first two month of the academic year in Grade 1.
For the ASR to succeed, it needs a dedicated teacher like Abdulaziz and the children have to attend the programme regularly. Missing even a single day of class means missing a lot in the programme.
“Some children who live far away from school skip class when it rains or when their parents go to the market early,” says Abdulaziz. “So I visit their homes to tell their parents about the advantages of this education to their children and the importance of attending class regularly.”
Intizar Abdulkerim, a seven year old who loves to learn about the environment, says her mother is sometimes reluctant to send her to school when she needs help with the household chores. “I feel sad when I stay in the house during school day,” says Intizar “every time I skip class, I lag behind my friends.”
It looks like old habits do not go away easily. The perception of parents towards the education of their daughters still needs to be worked on. “Boys attend the programme more regularly than girls,” says Abdulaziz. “Yet my best performing students are girls,” he added pointing towards Edidal and Intizar.
Edidal and Intizar will be entering Grade 1 in the coming academic year with a solid base. The combination of play and learning activities of the ASR have inculcated the children with the necessary pre-school skills that they need to succeed further.
A preliminary assessment on the impact of the ASR has revealed that, the programme is effective in having children acquire pre-school skills in mathematics and literacy. This is a good news for experts from the region’s education bureau and UNICEF who have been working on the programme since its inception.
The ASR experience in the Benishangul-Gumuz region is also extended to Oromia region based on its cost effectiveness and impact.
While Edidal wants to become a teacher, Intizar’s dream is to be a doctor. There is still a long way to go until the young girls’ dreams are a reality. Yet, for now, the foundation of their future is laid on fertile grounds.
 Ethiopian Fifth National Learning Assessment (NLA), MoE 2016
 MOE, Education Statistics Annual Abstract 2008/ 2015-16