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Pre-school helping children shine in primary education

The majority of children in Timor-Leste do not go to pre-school, but with the support of UNICEF, 123 community pre-schools, making a huge difference for children as they enter the school system.

Six-year old Devio Octilio Domingos Monteiro is his mother’s only child, and he makes her proud every day.

“He is first in his class,” says Idalia da Silva, Devio’s mother. He is in Grade 1 at Escola Basica Central School in the eastern part of Timor-Leste, and his success is a community effort.

Idalia attributes Devio’s success to having attended a UNICEF-supported community pre-school, a stone’s throw away from the school he goes to now in Samrogo.

“I am happy because before this community pre-school opened, our children enrolled directly to Grade One,” she says.

“But now children go to the pre-school first. They get good results in Grade One because they have knowledge of the alphabets, the numbers, and are familiar with reading.”

Bringing education closer to children

In the village where Idalia and Devio live, the closest public pre-school is a two-hour walk away. Before UNICEF opened the community pre-school, none of the children in the village ever attended an early learning programme.

Idalia says the students with the highest grades in Devio’s class are those children who have attended the community pre-school. There are four children in the class repeating Grade One – and none of them attended a pre-school.

“All children who have attended the community pre-school are getting good results. The students who are now in Grade Two are also doing well.”

Reaching vulnerable communities

It is one of 123 community pre-schools for children aged 3-5 in remote parts of Viqueque and Ermera municipalities that have opened since 2015, helping more than 3000 vulnerable children. They are the result of a four-year partnership project between UNICEF and the Government of Timor-Leste, funded by the NZ Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT) and generous New Zealand donors including the Morgan Foundation.

Each centre is designed to provide early learning opportunities to children in the rural areas of Timor-Leste, where 70 per cent of the population live. By using existing community buildings located nearby, they are not only less costly, but easier for children to reach, and each class has at least two trained facilitators who are volunteers from the community.

In a country where only 22 per cent of children are enrolled in pre-school, and where more than a quarter of children have to repeat their first year of school, an early learning experience in a supportive environment makes an enormous difference.

Idalia has been involved with the pre-school since 2016, helping coordinate with community members and ensure children are regularly attending. “If I see many children are absent from class, then I go to the parents and talk to them to find out if there are any issues, and make sure the children attend the classes.”

Devio loves accompanying his mother when she visits the community pre-school. Today, with a holiday at his big school, he is back at the pre-school, showing off his drawing. It’s an illustration of his hand with different colours, with his name carefully and proudly written in the corner of his art work.

Idalia says having the support of the aldeia (village) chief has been hugely important for the community pre-school. He helped find a new location for the pre-school when the community center previously used for the pre-school was damaged by strong winds.

Since the start of 2018, classes are now being held in a bright green building built by the municipality to serve as the house for the public health center doctor.

“We will try to find a permanent location for the community pre-school. We hope the municipality, the government, and UNICEF can support us on this as well,” says Idalia.

Just like the broader education system, community pre-schools still face some challenges. But with communities like the village in Samrogo getting together to find solutions, the future looks bright.

By Leotes Lugo Helin

UNICEF Timor Leste Chief of Education