Are We Investing Enough in Childhood?

May 29, 2016, 06:00

Roza Otunbayeva

Founder of the The Roza Otunbayeva Initiative[1], former president of Kyrgyzstan. 


Early Childhood Education 


Are We Investing Enough in Childhood?

Early childhood education, preschools ‒ these were some of the key issues and watchwords of the recent elections to Zhogorku Kenesh.[2] Looking to our country’s future, our political parties have clearly heeded the call from parents for their children to develop in a well­rounded way, able to keep pace with the times, as well as for the need for women to be freed up to work and contribute to their family’s welfare. To our deep satisfaction, the global practice of parents being actively involved in their children’s education from an early age is fast taking root here too. Masaru Ibuka’s “Kindergarten is Too Late” has been translated from Japanese into Kyrgyz, and has been enthusiastically received by parents – men and women, young and old alike. Just 10­15 years ago, we did not recognize the root of many issues hindering social development. For instance, whether a child will advance quickly or lag behind is decided at a young age, and depends largely on the child’s environment, on parental care and on how the child is raised.

While researching the effectiveness of the labor force, James Heckman, the Nobel Prize laureate and economist from University of Chicago, developed a model which demonstrates that investments made in the life and education of a child before school age are 7­8 times more effective than those made in a teenager or young adult; children develop skills and adopt values quickly and for good. Other researchers have found similar numbers: every dollar invested in early childhood education brings 12 dollars in profit 30 years down the road.

The effectiveness and importance of early childhood education are widely discussed and written about today; young children pick up foreign languages effortlessly, and the choice of future profession begins to take firm shape at this age. Moral concepts such as good and evil are also naturally absorbed at this young age, whereas setting a 14­15 year old on the right path is rarely successful, which is why we are seeing such a high rate of criminal behavior and racketeering in our schools, in both boys and girls. This is precisely why the education pyramid in the developed world rests firmly on its base ‒ not apex down as it is does here in Kyrgyzstan.

There the primary investment is in pre­primary education, in schools. Universities and other institutions of higher education are at the top of the pyramid, funded by massive investments from private business above and beyond the State budget ‒ which is precisely why a number of CIS countries, having achieved a low birth rate, quickly homed in on the priority of a pre­primary education system. Setting aside Russia, where according to the constitution “The accessibility and gratuity of pre­school [and] general be guaranteed,” [3] and where public preschools surpass private in opportunities and quality, let’s take the example of neighboring Kazakhstan, where 75% of young children are enrolled in preschool!

Over the last 20 years we have all but destroyed what was built in the Soviet era: besides the privatized buildings that have yet to be fully given back to our children, teacher training for this age group has come to a grinding halt. Only in the last few years have departments for early childhood education begun to be re­opened or revived in Bishkek, Osh, Jalal­abad, and Naryn. Just compare the half a million preschool­age children with the tiny trickle of people specializing in this area, whose training is not yet a priority for either the government or for their department deans ‒ then compare this to how many legal experts, diplomats, internationalists, and various types of managers we are graduating! Preschool teachers have less respect than do nurses.[4] Over the last decades only mothers with small children have reluctantly chosen this profession, and most often single mothers.

The birth rate in Kyrgyzstan remains high. Statistics show that there are approximately 800,000 children under the age of 6 in Kyrgyzstan, and 688,000 between ages 2 and 6. This is our wealth, these children will shape and build our country in the 21st century ‒ their knowledge, education, the quality of their preparation for life, will determine whether or not we become a strong, moderately­developed country in the 21st century, or eke out an existence as the underdeveloped debris of a former superpower. The groundwork is being laid today for the type of individuals who will take on the mission of fulfilling the UN’s “Agenda 2030,” recently approved by all Heads of State and Government in the General Assembly, which aims to totally eradicate poverty, eliminate the infant and new­mother mortality rate, and provide equal and quality education for all, beginning in early childhood, then continuing on to primary, middle and secondary school, and to technical and vocational training. This is a question of our human potential, of our ability to be competitive in globalization, to travel our globe for study and work, to produce goods within our country that will be in high demand outside of it. Let’s acknowledge the simple truth that tomorrow will be too late; we can’t put this task off until later, it must be resolved now, today!

But how? We need a strategy for doubling the percentage of children who want to attend preschool from 20% to at least 40% in the coming decade.

As a developing country with a poverty rate higher than 30%, we will be dependant on the for­now indispensible aid of foreign banks, UN organizations, and foreign governments. Since our independence, they have more than once financed renovating and expanding our preschool infrastructure, providing furniture, books, toys. They have helped launch new education courses and innovative training in pre­primary education methods, with positive feedback from local authorities, all levels of the education system, and parents.

