In Mozambique, Helping Kids Get a Strong Start

June 25, 2014


  • Early childhood development pilot program in rural Mozambique shows success in building children’s cognitive, linguistic, socio-emotional and physical skills.
  • Mozambique’s government currently scaling up program to reach 84,000 young children in 600 communities.
  • Investing in early childhood development is key to ensuring school readiness, alleviating poverty.

Gaza Province, Mozambique -- Under the shade of a spreading mafura tree, preschool teacher Carmelina Alberto Makuite places three bottlecaps in the sand and asks her class of 30 to count.  “Um!  Dois ! Três!,” her 3- to 5-year-old students shout, showing off not only budding mathematics skills but newly acquired Portuguese – the language of instruction in Mozambique and a change from the Changana dialect spoken at home.

The morning’s lesson has preschoolers in remote Mahuntsane village—a 4-hour drive northeast of the capital Maputo – learning numbers, days of the week, and body parts, as well as answering questions after the teacher reads a Portuguese story about a spider and a dog.  The skills the children learn here – cognitive, linguistic, socio-emotional and physical – are critical for long-term healthy development and will give them a strong start when they reach first grade.

“Primary school teachers are very happy with the children coming from the escholinha [preschool],” says Makuite, who has taught at the preschool since 2008. “The children know the alphabet and can write their names. They follow the teacher’s instructions. They are leaders in the class.”


Scaling Up Across Five Provinces

Mahuntsane’s preschool is part of a pilot program, begun in 2008, to strengthen early childhood development in 30 villages in rural Gaza Province. Led by the nongovernmental organization Save the Children, the program’s success—demonstrated by a rigorous impact evaluation -- attracted support from the Ministry of Education, which is now scaling up the initiative across 600 communities in five provinces, to reach 84,000 young children with services to stimulate their growth and development. The World Bank’s Fund for the Poorest (IDA) is providing support for the scale-up through a $40 million education policy loan, which also finances capacity and knowledge building activities for government agencies and key stakeholders to ensure sustainability.

“The government felt it important to invest in early childhood education because our children, in first grade, have great difficulty in reading and writing. This led us to devise a national strategy involving various ministries, such as social affairs, health, food security and nutrition,” said Ines Tembe Magode, Chief of Preschools in the Ministry of Education.  “This whole movement was a kind of awakening for our government.”

The government kicked off the scale-up project earlier this year, and participating communities have already been identified, she added. “We’re now working to sensitize parents and caretakers so they’re aware of the importance of taking their children to preschools.” 

Importance of Investing Early

Early gaps in cognitive skills and overall development can jeopardize a child’s capacity and motivation to learn upon entering primary school, says Sophie Naudeau, a World Bank Senior Education Specialist based in Maputo, who co-led the impact evaluation of the pilot program and manages the new IDA loan.  “Low levels of school readiness can lead to inefficiencies in the education system. Children lacking early support are more likely to have poor academic performance, repeat grades, and drop out of school before they complete the primary cycle,” she says.

To bridge these kinds of gaps, between 2001 and 2013, the Bank invested more than US$3.3 billion (US$1.9 billion supporting the poorest countries through IDA) in early childhood development activities worldwide, including education, health, and social protection activities, which target pregnant women, young children, and their families.

Early childhood development features prominently within the Bank’s Education Strategy 2020, which sets the goal of Learning for All through three pillars: Invest Early, Invest Smartly, Invest for All. It is also a strong component of the Bank’s health and nutrition, and social protection strategies.  



" I’ve seen a lot of changes in these children. They’re very communicative with their peers, their parents and their teachers.  "

Ilidio Nhatuve

Education Manager, Save the Children, Gaza Province in Mozambique

Community-Managed Model

In Mozambique, Save the Children’s pilot program helps young children in poor communities -- some of them orphaned due to AIDS, many with fathers away working in South African mines -- overcome the developmental gaps often associated with poverty. In addition to the preschools, a parenting component provides information about how to promote hygiene, health, adequate nutrition, and early stimulation for children under age 3.

The program is unique in that it requires community investment in the preschools: parents and community members agree to provide space, labor, and, in some cases, materials to build classrooms, and community committees select local teachers and manage the schools.

Save the Children designed the preschool curriculum and provides ongoing training to teachers. In the first two years of the program, the organization paid teachers a small stipend of $10 per month; the total cost of running the program was $2.47 per child per month. Many communities eventually assumed responsibility for teacher fees and school maintenance themselves, with each household contributing between 0.50 and 0.80 U.S. cents per month.

Some of the preschools have closed in the last year or two due to parents’ inability to pay teachers, but community members say they plan to restart the schools as soon as the government is able to pay the stipends of community teachers as part of the scale-up.

The model remains a success story. An impact evaluation of the pilot program, funded in part by the World Bank-hosted Strategic Impact Evaluation Fund, found that participating children showed a 12% increase over children in a control group in performing tasks related to memory, ability to sort and classify objects, and ability to count to 20.  The preschool children were also likelier to begin primary school at age 6, and their older siblings were likelier to attend school.

The evaluation was key to securing Ministry of Education support for the scale-up, says Ilidio Nhatuve, Education Manager for Save the Children in Gaza Province, and its results match what he sees on visits to preschools.

“I’ve seen a lot of changes in these children,” he says. “They’re very communicative with their peers, their parents and their teachers. They’ve also brought change to primary school dynamics. By the time they reach primary school, they can recognize letters and simple words, and they can count, which brings a different atmosphere. They motivate other children and bring encouragement to teachers.”


Village Lifeline

Preschools have proven to be a lifeline in villages like Mahuntsane, where parents spend their days in the fields, harvesting maize, rice and manioc, often leaving young children unsupervised or in the care of an older sibling.  Few children in low-income countries have an opportunity to attend preschool. Governments may not invest in early childhood development, private schools may be too expensive, and parents may not recognize the benefits. Only 4% of children in Mozambique are currently enrolled in preschool of any kind, and most of these are from wealthier, urban families.

Children who do have access to early education are more likely to see long-term benefits: A 2011 study in The Lancet, for example, found that increasing preschool enrollment to 50% of all children in low- and middle-come countries could result in lifetime earnings gains between $14-$34 billion.

“Policymakers and development experts know that educating children is a key to alleviating poverty,” says Naudeau. “Preschools are an effective way to help children prepare for school and improve the welfare of families of preschool-aged children.  At a cost of less than US$3.00 per child per month in a country like Mozambique, it’s also affordable at scale.”