Mongolia’s challenge: 100% access to pre-primary education

10 October 2020


Katiekk /
A young Mongolian child with goats near his home ger (yurt) in a steppe in northern Mongolia.

Mongolia has a new ten-year education sector plan and one of its goals is to achieve access to pre-primary education for all children. This includes creating safe, healthy, and environmentally sustainable programmes that encourage parental participation and school readiness.

Over the past two decades, pre-primary education has grown immensely, now covering nearly 74% of children aged 3 to 5 years old and receiving over a fifth of the national education budget. The challenge: reaching the remaining 26%, some of whom are part of the country’s traditional herding population.

Mongolia’s nomadic herder families follow the seasons across the mountainous, landlocked central Asian country. While urbanization is rising rapidly, around one-fifth of Mongolians remain a pastoral population on the move. For education, this creates unique challenges – and solutions.

For the youngest herder children, the winters risk being long and isolating. While older children can attend school and stay in dormitories, this is difficult for the youngest. As a result, many herder children do not attend pre-school and nearly half (49%) of all Mongolian Kazakhs are not enrolled in pre-primary education.

“Children need to be prepared for school from the beginning. That is why we would like to see all families bring their children to the kindergarten.”
-Uyanga Sukhbaatar, Secretary-General of UNESCO’s National Commission for Mongolia

“This is a unique contextual challenge for Mongolia,” says Uyanga Sukhbaatar, the Secretary-General for UNESCO’s National Commission for Mongolia. “There are a lot of policies and measures in place to improve the herders’ situation.” These include the mobile ger – a portable round tent – kindergartens that enable herders’ children to socialize, play, and learn during the summer months.

The school calendar is also under review so that herders’ children would not have to miss school to remain at home during the early spring months of March and April when new livestock is born.

Addressing disparities

The low attendance of herder children in early childhood education is in stark contrast to enrollment rates that are above 80% in urban areas. Other marginalized groups – such as rural children (58%), those from the poorest families (34%), and children with special needs – similarly struggle to enroll in pre-primary school. Assessment of early development outcomes also reveals significant gaps, with children in rural public kindergartens lagging behind those in urban areas.

As a result, access to quality pre-primary education is a major part of the country’s new 10-year education sector plan, developed with support from IIEP-UNESCO and other partners. Overall, the plan strives for the “holistic development of Mongolian citizens” who can “live and work in a knowledge-based and digital technology era.” To achieve this, the plan covers all education levels, while making it clear that a good education starts early. “Children need to be prepared for school from the beginning. That is why we would like to see all families bring their children to the kindergarten,” says Secretary-General Sukhbaatar.

In line with this, the number of pre-schools is on the rise, largely due to more private facilities. From 2004 to 2018 the number of kindergartens more than doubled, from 687 establishments to 1,435. In addition, there were 675 ger kindergartens in 2014, according to a 2017 World Bank report on pre-primary education in Mongolia.

IIEP-UNESCO: Supporting the development of Mongolia’s education plan

The education plan includes a monitoring and evaluation plan, which IIEP-UNESCO supported in close collaboration with the UNESCO National Commission for Mongolia, the World Bank, and the Asian Development Bank. It is designed to verify progress towards reaching the sub-sector and programme objectives for early childhood education, and other education levels. Its instruments include a list of policy-level Key Performance Indicators, a detailed results framework defining outcome and output indicators, benchmarks and timelines, and a description of monitoring arrangements within the Ministry of Education, Culture, Science, and Sports. 

“Mongolia’s monitoring and evaluation framework will be an indispensable tool in measuring to what extent policy translates into actual change in Mongolia’s education system,” says IIEP’s Dominique Altner, a senior programme specialist who provided technical support to the plan.

Learning solutions for all

A child experiences the fastest rate of development during the first five years, setting a foundation for better learning and success later in life. Yet, more than 175 million children worldwide are not enrolled in pre-primary education. 

While Mongolia’s sector plan welcomes recent progress, it also highlights the need for additional learning solutions for nomadic lifestyles. For example, the ger kindergartens do not always provide enough learning time for herder children as they are just for a few months of the year. To fill the gaps, the education sector plan recommends that a survey take place to better understand what herder families can access in terms of education. It also suggests improving water and sanitation facilities, developing teacher-training modules, and supplying toys and learning materials that promote child development. 

Quality is another area of concern. Moving forward, the plan proposes that a benchmark indicator is created to frequently assess the growth and development of children in Mongolia. National evaluations could gauge the preparedness of all five-year-olds entering school and research results should apply to curriculum development, learning materials, and teacher training.  

School readiness starts at home 

But, perhaps most important for Mongolia’s herder families is the role of parents in pre-primary education. “While the summer months provide some possibilities for socialization and learning, it is not a year-round, or full-time solution. To help fill this gap, learning must also start at home, especially in the Mongolian context, and parents should play an active role in their child’s development through home-based learning methods,” says Diane Coury, an IIEP-UNESCO expert in early childhood education. 

Mongolia’s education plan further emphasizes this and puts forward a support programme for parents with children under five. This would include a baseline study to assess parental skills, as well as online education and training modules to increase parents’ participation. For Mongolian children who live in remote, rural areas, this will be key to ensuring that they have the best start in life. 

Mongolia’s shifting demographics and what it means for education

Strategies to include rural, herder children in education is a long-standing challenge for Mongolia’s education sector. Increasingly, urbanization is also a top issue as climate change, and other factors, lead many to abandon their rural lifestyles. By 2030, 79 percent of total population will be living in urban areas, creating additional challenges such as over-crowding in urban and peri-urban places and increased remoteness in rural areas. Going forward, education strategies to improve access to quality learning will also need to consider these demographic shifts. 

A graph showing urban and rural demographic changes from the Education Sector Plan.