“The National Strategy for the Sustainable Development of Kyrgyzstan to 2017” (NSSD 2017) requires a 100% preschool attendance rate for children coming into first grade, which is approximately 100 thousand children per year. The task is backed financially by the Global Education Program (GEP), and has drawn support from international banks and the major economies; the government is actively implementing this program this academic year (approximately 480 hours).

President Azambek Atambayev has announced plans to invest 90 million dollars in material aid for schools, as well as in renovations, and building new schools to replace tent schools and schools that have been destroyed. And yet today we have stalled at a rate of just 18% of children in pre­primary education, and in villages that number falls to a pitiful 7%.

The issue of pre­primary education is growing in significance as reforms aimed at improving quality in education are enacted ‒ reforms which the Minister of Education is committed to carrying out in secondary schools. Without the necessary preparation, children cannot be successful even in primary school. They are essentially crippled, they can’t catch up to their peers, and by 5th­6th grade they join the ranks of “illiterates”, and end up dropping out of school. Our society should be outraged over the 60­80,000 children left outside the walls of our schools every academic year! The situation is especially bleak for the children of migrant workers, left to the charge of their grandparents and other close relatives. If we take into account the half a million absent parents, it’s not hard to imagine the developmental problems and difficulties these children face, despite the care and attention of other relatives. We have already begun to reap the consequences, and they will stretch on for decades more.

Our 87 Jailoo Preschools also make up for the lack of preschool facilities in villages, especially in summer. There are many villages in Kyrgyzstan where there have never been preschool facilities. Practice shows that elementary students forget all that they have been taught in school during the long summer breaks. Well­to­do parents keep their children engaged even

during school breaks, they travel with them both within Kyrgyzstan and abroad, constantly cultivating them ‒ advantages underprivileged families cannot afford. Children on the jailoos are the children of sheep herders, hired by livestock owners, their parents are not wealthy.

In addition to children, our Foundation also invests in parents, providing training and helping them develop and get involved in their children’s education, an unfamiliar idea for most. It may be just 2,200 children, but they are engaged in quality cognitive performance at the most crucial age, and with the growing interest of parents in the growth and development of their children ‒ for all this to happen in just one summer is a true reward for our labor in the Jailoo preschools! This is a way of setting all of our children on an equal footing socially, and for making our society prosperous and secure.

It’s encouraging to see the current interest in our preschools, and to note that preschools with religious education are providing noticeable competition to the developing public and private preschools. Facilities and resources are improving across the board. Buildings that were privatized are now being returned, and new construction is being funded both by the State and by private investors ‒ one example is the Issyk­Kul Foundation. A movement for opening community preschools has especially taken hold in rural areas: local authorities refurbish a suitable building, international organizations help bring it up to code, provide teacher training ‒ and a new preschool is born. The number of private preschools is growing; the energy and enthusiasm of the founders ‒ in direct response to enormous demand from parents, especially in major cities ‒ is palpable.

These types of methods for developing preschool facilities are the most noticeable, and only possible, in recent years. However, the jury is still out on how effectively existing and new infrastructure is being used. No sooner is a new preschool opened, whether in a village or city, then it haphazardly fills with children of all ages, whose parents have eagerly waited for this moment. That’s not an issue if we’re talking about the children of low­wage workers, of teachers, medical personnel, and police. But it remains a mystery how they choose which children to enroll in the first influx to these new preschools, which only a tenth of the preschool­age children in that area will be able to attend!

What exactly is the problem here, and how do we fix it? Basically, we need to set a development goal and go from there if we really want to solve this problem ‒ a problem which is so significant in Kyrgyzstan, but the solution to which is inaccessible to so many: providing enough preschools for all pre­primary­age children. International standards are beyond our reach for now; in Western countries children often begin school at 4 years old. But NSSD 2017 sets the perfect goal, in my opinion: fully preparing all pre­primary­age children (6 to 7­year­olds) for school, equipping them to confidently and seamlessly assimilate into school programs. There is

absolutely no doubt that if we start with this one link, we will be able to extend it to the whole educational chain. Even in the midst of an emotionally­charged situation and pressure from parents and society, we need to show consistency and rationality in our approach; under current conditions, where we’re lacking investment, this problem must be solved one step at a time, in a disciplined manner, while making this stage of education a top priority for the State budget. Otherwise, we will never solve either the problem of preschool attendance, or of improving the quality of education in our schools. Let’s not forget that over half of all children in this country ‒ an overwhelming majority ‒ don’t attend preschool at all! And for now, they have no opportunity to.

