The Kyrgyzstan preschool lottery

A serious shortage of kindergartens has driven the few who can afford it into private schools of debatable quality. First in an occasional series.

This is the first in an occasional series of articles on the implications of private education in TOL’s region.

OSH, Kyrgyzstan | Gulbara T. tried hard to get her 3-year-old son and 5-year-old daughter into preschool.

“I went to several kindergartens, but everywhere I heard the same answer: there’s no available space, and there won’t be any in the near future,” says Gulbara, a haggard-looking woman of about 30 whose family survives on her husband’s casual labor. “Then my friends explained to me that doors are open for those who can give large bribes of 10,000 soms [about $190] or more, but we can’t afford that.”

Gulbara’s kids are far from the exception. Eighty-three percent of Kyrgyzstan’s approximately 772,000 children aged 2 to 7 face the same problem. That amounts to some 640,000 children who are locked out of preschool education in this impoverished Central Asian country of 5.5 million.

Children play in the grounds of the private Kapitoshka kindergarten in Osh while waiting for their parents to pick them up after school. Photo by Hamid Toursunov.

By the time they enter school many of those children are already miles behind their better-prepared classmates. Some educators say the crisis in preschool education is one factor behind Kyrgyzstani schoolchildren’s abysmal performance on international tests.

Parents of young children across the country complain that spaces are not available, waiting lists are too long, and kindergartens are overcrowded.

Irina Karamushkina, a member of parliament and former kindergarten teacher, said funding constraints keep badly needed new preschools from being built. Since independence, she said only 39 new preschools have gone up in the country, although more have been opened in existing buildings.  

As bad as the situation is, it is an improvement from five years ago, when only 12 percent of the country’s preschool-age children had access to kindergarten.

The number of kindergartens has risen by 56 percent since 2009, when, according to the national statistics office, there were 594 (567 public and 27 private). Now there are 927 kindergartens, 865 public and 62 private, said Aigul Kamalova, a senior preschool specialist with the Education and Science Ministry. Though that outpaces the 23 percent rise in the number of preschool-age children during the same period, officials are still playing catch-up.

Karamushkina said the shortage is exacerbated by shortsighted decisions made after Kyrgyzstan gained independence to privatize some kindergarten buildings, or give them away to cash-strapped local governments.

There are signs of progress. The Education and Science Ministry plans to open 40 new preschools next year, funded by a $12 million grant from the World Bank. Local authorities will have the tough task of finding buildings for kindergartens; the national government will provide furniture and teaching materials as well as training specialists and teachers.

And in mid-August, Deputy Prime Minister Elvira Sarieva announced that national and local government agencies implementing preschool programs could forgo licensing, and that the government has dropped a requirement that the owner of a private kindergarten also own the building that houses it. Authorities will now settle for proof of a three-year lease, according to news website 24kg.

But such efforts are not likely to significantly increase access to early childhood education. Nor is the answer to be found in renationalizing the kindergartens now in private hands – as the government has sometimes tried to do – owing to complicated legal procedures, Karamushkina said.

“The government doesn’t have any clear policy or special long-term program to expand and increase access to preschool education,” said Zainap Eshmuratova, chairwoman of Family for Every Child, a nongovernmental organization.

Only about 25 percent of the country’s children in urban areas attend kindergarten, but the situation is even worse for children in the countryside, where much of Kyrgyzstan’s poverty is concentrated, said Duishon Shamatov, an education researcher at Nazarbaev University in Astana, Kazakhstan.

“In rural areas the situation is deplorable,” with only about 5 percent to 7 percent of children attending kindergarten, said Shamatov, who is originally from Kyrgyzstan’s southern Osh province.


While national and local governments struggle to open more preschools, the number of children enrolled in private ones has nearly doubled in recent years, from 2,312 in 2009 to 4,288 in 2013.

The country’s 62 private kindergartens can soak up some of the unmet demand, but only for those who can afford the monthly fees of 5,000 to 12,000 soms. The average monthly salary in Kyrgyzstan is 11,845 soms (pdf). A spot in a public kindergarten costs 500 soms.

Six-year-old Khadizha, from Bishkek, is one of lucky ones; she has been attending a good private kindergarten since she was 3.

Khadizha’s mother, 37-year-old Valentina Vtorushina, raves about the Dino kindergarten, which she said teaches children “about the larger world, drawing, national traditions, and culture” in addition to the usual classes in math, reading, language development, and music.

Vtorushina, an interior designer, pays 10,000 soms each month to send Khadizha to Dino. She said parents are free to pop in to the school anytime, to observe the teachers or even monitor the kitchen’s hygiene standards.

