Friday, November 15, 2013

Community preschools: Reaching out to the most vulnerable

Saphieu, 5 ©UNICEF/2013/S. Nazer
Five year-old Saphieu, in a remote Akha-speaking village in far Northern Lao PDR, beams at her teacher when she is congratulated for the tower she has built with brightly coloured building blocks. The teacher has to make sure Saphieu is looking directly at her as she is deaf, and never speaks.

"I have to pay extra attention to her," explains the community teacher, 17 year-old Pheomeo. "I have to make sure she sees everything, and often I write things down for her. But she is very smart and picks everything up very quickly. Often, when I demonstrate something on the board for the children to repeat, I turn around and she's already completed it."

Saphieu is one of 12 children in the village of Nam Ded Som Boun, in the Luang Nam Tha Province, just 8km from China. UNICEF is working with local communities in some of the most remote and hard-to-reach areas in Laos, which often consist of non-Lao speaking ethnic groups, to create community based pre-schools for 4 and 5 year-olds.

Saphieu throws herself into every activity, even handwashing, with all the other children. The aim of the project is to make sure children like these in Nam Ded Som Boun village are better prepared for primary school.

"Before this project started last year, most Grade 1 children didn't know how to speak or read Lao, and didn't know how to use a pen," said the local village chief, Mr La.

Students in community preschool ©UNICEF/2013/S. Nazer
He explained that the new first graders, the first graduates of the community-based pre-school programme, understood Lao, giving them a much stronger start in Lao-speaking primary schools.

The programme seeks to provide villages with the support and materials to educate 4 to 5 year olds. The community teachers, like Pheomeo, are nominated by their community and given training by local authorities. Most community teachers are around 17.

"We are working with the local Government in many parts of Lao PDR to reach out to children in some of the most remote areas, and to get them ready for primary school,” said UNICEF Education Specialist Maliphet Soukhaseum.

Community teacher Peomeo with her class ©UNICEF/2013/S. Nazer
“Without such a programme, thousands of children, including disabled and those in ethnic groups, are starting primary school without understanding their teachers or even knowing how to hold a pen."

UNICEF is offering support for training, teaching materials and incentives in 27 minority villages in Lao PDR that often miss out on educational support.

During rainy season, a 25km drive could take three hours, and such logistical problems is one of the biggest challenges local authorities face, coupled with ensuring quality levels of education. 

That is why UNICEF is promoting 'community based school readiness programmes' to give the villages the means to prepare their children for primary school. 

Want to learn more? Take a look at a recent photo essay about what UNICEF is doing in for education in remote villages.

Story & photos by Simon Nazer

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