BAKU — In the Republic of Azerbaijan, over 99 percent of the population is literate. Since 2007, the number of out-of-school children has dropped from over 89,000 to just under 30,000. The Ministry of Education in Azerbaijan works hard to achieve gender equality and high enrollment rates in primary and secondary education.
In 2010, the country was spending upwards of 11 percent of their GDP on education reform to initiate an institutional overhaul; as of 2016, that number has dropped to 2.63 percent. Despite many successes, education in Azerbaijan continues to suffer from quality control issues.
The latest UNESCO Global Education Monitoring Report finds that by the end of primary school, 82 percent of students are proficient in reading and 73 percent are proficient in math. Science assessments tell a slightly different narrative as over 70 percent of students scored below a level D on the Environmental Science Performance Index.
While the Azerbaijani government ensures 11 years of public instruction, only 18 percent of students pursue further education. Only 10 percent of the population actually graduates from those from tertiary schools.
UNICEF, the World Bank and the local government are teaming up to better reform the system of education in Azerbaijan. Their approach centers around three key concerns: pre-primary education, safety and child-friendly schools.
According to UNICEF reports, the country has space for 30 percent of children, ages 3 to 6, to attend pre-school. However, only around 16 percent actually enroll. The report indicates that rural and mountainous regions have the lowest attendance rates. In those communities, parents typically stay at home with their children. “(They) do not perceive the need to ‘send off’ their children,” states the report. This likely points to the misconception that pre-primary education is analogous to childcare rather than a critical instrument in learning proficiency.
In response to this stigma, the cohort is piloting a three-hour intensive program for school-readiness. While the program is targeted towards rural and low-income families, reports indicate the need for earlier interventions even in Baku, the nation’s capital. For those areas without pre-schools, UNICEF is training teachers to travel throughout the country delivering the course.
A 2008 article from the Guardian highlights research which suggests that early schooling is particularly important for students with special educational needs. The Effective Provision of Pre-school Education Project argues that quality early schooling is essential for intellectual development and the forming of social behaviors.
Another issue impacting the effectiveness of education in Azerbaijan is safety. The region is prone to several types of natural disasters including earthquakes, floods and landslides. UNICEF realizes that threats to children’s well-being often impact school enrollment. In order to provide for the safety of these children, they are forming a new partnership with the European Union and the local government.
Disaster risk reduction will now be a part of the formal national curriculum. Children will learn about disaster safety through activities and schools will put into place formal disaster preparedness plans. There is even an initiative to advocate for safer school construction practices.
The largest reform of the education system regards teacher strategies and training. In 2007, UNICEF reoriented its childcare and protection focus towards the institution of education in Azerbaijan. Education reform centers around modernizing teaching methods and monitoring systems. To achieve this end, they adopted a new model: Child-Friendly Schools.
Child-Friendly Schools teach 21st Century skills while placing the children’s needs and interests first — this practice is called child-centered curriculum. Teachers implement strategies such as informal assessments, progress monitoring and data tracking to inform their instruction. This means that classroom content adapts to match student ability.
In a Child-Friendly School (CFS), students engage in active learning through hands-on activities and the use of manipulative resources. Another crux of this model is inclusion. For the child-centered curriculum to be successful, students in every classroom must have mixed ability levels. This means that students with special educational needs deserve to learn in mainstream classroom settings.
Finally, the backbone of this process is the holistic concept that families must be deeply involved in the education experience. Therefore, UNICEF and the Ministry of Education in Azerbaijan are establishing Parent-Teacher Associations throughout the nation.
According to their website, UNICEF has 50 CFS pilot schools in Azerbaijan. These schools encourage more effective teaching strategies and improved school management. Together with the World Bank they are developing a new national curriculum. The World Bank invested $48 million over 25 years to assist in training 160,000 teachers across the nation with new material and updated strategies.
Furthering their commitment to teacher excellence, the Ministry of Education in Azerbaijan, alongside the European Azerbaijan Society, recently announced a brand new Azerbaijan Teacher Development Center. This center will train 3,000 educators a year. It will also provide mentoring and support for principals and school directors. The center, which launched in November 2016, demonstrates a deep and meaningful respect for the process of childhood education.
Together, these reforms and the project partners behind them will move the education system forward into the 21st Century, an effect that should have a lasting effect on citizens and the economy for generations to come.
– Brandon J. White