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Lively Minds: Testing What Works in Early Childhood Education

Across the developing world, 200 million children currently fail to reach their full educational potential. Although Ghana has made great strides in early childhood care and education (ECCE) in comparison to other African countries, 50% of children who take part in the Basic Education Certificate Examination fail.

GIF funding is based on a tiered model in which larger awards depend on rigorous evidence of impact. We are excited to support Lively Minds to set up 250 new community-run play schemes and to rigorously test their effectiveness in bringing high quality ECCE to hard-to-reach, resource-poor communities. We are also funding the Institute for Fiscal Studies to carry out a randomized controlled trial to evaluate the impact of the programme and its potential for improving educational outcomes in the developing world.

We’re delighted to host this guest blog from the team at Lively Minds, and we look forward to learning more about what works in early childhood education.

The education and care a child receives in their early years is crucially important to their future life and life chances. But it is estimated that over 200 million children under five do not get access to adequate care and stimulation leading to poor health, poor education, lost life opportunities and poverty.

Lively Minds is an NGO working in rural Ghana and Uganda to tackle this crisis.  We believe that one of the biggest barriers and the most pressing needs is that parents in deprived rural communities lack the information, skills and aspiration to provide their children with simple and affordable opportunities to nurture their physical and educational development.  

But these communities and target groups are difficult to reach, and traditional early childhood interventions instead focus on school construction, teacher/professional training and on establishing private nurseries or day care centres. Whilst these interventions are needed, they typically target urban or peri-urban locations and overlook rural communities. Worse still, focusing on formal provision can reinforce the false belief that solutions can only be provided by external professionals and that parents cannot take action themselves.

We at Lively Minds believe we have found a sustainable, scalable and cost-effective way to bring high quality Early Childhood Care & Education to the hardest-to-reach, resource-poor communities who need it most. We want to rigorously test this model to measure the impacts on kids, moms and teachers, and share our learning widely, and we are excited to partner with Professor Orazio Attanasio, Research Director at the Institute for Fiscal Studies and Head of Department in the Department of Economics at UCL, to do so.

In each community, 30 uneducated & marginalised “Volunteer Mothers” are trained and supported to run Play Schemes for all the pre-schoolers in their communities and to provide better home-based care using home-made games. In Ghana, the Play Schemes are held in state-run Kindergartens, and the training and support of the Mothers is done by Kindergarten Teachers using a training of trainers approach.  In Uganda, in the absence of a state kindergarten system, we are about to start piloting a training of trainers approach through the Village Health Team system.

There are 4 key philosophies that underpin our programme and our approach:

Empowerment is key: Our programme utilises an untapped resource as the key change-agent: Mothers.  In each community 30 to 50 uneducated and marginalised Mothers are empowered to improve their children’s health, education and development using cheap loal materials. This means that the materials and people-power are readily available and the Scheme can be delivered and sustained at low cost.  But it also has many benefits for the Mothers.  They gain knowledge in parenting and health issues.  From being marginalised and isolated, they gain in confidence and standing within the community and become part of a peer support group.

Learn through play:  One of the most important ways for a child to learn and develop is through play. Play arouses curiosity and stimulates imagination, which leads to discovery and creativity. At the Play Schemes, children are arranged in small groups (1:5 mother-child ratio). They rotate around 6 play stations covering different skill-sets that develop intellectual, language and socio-emotional skills leading to improved school-readiness. Mothers use discovery-based teaching methods, rather than rote learning which is the norm in formal settings.

Cater for the holistic needs of the child: As well as providing learning opportunities, the programme finds creative way to address wider developmental needs. For example, to improve health, Children have to handwash with soap at the start of each play session, sensitising them to this life-saving activity. Mothers are given a “capacity building workshop” every month on basic child-care, health, parenting and life skills topics designed to give simple information and practical ways to take action, making use of local materials

Solutions must be sustainable:  The Play Schemes are run and owned by the community volunteers, using cheap local materials.  Our aim is for the whole programme can be integrated into existing Government channels, so it can be scaled and sustained at low cost whilst at the same time strengthening government systems.

With the support of the Global Innovation Fund, Lively Minds will be scaling its activities in Ghana over the next 3 years and testing ways to integrate into the Ghana Education Service.  The Institute for Fiscal Studies will be carrying out a randomised controlled trial to assess the impacts of the programme.  It is our sincere hope that this innovation has the potential to offer a genuinely huge impact on the early childhood development crisis in the developing world.

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