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MIDDLE EAST: Investing in early education

DAMASCUS, 15 November 2010 (IRIN) – A new regional Early Childhood Centre offering facilities for pre-school children as well as training for child workers in Damascus, Syria, is hoping to boost the quality of pre-primary education in the Middle East.

“The centre aims to strengthen national and regional capacity in a region where enrolment in pre-primary education, averaging 19 percent, remains well below the 41 percent world average,” said Therese Cregan, education programme coordinator at the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), in Beirut, Lebanon.

Early Childhood Development (ECD) is aimed at giving children the best possible start, focusing on the early years while the brain is rapidly developing. It involves pre-school education, but also skills such as language and social interaction. Healthy food and medical care are additional components.

The UN Children’s Fund, UNICEF, says the number, quality and cost of pre-school facilities are the main obstacles to enrolment in Syria. “Most of the pre-school educational facilities are run by the private sector, are fairly expensive and do not contribute much in terms of educational development,” said Sherazade Boualia, representative of UNICEF in Syria.

The lack of educational development also stems from parents and educationalists who are often poorly informed about the importance of early stimulation that can be done at home, according to experts.

“What we’ve learnt about early development in the last 25 years is unknown in the region,” said Pablo Stansbery, head of global early childhood programmes at Save the Children, a UK-based charity. “These include simple things such as suggesting parents to talk to their children from a young age, or give their child a mobile to look at when they are lying down, rather than staring at a blank ceiling.”

ECD is vital to a child’s future. Attending pre-school education is a strong indicator of success in later life, according to UNICEF. With a rising population and graduates ill-equipped to compete in the global labour market, the intervention is designed to better equip the region’s next generation.

“There is plenty of statistical evidence that those who go through kindergarten education stay in school longer, achieve more, develop better and experience better cognitive development,” said Boualia.

ECD also aids gender parity and development. “We know that enrolment of girls in ECD programmes makes it more likely they continue in school,” said Stansbery. “This gives them better earning potential and is important for the development of the country.”

Save the Children and UNICEF run localized projects in various Middle Eastern countries including Syria, Jordan and Egypt, but the new Early Childhood Centre, set up in collaboration with the Syrian government and under the auspices of UNESCO, is the first regional effort.

UNICEF said the centre aimed to boost pre-school education immediately by encouraging parents to bring their children to the kindergarten and library. It will also offer seminars to train child workers in psychosocial care, and provide access to the latest research to encourage more quality kindergartens to be established.

Agencies and governments will also meet to improve childhood development: following a UNESCO conference in October, a paper with guidance for governments in the Middle East and North Africa is being prepared. Experts suggest more public low-cost or free kindergartens be set up to ensure access for all.

“We find that explaining to parents and workers why certain practices are better is very effective in overcoming outdated practices,” said Stansbery. “The centre will be very effective if it involves all actors, as it plans to do.”

Source – IRIN

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