“The administration is friendly and open and, unlike other kindergartens, doesn’t hide anything from parents,” she said. “It works transparently and honestly, and that’s the key to its success.”

Teachers at Dino are paid 12,000 to 20,000 soms a month.

But according to numerous sources, not everything is so rosy in private kindergartens, which face the same shortage of qualified teachers as do public ones – even though they offer salaries at least twice as high.

“I would say that in general, the quality of education in private preschools is quite low. The teachers aren’t well-trained, and teaching materials aren’t very good,” said Shamatov, the education researcher. “On the one hand, I’m glad that kindergartens are opened for commercial purposes: people see the significance of investing in education, and parents begin to realize that education for their children doesn’t start at school but earlier. On the other hand, current standards need to be much higher.” 

Irina Telebaeva, an educator who has worked in public and private kindergartens, said private preschools often hire people without relevant experience to get around a nationwide teacher shortage.

Most private kindergartens “employ people who haven’t worked with children of preschool age. Sometimes they hire experienced school teachers, but they don’t realize that preschool teaching methodology is quite different than that of schools,” Telebaeva said.

“Private kindergartens pay better, but I can’t say they have better teachers. Many experienced preschool teachers who have worked all their lives in the public sector don’t want to run the risk going to the private sector based on the principle ‘a tree grows in one place,’ ” Telebaeva said – meaning they prefer the security of a government job. 

At Osh’s public kindergarten No. 35 – recognized by state and local officials last year as the city’s best public preschool and the third best kindergarten in the country – director Venera Kudaiberdieva said experienced teachers make only 7,600 soms per month.

Kudaiberdieva said student fees do not even cover the cost of feeding the school’s 320 children and that No. 35 survives thanks to government subsidies. Still, she defended public kindergartens against frequent accusations of substandard conditions, saying they meet all sanitary regulations and quality standards set by the Education Ministry.

That’s not what many parents think.

“When we ask the administration about ongoing activities or the menu, kindergarten teachers don’t want to talk about it. They start talking about a lack of funds to provide children with quality food,” said Baktygul, an Osh resident whose child attends a kindergarten in that city.

“The quality of public kindergartens is poor,” Shamatov said. “They’re overcrowded, a few children sleep in one bed. But it should be noted that there are very good public kindergartens, especially in urban areas, and my children attend one of them.”


The limited access to preschool education has had an apparent ripple effect throughout Kyrgyzstan’s educational system.

The country was humiliated in two consecutive rounds of the Program for International Student Assessment (pdf), or PISA, a standardized test taken every three years by 15-year-olds in 65 countries.

In 2006 and 2009, Kyrgyzstan’s students took last place in measures of literacy and their knowledge of math and science. In 2012 the country sat out the OECD-administered test.

“Many people don’t understand the link between Kyrgyzstan’s catastrophic PISA results and the situation with kindergartens,” Shamatov said. His research has shown that “results of performance [tests] of children attending kindergartens are much higher than those of children who don’t have access to early childhood education. At the end of the day, these children are much better educated.”

Shamatov said most parents still believe education starts in elementary school, despite studies that show children’s rapid mental development begins at ages 2 and 3.

“Unfortunately, both parents and educators miss this period,” he said.

Teachers, too, emphasize the importance of early childhood education. Nargiza Ismailova, an elementary school teacher with 16 years of experience, says there is a big difference between children who attended kindergarten and those who did not.

“Children from kindergartens have broader horizons, their thinking is more developed, and they learn new materials easier and faster. Other children, their level of knowledge and thinking is very low. Often they sit in the classroom with a faraway look, and this really affects their academic performance,” Ismailova said. “Of course, some children who didn’t attend kindergarten have certain abilities and talents, and they eventually catch up with the more advanced children. But the rest stay behind.”

Early childhood education also gives children the skills to adapt to the social and intellectual demands of elementary school, according to Gulnara Ibraeva, a veteran sociologist and the executive director of Innovative Solutions, a civic group that conducts research and opinion polls.

In kindergarten, she said, “children start socializing from an early age and learn new social roles. By postponing this process, we don’t promote the development of children’s human capital.  As a result, children don’t develop their speech, and their communication skills are poor. Children don’t read books, they don’t cultivate a love for reading. Children don’t develop thinking habits.”

The effort it takes for an unprepared child to adapt to unfamiliar school surroundings is energy that is not spent on learning new tasks, Ibraeva said – and in the long run, that keeps them locked in the poverty into which they were born.

“Children with poor imagination and speech skills and limited intellectual possibilities don’t have original thinking skills,” she said. “It’s difficult for such children to see ways to overcome difficulties.”

Hamid Toursunov and Bakyt Ibraimov are independent journalists in Osh. This article was originally published on Transitions Online.


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