A class of their own: Timor Leste's children chalk up a life-changing win

Many of Timor-Leste's children are experiencing formal schooling for the first time.
UNICEF

Many of Timor-Leste's children are experiencing formal schooling for the first time.

OPINION: "Oh Dad, you're SUCH a fuss."

"Where'd she learn that?!"

"Daycare."

Febiana Canizio, 4, wants to be a nurse at the
local healthcare centre when she grows up.
UNICEF

Febiana Canizio, 4, wants to be a nurse at the local healthcare centre when she grows up.

It's almost invariably answer whenever my mop-headed toddler comes out with some cutesy gem, impressive new skill, or devastating putdown.

READ MORE:
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* New evidence shows how important preschool is
* As Timor Leste turns 13, preschools are vital

 
Brizita Xavier Trindade, 3, has one book at home that her family reads to her each night.
UNICEF

Brizita Xavier Trindade, 3, has one book at home that her family reads to her each night.

"Daycare."

My three-year-old goes to a lovely little childcare centre in sunny Wellington. There, throughout the day, her teachers fill her head with all sorts of wonderful things, some of which she deigns to share with her Mum and Dad at the end of the day.

"What's this earthquake song she's been singing?"

Most kids in Darabay go barefoot. For a running race, Anizio borrows sandals from his friend so he can run faster over ...
UNICEF

Most kids in Darabay go barefoot. For a running race, Anizio borrows sandals from his friend so he can run faster over the rocks on the road.

"Why is she lining up all her dolls and toys and taking a roll call?"

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"Where on Earth did she learn Spanish national anthem?!"

"Oh, daycare."

“I want to become a pastor. And a footballer," says four-year-old Anizio Amaral.
UNICEF

“I want to become a pastor. And a footballer," says four-year-old Anizio Amaral.

It's never-ending. She's constantly returning home with a new (and exhausting) repertoire of songs, games, skills and the occasional expression that she definitely didn't get from us.

"Look, I'm sorry Dad, but I'm just a liiiittle bit busy putting the babies to bed. Come on, chop chop," she'll say, with a withering look on her face.

"Where'd she learn that?!"

While living conditions in Timor-Leste are improving, it still has a long way to go.
UNICEF

While living conditions in Timor-Leste are improving, it still has a long way to go.

"Daycare."

What is remarkable is just how much she is obviously soaking up during those daily interactions. She's constantly learning, not just numbers and words, but social behaviour, critical and creative thinking, and physical and mental skills.

New Zealand's early childhood rates are pretty good - more than 96 per cent of children starting school have attended some type of early childhood education (ECE) - kindergartens, private daycare centres, playgroups or kohanga reo.

New Zealand spends around $2 billion a year on ECE - and it's money well spent.

The early years of a child's life are absolutely vital for ensuring positive development. Their little brains are buzzing with all sorts of new connections as they figure out the world. What they learn now has a massive impact on how easily they can slot into further education, and how they develop as adults.

But in other countries, little children aren't so lucky.

Too few children around the world are attending preschool programmes - just a third in East Asia and the Pacific. A quarter in sub-Saharan Africa. And even within those countries, the children attending ECE tend to be from the richest 20 per cent of the population.

But by investing in early childhood education, we can ensure disadvantaged children don't get left behind. Studies show that the returns on investment in education are highest among poorer children, and education programmes can serve as a stepping stone out of poverty or exclusion.

That's why Unicef is helping fund ECE for children in Timor Leste, who otherwise wouldn't have much of a chance.

Right now, there are children entering primary school who have never held a pencil. They've never seen a book, learned the alphabet, or to count. Even sitting in class is a foreign concept to them.

Without preschool to prepare them, children struggle at school from day one. Some of those kids will have to repeat years, while others will drop out altogether.

Many children live in remote villages - far away from the nearest school or childcare centre.

Those children are less likely to succeed at school, to fulfil their potential and to become productive, contributing members of their society.

But by bringing preschool right into their communities, their villages and their homes we can make sure children can easily access education.

In 2016, Unicef established preschools in the Ermera and Viqueque districts of Timor Leste, where enrolment was as low as 4.6 per cent - fewer than one in 20 kids.

Now, classes are held in community buildings or in the homes of senior villagers, and children are taught by facilitators who are selected by each village. So far 2155 children have attended, and 600 have "graduated" and gone on to start school.

That's an amazing win, but it's just the start. We want to reach many thousands more children throughout Timor Leste, so that they can get the same sort of chances that our own children get, here in New Zealand.

When people ask what Unicef does to help the world's children, we reply that education is one of our key objectives.

If we want to show children throughout the world the best way out of poverty and hardship, education is key.

If we want populations to be better informed about issues such as family size, cultural acceptance, or climate change, education is key.

If we want to ensure a child's health by teaching them about hygiene, communicable disease, and proper nutrition, education is key.

And it starts from the moment children are born.

Together, we can create a whole new group of parents who are marvelling at the journey their young one is embarking on, and at the weird, wonderful stuff that they're picking up along the way.

This article was supplied as part of Stuff's partnership with Unicef NZ. Unicef stands up for every child so they can have a childhood. To help more children into a vital education, you can donate at unicef.org.nz.

 - Stuff

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