A better start for children in Tonga

December 28, 2015

  • Early childhood experiences can have enormous impacts on children’s educational outcomes and their future.
  • Communities can play an important role in helping children be school-ready.
  • A World Bank project is supporting communities to organize play-based activities so children are better prepared for school, while helping teachers improve the learning outcomes of their students in the first grades of primary education.

Nuku'alofa, Tonga – At least once a week, Fakamalinga Tonga takes her four-year old son, Falefehi, to play-based activities organized by her community. These play groups have only been running for less than a year, but Fakamalinga sees them as integral to her son’s development.

“I come to the play-based activities with Falafehi because I think early childhood experiences are good for the children. Here, they learn their letters, their numbers, the shapes and the colors,” said Fakamalinga.

While groups like these are certainly fun for children like Falefehi, they are a lot more than just play dates. They are also about giving parents and the community the opportunity to help prepare children for school. The groups use activities such as nature walks, reading, and sensory and messy play, to help children build confidence, social skills and their vocabulary, while also providing a comfortable environment for parents to learn new ways to support their child’s development.

These community-run groups are delivered through the Pacific Early Age Readiness and Learning project (PEARL), which is funded by the Global Partnership for Education and implemented by the World Bank. PEARL has two key goals: to support children to develop key skills that will be useful at school, and to help more children learn to read and write well in their first years of primary school, which has knock-on effects throughout their education.


Getting kids, families and communities school-ready

Early childhood development is about having an all-inclusive approach from the time the baby is conceived to the early years of their life. From birth to age 5, young children develop the foundations for language, thought and learning processes, as well as movement and coordination.

They also gain important social and emotional skills by interacting with adults and other children in non-familiar settings. These experiences are fundamental for personal development and learning throughout their lifetime, particularly in a region as community-minded as the Pacific.

“We see a big difference in the children who have had some early childhood [education] experience, whether that is formally through a school-based program or informally through parents,” said Nadia Fifita, Director at Ocean of Light International School, in the Tongan capital, Nuku’alofa.

Community-organized play-based activities, supported through PEARL, are now being piloted across Tonga with low-cost, sustainable options to test the effectiveness of this approach.

" We see a big difference in the children who have had some early childhood [education] experience, whether that is formally through a school-based program or informally through parents "

Nadia Fifita

Director at Ocean of Light International School

Working with teachers to help every child become a reader

“We believe reading is basic to any improvement in education,” says Emeli Pouvalu, former Chief Executive Officer of the Ministry of Education and Training.

Learning to read and write well in the early grades of primary education is essential. Yet in 2009 the Tongan Government conducted an Early Grade Reading Assessment survey and found that only three out of 10 Grade 3 students were able to understand most of the text they read.

With this in mind, the PEARL project is also helping to strengthen Tongan teachers’ knowledge of how children learn to read, providing teacher training in best-practice techniques to help children become independent readers.

PEARL is now also piloting new teaching methods in selected schools across Grades 1 and 2. Teachers are given more knowledge about how they can teach reading, fluency and comprehension in the Tongan language, while classroom assessments help teachers determine if students have learned the concepts taught and decide if the pace of teaching needs to be changed. Additional practice and homework means parents and the community will also play an integral role in improving children’s reading outside of school.

With programs before and during the first years of schooling, PEARL takes a continuous approach to a child’s development; helping children be better prepared to start school and to make the most of their early years of education. 


Working across the Pacific region

PEARL is not just strengthening learning approaches in Tonga. The project is also helping Pacific Island countries improve policy and programming around school readiness and early grade literacy in Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Tuvalu and Vanuatu, where the World Bank and other partners are supporting each country’s Ministry of Education to produce ‘roadmaps’. These ‘roadmaps,’ combined with greater information exchange amongst Pacific nations, aim to build stronger policies and programs that, in turn, will build even stronger education outcomes for children in the region.

For parents like Fakamalinga Tonga, this provides her with confidence knowing her son Falefehi is learning in an ever-stronger education system, and for Falefehi, it means his future dreams – whether they are to become an astronaut, a farmer, a Prime Minister or a teacher – are even more likely to come true.


Funded by the Australian aid program and the Global Partnership for Education, with technical assistance from the World Bank the Pacific Early Age Readiness and Learning (PEARL) Program is a four-year (2013–2017), US$8.5m regional program helping children, together with their parents and the community, better prepare for school and supporting teachers to improve reading levels in the early grades of primary school.