Uzbekistan: A brighter future starts with early learning
- Early childhood education (ECE) is one of the best investments a country can make to prepare children for learning.
- A decade ago, despite large investments in early childhood education (ECE), the government of Uzbekistan was still facing challenges in enrollment.
- With the joint efforts of the government and GPE, access to ECE in rural areas increased from 8.5% in 2013 to over 28% in 2019. The government is taking decisive measures to enroll over 80% of children in preschools across the country by 2030.
The government of Uzbekistan recognizes the importance of early childhood education (ECE) as seen by its large investments in this area. However, despite this high level of expenditure and the demonstrated positive impact of ECE, in 2012 only about 23% of children attended preschool – lower than other countries in the region. Figures were worse in rural areas, where a mere 8.5% of children were enrolled in preschool.
The low levels of enrollment were a consequence of challenges related to access, capacity and quality. For example, the majority of children attending ECE centers were enrolled in full-day kindergarten and similar facilities focused on childcare, rather than on child development and school readiness.
To compound this, the full-time ECE model was difficult to expand and sustain due to the high cost of delivery.
Additionally, the most qualified teachers were more likely to be employed in urban areas, and only 14% of facilities in rural areas were rated as ‘fully equipped’, which affected parents’ demand for preschool education. Evidence shows high positive correlations between enrollment rates and well-maintained schools or facilities with better trained teachers.
Supporting the most vulnerable young students
In 2014, GPE allocated a US$49.3 million grant to Uzbekistan, administered by the World Bank, to support the government’s efforts in advancing education for the youngest children living in remote areas. These areas were considered prime locations to achieve the greatest impact on both learning readiness and equity.
The GPE-funded program focused on several interventions aimed at accomplishing two goals: increasing access to ECE and improving conditions for better early learning.
The program financed the design of the half-day year-round school readiness program benefitting 100,000 children.
This model’s cost-saving structure increased the budget available to the government to continue expanding access to quality early learning.
To create better conditions for learning, small libraries were established in all 2,420 rural pre-primary centers and stocked with storybooks and games. These resources played a key role in fostering the quality and creativity of learning while also supporting lessons, artwork and other educational activities.
Colorful, child-friendly furniture and equipment as well as indoor/outdoor recreational equipment were provided to these pre-primary centers, further enhancing the learning environment.
The GPE-supported program also invested in ECE-focused training to enhance the quality of teaching. More than 4,000 preschool teachers – all women – were trained on the ECE half-day model with a special emphasis on child-centered pedagogy and mentoring in play-based learning.
Storybooks increase access to quality early learning
To reach families who could not enroll their children in pre-primary centers, a home-based early reading program was designed that led to more than 658,000 children receiving storybooks in Uzbek, Russian and Karakalpak.
Families living in remote areas and those with larger numbers of young children were prioritized in an effort to improve equity. In parallel, an awareness campaign was launched to highlight the critical role that parents, as children’s first teachers, play in promoting early learning.
Results show that the early reading program in combination with the awareness campaign, contributed to an increase in access to quality early learning in rural pre-primary institutions by building parents’ awareness. Once parents became aware of the importance of such a program, demand for more structured approaches to early learning outside the home increased.
These initiatives had the added benefit of promoting efforts to improve gender equity in early learning activities at home, while reducing gender stereotypes. For example, since the program involved both mothers and fathers in home-based reading activities with children, fathers could be more involved in the process, helping to mitigate prevailing gender stereotypes and norms.
These positive outcomes may be reinforced as parents become involved in home schooling due to COVID-19 lockdowns.
A ripple effect
In Uzbekistan, the benefits of the GPE-supported program went beyond the targeted interventions and were clearly demonstrated, which encouraged the government to continue prioritizing the youngest students.
In 2016, a presidential decree was issued to expand access and increase the quality of early learning. One year later, a Ministry of Preschool Education was established to lead the expansion of early learning.
Of equal importance is how the increase in ECE enrollment expanded opportunities for mothers to participate in informal livelihood activities while continuing to manage household tasks. School-age female siblings were also able to forego child supervision responsibilities at home, giving them the opportunity to attend school.
The monthly fee per child attending a half-day school in rural areas hasn’t changed much since the completion of the GPE program in 2019. As of August 2021, it costs parents UZS26,000 per child (around $2.50).
If two or more siblings are attending school, the cost is lower: UZS18,000 (around $1.70) per child. Thanks to the low cost, the half-day groups in pre-primary centers remain an attractive option for parents.
By the time the GPE-supported program closed, access to early learning in rural areas increased from 8.5% in 2013 to over 28% in 2019.
This significant improvement points to the program addressing the major supply and demand constraints identified by parents: high cost of the full-day ECE programs, poor proximity of schools in rural areas, the perception of low-quality education, and limited value.
This was just the initial phase of the GPE support to Uzbekistan. In 2019, the partnership allocated $10 million, mobilized alongside almost $60 million in additional cofinancing from IDA and the Global Partnership for Results-Based Approaches, to continue supporting the government to expand access to early learning.
These efforts aim to further improve learning and better prepare children in Uzbekistan for advanced learning in primary school.