When Vone joined a pre-primary school summer course in her remote mountain village in Lao People’s Democratic Republic (PDR) in 2015, she was quiet and shy.
By the time she started primary school in a larger town that fall, she was full of confidence. Thanks to the summer program, the school environment, including everything from lessons, to play, to habits like handwashing, was familiar territory now.
At the time, primary school teacher Bounsy Pheusavanh said that he could see a difference in the children enrolled in LEARN, the summer learning course for remote communities implemented by Plan International and their partners. "I believe it also helps develop children's social skills,” he said. “Vone always helps me lead reading, singing, and playing games."
The LEARN project has been such a success in Lao PDR, it is now being tested in Cambodia and Tanzania. Those three countries may seem like disparate points across the world’s map, but they share similar challenges in bringing pre-primary education to harder-to-reach children. Together, they are the focus of the three-year research project supported by the Global Partnership for Education Knowledge and Innovation Exchange (KIX) called Adapting, testing and scaling a proven summer pre-primary education model in Cambodia, Lao PDR and Tanzania, or the LEARN Plus project for short.
The pilot phase in Lao PDR reached 350,000 children in communities in mountainous, remote villages in the country’s northern region. In such areas, “there are no opportunities [for pre-primary learning], which is a big challenge for them [children] when they come to Grade One,” explained Vilasack Viraphanh, head of education and skills for Plan International in Lao PDR. Coupled with the fact that many of these children speak only their local language, some never enrol in Grade One at all.
But LEARN took those pre-primary learning opportunities to the villages, and the results were promising.
A total of 77% of children in the pilot project (79% boys, 75% girls) enrolled for Grade One on-time, compared to 63% of typical pre-primary children in Lao PDR, according to an evaluation report for the LEARN project prepared by the American Institute for Research. The summer classes have been a learning space for parents, too.
“The first thing they see is their children, when they go to Grade One, they are not scared because they are already familiar with the learning, meeting friends, or even the teachers,” Viraphanh said. ”Parents see that this is good for their children to be with the teacher because [school] is a safe place, and they also have more time to go to the farm or to do other work.”
Justine Turner, senior program manager with Plan International Canada, said, “What we proposed to do is to take this model, which we have now shown works in that [Lao PDR]) context. We want to see whether it can be used in different contexts, whether it can be adapted and we’ll have similar results in terms of helping the governments to reach underserved areas.”
LEARN Plus will reach 30 remote communities in Lao PDR, Cambodia and Tanzania, and deliver a workable model to governments by 2023. “The intention is not to replace pre-primary education,” said Turner. “The idea is that we can help governments to have a stopgap measure as they try to roll out universal pre-primary education. So in the interim, we’re suggesting this low-cost, flexible model that could be used to help reach those communities until they’re able to provide it across the country.”
KIX aims to strengthen education systems in the Global South, and one priority area is early learning. While global gross enrolment rates (GER) in pre-primary education have risen from 32% in 2000 to 50% in 2017, progress has been uneven, including within countries. Lao PDR’s pre-primary GER rate was 63% in 2017, Cambodia’s was 40%, and Tanzania’s was 43%, UN figures show.
From the experience in Lao PDR, the program uses the following approach: through the 10 weeks before primary school starts in September, five-year-old children go to daily pre-primary classes, which are taught by the same teachers they will meet in the first grade. They have lessons and activities around language, socialisation, play, and arts, in a gender-equality-aware setting. Healthy habits like hand washing are also included.
Pupils use local-language textbooks under curricula developed by the local government and education officials and teachers, as well as project and technical experts. Existing classrooms or venues like community centres can be used for pre-primary learning. Classrooms, play areas or reading hubs can be built by village residents and parents, as they were in Lao PDR.
Lessons for replicating the approach in Cambodia and Tanzania focus on the value of contextualisation and local participation, according to Viraphanh. “It is important to recognise the diverse systems of political governance, and collaboration with other partners in early education,” he said.
Since early 2021, teams of the LEARN Plus project of Plan International have been fine-tuning local versions to roll out in Cambodia and Tanzania. Much of the work in these early days is around evaluating needs and challenges, and mapping villages for inclusion using indicators such as remoteness, low population density, and availability of basic services.
Schedules are being put in place to match countries’ school calendars and the length of school days (Lao PDR had 7-hour days). Textbooks are being revised to avoid perpetuating stereotypes — for instance, that housework is for women, or that school is more for boys than for girls.
“It’s saying, what do we have already? What can we build on? What things do you have that work really well? What doesn’t? So it’s kind of a co-design process,” said Turner. “What are some of the things that would prevent children, especially girls, from going to pre-primary education? What are the attitudes of the community members, the government?”
Work is further ahead in Lao PDR. Viraphanh said that the summer pre-primary classes are now in some 50 villages in Oudomxay, as well as Bokeo, one of Lao PDR’s most ethnically diverse provinces. The Government of Lao PDR is taking the lead in expansion, with LEARN Plus providing support in cost analysis and implementation. The government is also integrating these classes into its national education policy.
A so-called least developed country, Lao PDR is often depicted as a recipient of development assistance. But it is both learner and teacher in the LEARN Plus project and is a South-South meeting point for countries to test and build knowledge around getting, and keeping, more of their children in school. Together with Cambodia and Tanzania, these countries are learning laboratories for a summer-school scheme that mixes real-life lessons with a homegrown touch to get more pupils ready for primary school, and beyond.