Early Learning and Care Program

Еarly Learning and Care

When children master a range of cognitive, social, and emotional competencies at an early age, learning becomes much more efficient and easier at a later stage and is more likely to continue at a more advanced level[A1] [i]. Throughout their lives, children typically interact the most with their parents, which is why supporting parents in their role of educators is particularly important for the lifelong prospects of toddlers from disadvantaged communities[ii]. Enrollment in quality center-based early education facilities further widens children’s circle of learning to beyond what many parents can provide. Long term benefits include improved school performance[iii]; increased earnings and higher employment rates, and reduced incarceration rates with less reliance on social systems[iv]. In the short run, full-day care facilities can also allow poor parents to work more and increase their family earnings[v].  

It is a strategic time to be supporting investments in early learning in Bulgaria. The country’s 1,894 kindergartens and preparatory groups at primary schools provide preschool education to 79% of all 3-6 year-old children[vi]. Impressively, enrollment among Roma children has increased from an estimated 45%[vii] in 2011 to 68%[viii] in 2015. Today, one in ten municipalities offers free or low-cost kindergarten during at least the two mandatory preschool years. Early education is gradually being prioritized in public and donor spending programs, with significant investments in areas such as infrastructure development, intercultural education, and literacy.

Yet progress is uneven in many respects. In the absence of a national policy to remove kindergarten fees, financial constraints continue to limit the participation of many children from disadvantaged communities[ix]. The ongoing optimization of educational infrastructure in response to urban migration has resulted in a 10% reduction in the number of kindergartens during the period 2011-2016[x]. Villages, where Roma are concentrated, are particularly affected by this process. Urban ghettos also suffer disproportionately from a lack of free kindergartens.

For Roma children to achieve better cognitive, social, and emotional competencies, the learning environment and kindergarten teacher preparedness will need to improve[xi]. Currently, 50% of kindergarten teachers are aged 50 and older[xii], and there are few high-quality professional development opportunities available. Discriminatory attitudes persist among one in every five kindergarten teachers[xiii]. Very few teachers are of Roma origin, yet entire kindergartens are attended only by Roma children. Greater emphasis may be needed on working with Roma parents to sustain their engagement in children’s learning after enrollment in kindergarten[xiv].

TSA’s Early Learning and Care (ELC) program is designed with children aged 2 to 8 in mind. Its main goals are to increase participation in early education among Roma children and to improve children’s learning outcomes in literacy and socio-emotional development by supporting both parents and teachers. vision[A2] 

During the period 2012-2018, our program’s flagship initiative was the Springboard for School Readiness (SSR) project. We partnered with the World Bank, which independently evaluated the project’s impact through a nationwide randomized control trial. Our aim was to find out whether kindergartens were simply too expensive to attend.

Building on the results of the impact evaluation, the ELC program aims to increase kindergarten participation among Roma children nationally by focusing on the removal of kindergarten fees and administrative barriers both at the national and at the municipal level. We plan to achieve this by supporting a wide range of advocacy initiatives through instruments such as grants to civil society organizations and municipalities, coalition-building, and a communication campaign.

We are also continuing our research collaboration with the World Bank and the Ministry of Education and Science to gather data to determine the long-term impacts of kindergarten attendance on children from disadvantaged communities.

The impact evaluation concludes that the learning environment in our targeted kindergartens may need to improve, especially with regards to literacy, numeracy, and socio-emotional development. Moreover, we learn that Roma parents spend less time than ethnic Bulgarian parents in activities such as storytelling, naming, and counting. The ELC program’s goals are therefore to improve learning outcomes of young children in literacy and socio-emotional development.

We work with teachers, kindergartens, and civil society organizations to enhance classroom techniques and interactions with parents, to foster an appreciation of diversity, and to boost parents’ capacities for home learning. We seek to both popularize best practices, such as the International Step by Step Association’s teacher diversity training curriculum, and foster innovation, for example by supporting the development of a positive parenting skills program.  We also affect learning outcomes by developing role models for young Roma children. Our projects in this area aim to increase the number of Roma professionals serving in kindergartens throughout the country.

The success of many of our activities relies on building a network of like-minded professionals. During the SSR project we worked with over 10% of the country’s kindergartens and 23 regional organizations. Today we are playing a leading role in creating a cross-sectoral early childhood development (ECD) coalition of over 40 organizations. This experience positions us well to coordinate the establishment of a Romani Early Years Network in Bulgaria, which we hope will bring together several our initiatives under one roof.