R.Otunbayeva: “I intend to become the leader of early childhood education”

April 4, 2013, 06:00

Recently there have been many different rumors about Roza Otunbayeva published in the media. Simultaneously, there is a sense that the leading business of the “Otunbayeva Initiative” International Foundation have remained outside the field of view. We believe that history itself will provide an objective assessment of Otunbayeva’s political activities and have focused on her nonpolitical initiatives.

Roza Isakovna told “Jangy Agymu” that the issue of educating and raising 800,000 children under 6 years old stands at the edge, and that the Foundation is actively working on this issue. Additionally, the former president continued speaking on the issue of providing education to young children and the spread of the Montessori system though kindergartens, which is a requirement of the times.

- Roza Isakovna, first please talk about the need for early childhood education, kindergartens and their importance.

- I traveled throughout all of the oblasts of Kyrgyzstan and became closely acquainted with the condition of children. The situation of indigenous children turned out to be extremely miserable. Now nationwide only 13% of children attend kindergarten. In the oblasts the amount reaches 5%. Speaking on the whole, less than 10% of all children attend kindergarten. Now, people in the villages are building large cafes and restaurants for 200-300 people, two-story homes and have 2 or 3 cars, but they do not want to spend money on children’s toys. You will not see toys in kindergartens or homes. I believe it is necessary to enrich national culture and introduce changes in life today. The experience of humanity shows that a toy provides an unbelievably large stimulus in the development of a child. The problem with books is a separate tragic story. I am now a leader in the field of early childhood education. Science confirms the large role the first 5-6 years of a child’s life in the long-term life of a person. In western countries, in North America, or France or Japan, children begin going to school at age 4. When we went to Austria last year and became acquainted with the education of young children, they themselves told us that they only recognized and understood the relevance of this issue in the past 20 years and, therefore, decided to fundamentally change education policy. And so they surged forward, and our society, unfortunately, is being left behind, following old stereotypes. Our people shrug, saying that there is enough learning in school and until then, let the children run and play.

- What are the reasons we should pay attention to the education of children at such an early age?

- Judging from new information, every child before the age of 7 is a genius, in particular, in music and drawing. It seems that children at this age easily learn any language. It is clear in the formation of a child’s worldview that the child’s limitless potential is free from traditional rituals and beliefs. As it turns out, each dollar spent in educating a child younger than 7 years old saves 8-9 dollars invested in the child later. And, imagine, our children cannot even hold a pen before 1st grade. I am turning the attention of the authorities, ministries and the public to early childhood education. In Kyrgyzstan there are about 800,000 children younger than 6 years old.

In the most thriving of Soviet times, only 30% of children went to kindergarten. At that time each collective farm, factory and plant had its own kindergarten. I remember that to one Lenin factory there were 10 kindergartens. And 82,000 children attend today’s kindergartens, and they are all carried on the shoulders of the budget. I asked parents and they said that each month they pay around 400-600 som. Soviet style kindergartens held children from morning to night. The child sleeps, plays and is fed three times a day. Many kindergartens have doctors and educators with a musical background. But at this time 600 som is nothing. The state maintains the kindergartens in a slapdash fashion: “Don’t die, horse. Do not break, cart.” If we realistically take everything into account, then 13,000 som each month is spent per child.

- Do these Soviet-style kindergartens you are talking about need modernization? Maybe there is a need for new educators, new educational methods…

- In Bishkek there are 87 kindergartens, of which 25-30 are private. They charge a monthly fee of 8,000-10,000 som per child. I am not even going to begin to talk about the low level of education among kindergarten teachers nationwide. Our teachers are trained by teaching academies and one or two universities. While society and children are living in the 21st century, pedagogical science and practices give the impression that they are stuck in the last century. I am truly hurt to see the potential of these educational institutions. Through our foundation, we are teaching Montessori pedagogy, widespread throughout the world, from Moscow. The slogan of this system is “help children be themselves (independent).” The child is not beaten, but rather taught independence. The child begins to do everything themselves. In this system, an 18-month-old child, after soiling himself, goes and changes his own diaper. After watching a video, we all were dumbfounded. A child is very smart and capable. We teach this methodology over the course of 500 hours and award certificates. Today 40 people are actively training, and they are all from private kindergartens. There is not a single soul from the educational institutions or state kindergartens that desires to participate in the training. It is not bad that at least the private kindergartens are learning, and it is very good that they are internalizing the new method and putting it to use so that they can maintain their position in the highly competitive race. For us, the needed attention has never been paid to early childhood education. Nobody values the employees of this system; nobody listens to their problems. The Kyrgyz Academy of Education does speak out so as to draw attention to young children. It turns out that there is only one single expert in the Ministry of Education that is responsible for the preschool education of 800,000 children! Is this one person capable of instituting government policy? Let’s compare, how many livestock management experts work in the Ministry of Agriculture? We have as of yet rid ourselves of the habit of placing the value of livestock higher than that of children.

- Do we, as a country with a large amount of children, have any government education policy regarding preschool aged children?