According to calculations from Sotsium Consult,[5] the cost of sending one child to a half­day kindergarten program is approximately 29,000 som a year, 15,000 of which are underwritten by the government (for paying personnel), 2,000 by local government agencies (for utilities), and the remaining 12,000 ‒ 1,000 a month ‒ by parents themselves for meals (subsistence charges). Parents’ out­of­pocket costs for public kindergartens can range from 650 to 2,000 som a month, while in private kindergartens, where specific methods such as Montessori, Zaitsev, or Waldorf are used, that number can soar to 20,000 som a month! Building a facility, supplying qualified teachers, equipment, appliances, plus maintenance, costs both the government and the parents a pretty penny. This analysis shows all too clearly that this expensive preschool model left over from the Soviet era is highly dependant on the government, although according to our constitution, it is only responsible for free and accessible primary education; child care and pre­primary education are up to the parents.

Meanwhile, our existing kindergartens are overcrowded, and the long waitlists in our cities leave parents resigned to the fact that their children won’t have a chance to attend preschool before starting primary school. Even if private preschools were to attempt offering additional programs for a charge to waitlisted children in the afternoons or on the weekend, the public preschools in every city, village, or jurisdiction of an Ayil Okmotu, [6] with their traditional, well­kept buildings, would still not worry about efficiently using space, or providing education for children left to the side. On weekends and during the winter and summer breaks, thousands of rural workers rush to jobs in the bazaars or fields, where there’s more than enough work to go around, even for city­dwellers. Preschools and other pre­primary­school facilities could provide half­day programs for a charge. When we have limited space and extremely long waitlists, setting aside an entire room for naps and filling it with beds when it is used just 2 hours a day has long been a source of contention. We need to adjust standards and re­work our health code so we can simplify the old system. Why is it that in developed Western countries children lay out their sleeping bags or mats right in the classroom when they are tired of playing, while we, with one preschool for an entire village, rush to the nearest city bazaar to deck out our bunk beds with different colored sheets for each group?!

With early childhood education being widely discussed in society, and the government taking concrete steps toward implementing NSSD 2017, now is the time for developing a strategy for achieving higher preschool enrollment for children around the country. A strategy which will be monitored on a monthly basis by leaders of the various regions, districts, and jurisdictions of Ayil Okmotu. In our parliamentary system, this falls under the purview of the prime minister; in Kazakhstan, it is directly supervised by the president. There. there is no need to raise awareness for this issue; I’ve watched TV programs similar to our Oi­Ordo[7] where regional leaders publicly report to their people on growth rates in school attendance and the quality of education. The time has come for local government agencies and village community organizations to convene a town hall and, after carefully reviewing a list of children gathered from surveying the local area, together decide on the criteria for enrollment in pre­primary school education facilities. Then, if there is still room, they can also add 5­year­olds to the list. The children can then prepare for entering first grade. If there are too many children of this age group in one village, then that village needs to move to a system of 4­hour school shifts: one group goes until noon, then the second group picks up for the afternoon. If using this system, the children won’t be fed at school; they’ll eat breakfast, lunch, and take naps at home. This adapted education system is precisely what brought preschool enrollment in Almaty, Astana, and other cities in Kazakhstan up to 75%. Local authorities turn the first floors of high­rise apartments over to early childhood education centers.

So, step by step, we will gradually lower the age for moving from preparatory programs to school, and, on pace with the development of pre­primary education facilities, we will be able to enroll more children at an ever younger age. And eventually, as life gets better, we’ll even build daycares!

Pre­primary education facilities in the northern regions of Kyrgyzstan can be located in actual school buildings, since conditions there allow for this. The same can’t be said for schools in the Southern regions. You can’t help but wonder why, with such catastrophically low access to preschools ‒ especially in the larger cities ‒ local authorities exert no effort to encourage businesses such as those working in the banking and trade sectors, bazaars, light industry, construction, etc, to build preschools for the children of employees. Many women are employed in these places, so we’re talking about both freeing women up to work in the first place, and increasing their labor productivity.

