Happy Endings for Mozambican Preschoolers
Abandoned by her family and severely malnourished, four-year-old Castera’s story seemed destined for an unhappy ending.
But, this is where the plot changes. Taken in by Alda Mate, the strong, determined village chief of Machalucuane, and enrolled in Save the Children’s supported early childhood education program, today Castera is a happy, curious second grader.
It was with children like Castera in mind that Save the Children began its early education program in rural Mozambique in 2008, one of the first rural programs in the country. Setting up preschools in 30 villages, we set out to help thousands of young children rewrite their futures through early education.
But what about the other one million preschool-aged children in Mozambique without access to early education? To reach them would require a national policy on early childhood education. How would we convince policymakers that early learning is a worthwhile investment when faced with so many different priorities?
We needed proof. However, there had been little evidence gathered on the benefits of early learning in Mozambique, yet alone in Africa. We had to start from scratch. In 2007, Save the Children partnered with the World Bank on a three year study, funded in part by 3ie, to show the benefits of early education over time, by comparing, through a randomized design, children in our preschool programs with children who were not enrolled. The study findings, released this week, are very encouraging. The impact evaluation shows that children who attended preschool programs run by Save the Children, were 24 percent more likely to enroll in primary school and were significantly better equipped to learn than children not covered by the program. Most importantly, children who participated in the program demonstrated improved cognitive, problem solving and social skills.
But with no prior roadmap on early childhood education in Mozambique, we had to take additional steps to change national policy.
Although there were several charities or NGOs, UN agencies and universities working on early education, they had not joined together to strengthen their voice and collectively act for policy change. Save the Children teamed up with the Aga Khan Foundation to bring these groups together in 2007. This Interest group (IG) serves two purposes: to share best practices in early childhood development; and to advocate for national policies and increased resources.
Likewise, several government ministries, including the Ministries of Education, Women and Social Action and Health were looking out for the health, education and care needs of children under age 5. But no group was coordinating the work across all ministries. For that reason, the World Bank and the IG, including Save the Children, began encouraging the government to form a joint commission on early childhood education.
Keeping Partners Informed at Every Stage
Another important step towards changing policy was keeping our partners in the loop throughout the evaluation. Save the Children and the World Bank wanted them to understand the evaluation design, risks that young children faced, and to follow our review every step of the way. During the design phase in September 2007 and before the start of the baseline survey in April 2008, we formally presented our design to representatives of the ministries of Education, Women and Social Action, and Health. Then, in February 2010, we presented the baseline results to the government of Mozambique and members of the IG.
Even with the backing of the IG and some government champions, it was not easy getting buy-in at first. We were met with a lot of doubts. The results from our baseline survey painted a very stark picture of the health and well-being of children in rural Mozambique. Many policymakers asked whether they could change the situation. Others expressed concerns about how they would be able to replicate a similar program nationally given their limited staffing and budget.
One lesson learned from this experience: we should have taken some policymakers on a field visit before presenting our baseline findings. By seeing the community-based program and the positive changes taking place among children, it might have inspired hope and support for early education earlier in the process.
Over the next several months, Save the Children and the World Bank shared our preliminary findings with a broad group of people who could help influence and carry out policy change. First, we convened a national-level meeting in Maputo at the end of June 2011, which was attended by about 70 representatives from government, donor agencies, civil society and the media. Afterwards, we shared the findings at provincial, district and community events and they were well-received at all levels.
Changing National Policy
Taken together, our advocacy efforts, ongoing communications throughout the evaluation process and dissemination of the preliminary results greatly promoted the uptake of the study findings and influenced national early childhood education policy.
We saw some exciting developments. Early childhood education was included in the country’s 2012-2016 national education plan. The government of Mozambique also has created a national Early Childhood Development commission. With technical support from the World Bank, the commission is finalizing the country’s first early childhood education strategy and is developing a new World Bank-financed early education program.
What’s next? Putting the new policy into practice. The good news is that we kept officials at the provincial and district levels and members of the 30 preschool communities informed of our findings along the way. Now, they are better prepared to support the government as it rolls out the new strategy.
That means more children in Mozambique will get a head start on learning. And more happy endings for children like Castera.
Read the study report The Promise of Pre-school in Africa
Melissa Kelly is an Early Childhood Development Specialist at Save the Children USA.