- We do. Last year, this issue was addressed in a parliamentary hearing for the first time in 20 years. Today of the 82,000 children, the overall amount of children younger than 7, only one-tenth are provided with a kindergarten. This is a big question: By what means do we prepare our children for school and life in society? How do the 90% of children not attending kindergarten receive an education relative to today’s demands? Migrant children are yet another difficult facet of the issue. Particularly in the south. How many children are left with close relatives, while being fed and clothed, do not receive needed education! Nationwide annually nearly 100,000 children enter 1st grade. In the strategy prepared by the president, it is written that children must be prepared for school. This is the proper course, a higher priority for the educational system. Children must enter school equally prepared and with equal rights. Only then will we gradually rid ourselves of underachieving children, children repeating a grade, and child racketeers. If we do not lead children through a specialized preschool program, then as life shows, there will be a lack of quality in education in schools. UNICEF highly commends us, saying, “You, for the first time in Central Asia, have taken steps down the proper path on this issue.”

- How will this intention be put into practice?

- Now, nearly 50,000 children are provided with a 240-hour school preparation program. Beginning this spring, in specially provided spaces in schools, kindergartens and then later this summer in “summer playgrounds”, children will begin preparing so that by next year 100% of preschool aged children will be enrolled. The Ministry of Education has such plans. I have seen with my own eyes and greatly value the efforts of parents in Batken, Talas and Naryn Oblasts, where the program has not yet reached, but the parents themselves are preparing to find venues, to paint and repair the areas, and pay the 100 som monthly salary to teachers out of their own pocket to prepare the children for school. In this program the children will study for 3 hours per day over the course of 3 months. They will not sleep or be fed there and will learn the alphabet, counting and reading. The 240-hour program has turned out to be insufficient for this, so a 480-hour program has been developed on the basis of financing from international organizations. Before undertaking this program, it is necessary to train the teachers. This program will be realized within the next 2 years. Last December I negotiated with the head of UNICEF and related directors from the World Bank. They supported our events and are prepared to provide $14.3 million for early childhood education. But a large amount of special assistance should be provided from our budget as well.

- And what kind of education do the other half-million children receive?

- We do not have the economic capacity to provide kindergartens to all children, and there is no need because unemployment has us by the throat. But if we want to free these women from unemployment, then why don’t we follow the example of other countries and open private and public-private kindergartens? Unfortunately, the law enacted for introducing public-private partnerships in business is not yet in affect. In general there are not nearly enough comprehensively developed regulations. A person wanting to undertake this task does not know where to start. Even though society pays attention to kindergartens, the affair is unable to proceed in the right direction. MPs and akims (village elders) put effort behind introducing old-style 140-200 seat child factories into the plans. I say, let there be new kindergartens, but we need to develop flexible forms of kindergartens. If there are 10, 20 or 30 children, it is still a kindergarten. In the West there are kindergartens where parents may leave their children from 2 o’clock to 6 o’clock. We also must move to these methods. Do not forget that kindergartens are the economy of working people.

- How can the issue of a lack of needed building for kindergartens be solved?

- If we have chosen the aforementioned priority and want to prepare children for school, then we need to find convenient locations. Very large ministries and businesses can provide a room in their own buildings for teaching children. Find space in today’s kindergartens. In today’s kindergartens there are special separate cafeterias for children, play rooms, nap rooms, which are used for all of 2 hours but crammed with beds. But the children, particularly in older groups, do not sleep at all. For that matter, some children run away from kindergartens, saying they were tortured and forced to sleep. They say, “there are many children and the capability for preparation courses aren’t there,” while accepting 100 children and charging 600 som, while behind the walls there are 500 children. Therefore we can move forward if, after taking an account of the costs of kindergartens, we identify new forms of education and get to work.

- Regarding this, what, in your view, are some other acute social problems?

- Now there are many negative facts and atrocities, unimaginable things committed by young and old, men and women. Rape and bride kidnapping still continue. Consequently, girls hang themselves; pregnant women throw themselves from windows wand throw smothered newborns into toilets. Kyrgyz men believe that “women in the streets, not needing their children,” commit acts frowned upon by god, abandon and leave their families and children. Are all peoples like this? If one of three children becomes infected with AIDS, a man abandons his family, disregarding the other two healthy children, he runs from home?! Doctors cry: fathers of hemophiliac children abandon them with their mothers and leave. Other peoples, living with us as neighbors, do not just keep not just their children, but their livestock and dogs as well, raising them without injury or reproach. We should not vainly beat our chest and declare that we are the most magnanimous, the most generous people. When will we finally look at ourselves with a critical eye?

I recently traveled around Osh Oblast with the “education caravan”, met with people and listened to many problematic issues. Together with the Ministry or Health we are preparing to create a joint television program that provides detailed advice to women and girls on medical and life issues. Now, television programs aimed at this are broadcast in a very academic language. We should give advice to parents in plain language.

- Share with us the next plans for your foundation…

- We are now organizing a competition, “Bobok Yry (children’s songs)”. On the basis of this competition, we will chose the best children’s songs and publish a book. We went to Russian-language kindergartens, and there they all sang as a group, while in Kyrgyz-language kindergartens, outside of the national anthem, they do not sing anything. So we hope that the “Bobok Yry” competition with provide children with many more unforgettable, happy and enjoyable songs. Another one of our large events will be the multifaceted “Bilim Festivaly (Education Festival) which will be held in Bishkek on May 18th and 19th and provide parents and children a much needed holiday and necessary educational services.


“Jangy Agym” newspaper, Issue 13, 29.03.2013, pp 3 & 5