A major problem in our big cities is that due to internal migration and new suburbs there is a higher concentration of children too far from the city preschools, with nothing nearby for them to attend. We can solve this problem by providing alternative options: private preschools, family­run preschools, home­schooling, hour­by­hour sessions for small children in the home. Recent amendments to the law, adopted by parliament and signed into law by the president, such as exempting private preschools from income tax, VAT and sales tax, give impetus for increasing the number of these types of preschools, and provide opportunities for a large number of men and women to go into the education business. Just as a rough estimate, there are about 400 preschools in our capital city, although only 64 of them are officially registered. This is a considerable opportunity for local authorities, women­run and other types of businesses: sound training will be needed for those opening schools, and for teachers. There is a association for private preschools in Bishkek, with around 30 member preschools; some of its primary tasks are increasing the competitiveness of kindergartens, and raising the qualifications of workers. An association of Montessori schools is also being formed. The School of Childhood component of our Foundation holds monthly lectures at Arabaev University with visiting experts from Russia, Germany, and other countries. The Zaitsev programs, the Sonatal prenatal development method using music, the 500­hour Montessori training course, environmental education courses held in the Gulistan Garden in Almaty, music therapy courses taught by German experts from the Hamburg Conservatory ‒ these are just a few of the resources available to early childhood education teachers in Bishkek and other cities across Kyrgyzstan, which they can use to raise their qualifications and familiarize themselves with global trends in education. It’s interesting that among those opening kindergartens there is a large number of young women who have worked as nannies in Western European countries, and who are on the whole highly educated.

The Sebat International Education Institutes, which have successfully operated in Kyrgyzstan for two decades, prove what a profitable business education can be. In view of our high birth rate and the fact that we border countries with billionaires, this business is optimal for export. There is no question that joint public­private construction of private schools and preschools more than justify the investments made in them.

Five years have passed since the Bakiev mafia, trying to hide their shady dealings in the center of our capital, burned the tax inspectorate on Tynystanov street in Pervomaysky district to the ground, as well as the office of the Chief Prosecutor on Ala­Too Square. City officials are now just playing a waiting game with these sites, which are ripe for development. Our citizens are insisting that only educational facilities should be built on the site of the former tax office! We know all too well that that tax office replaced a preschool building.

It seems that city officials have completely lost control of development in the city center. With their collusion and their excuses that the developer is building on privately­owned land, bought by him personally, and that, they say, there is no detailed master plan for developing the city center, high rises are being built haphazardly, in a suffocating maze, as if to be inhabited by robots. There’s absolutely no room for expanding existing schools, athletic fields, or preschool facilities!

Neither in the Soviet era or since has there been a decent Young Pioneers House in Bishkek. Into what is this idleness of our youth being channeled? Daily we see our teenagers in atrocious crime reports from every corner of the country, we see them in an atmosphere of violence which has taken the upper hand in our schools. It should have sunk in long ago that investing in a hundred banquet halls, each able to seat 600 people, will never have the same effect on development in this country as building athletic fields, creative arts centers, for the youth in each of our cities. We’re talking about over a million Kyrgyz children, lacking what children in every other moderately­developed country have: a SciTech museum, a natural science museum, an aquarium, a zoo, modern sports equipment. We propose that the city administration of Bishkek announce a tender for joint public­private construction of this type of education center on the site of the incinerated Chief Prosecutor’s building. A center that would benefit our children and youth, all of our society, and which would justly honor our fallen heroes, who fell for our freedom on April 7, 2010. It would save the money poured into building prisons and other correctional facilities for decades to come! The potential profit oligarchs would get from buying up this prime real estate to build just another shopping center should pale in comparison to the investment that we, as a nation, have long owed our children. They are tired of waiting; we must pay this debt before it is too late!

By building this creative arts center for the youth in our capital, the city’s construction business (with one of the most substantial portfolios among our national businesses) and their investors (who come in droves to Zhogorku Kenesh, each with at least a couple of new, privately­owned high rises) will at last pay their societal and moral debt to their voters, in full view of our new generation. Our country, our nation, will live and prosper as we consistently invest in and raise up a new, full­fledged, educated, patriotic generation. The only remaining option is to devolve into an insecure nation populated only by greedy tycoons and the poverty­stricken, barely eking out an existence.


[1] Official name is International Public Foundation The Roza Otunbayeva Initiative

[2] The Kyrgyz parliament, known as the Supreme Council

[3] Article 43.2 of the Russian Constitution

[4] The medical professions in the countries of the former soviet union are low­paying and little­respected outside of private clinics

[5] A Kyrgyz financial consulting company

[6] A local council in regions and villages of Kyrgyzstan

[7] A talk show that discusses social and political issues such as promoting usage of the Kyrgyz language, bride­napping, etc.