In some regions of Syria, less than a quarter of young children go to nursery school (compared to an average enrolment of 41 per cent globally). This is partly because the majority of pre-schools in Syria are private and parents cannot afford the cost. Many children of poorer families, such as those living in the slums around Damascus, have few opportunities for a proper education and grow up illiterate.
Even where children have access to pre-schools, the quality of the education is poor and particularly in religious-backed schools, tends towards traditional ways of thinking. The head of early childhood programmes at the UK-based charity Save the Children admits that knowledge about early development gained by educational specialists over the last 25 years is still virtually “unknown in the region”.
To encourage more emphasis on pre-school stimulation and learning, even where this is done in the home, a new regional Early Childhood Centre has been set up in Damascus under the auspices of the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Organised by Save the Children and the United Nations Children’s Agency (UNICEF), the Centre is the first of its kind to be set up in the region and will be run in collaboration with the Syrian government.
The aim of the Early Childhood Centre is to promote best practice in pre-school education. The facility will run training seminars for child workers in psychosocial and early educational care. And by providing guidance to the government, the children’s agencies also hope to encourage a new focus on the first years of a child’s life, when the brain’s rapid development is so crucial. Learning language and social interaction skills are essential to a child’s successful development, as well as good nutrition and medical care.
According to UNICEF, attendance at a pre-school is a strong indicator of how successful someone will be later in life. With a greater requirement for literacy in this technical age and an increasingly competitive global market, children need to be armed with key life skills if they are to establish good livelihoods. The representative of UNICEF in Syria is keen to point out there is statistical evidence showing children who attend nursery “stay in school longer, achieve more, develop better and experience better cognitive development”.
The Early Childhood Centre will also promote gender parity in the region, so that girls are equally supported in their development. In the latest Global Gender Gap Report published by the World Economic Forum, in a survey of 134 countries measuring opportunities for women in education, health, business and politics, all 14 of the Arab nations ranked within the bottom 30. The Centre in Damascus aims to change attitudes in the region and highlight the fact that girls who attend nursery are much more likely to continue further in education and be equipped to take advantage of opportunities and jobs on which the modern world depends.