Eight years ago, Save the Children US, in partnership with local organisations, started the first of its community-based Early Child Development (ECD) centre in Siraha.
By 2000, nearly 300 graduates went directly into class one in local government schools. Eighty-six entered a pre-primary class, 16 jumped immediately to class two and one started in class three.
A survey showed the children were excelling and passed from class one to class two at double the rate of their peers. But do they continue to do well? International research shows children who attend early childhood program tend to 'fade out' and after the first few years, the academic gap between these children and others tends to close.
But in Siraha there has been no fade out for children from ECD centres. By 2004, 80 percent of the 2,000 cohorts were moving through school with no failure or repetition. Projecting these results, the children look more than twice as likely to complete primary school within five years as the average Nepali student.
Even more important is that the children stay in school, even if they fail a year. Over four years, only 14 of the cohort of 291 have dropped out of school, about one-tenth of the national annual dropout rate. The most recent primary school completion rate for Nepal (2003) indicates that only half the enrolled students nationally ever complete grade five-including all those who repeat along the way. If repetitions are included, we project that over 90 percent of the ECD children will complete grade five.
The number of centres in Siraha continues to expand. SCF-US with the DEO and nine local voluntary groups support 234 of these community-based centres, benefiting over 5,300 children aged four and five-about 12 percent of all eligible children. In order to meet the demand, a shift system has been initiated in some centres, so that twice as many children can be served without increasing management costs.
Over 2,700 children, not yet counting the current year, have successfully completed the program, and every year, all graduates have entered school. The centres become self-sustaining within five years with some support from the local district education office.
These ECD centres make a vital contribution to addressing social exclusion in Nepal. Nationwide, girls still lag behind boys in enrolment and they are more likely to drop out of school. But girls attend these centres and then go on to school in the same numbers as boys.
More than a quarter of all those currently enrolled in Siraha are dalits, although they make up only 17 percent of the population there. Strong community-based and community-managed early childhood programs are the most effective (and the most cost-effective) way to raise enrolment, promoting caste and gender equity, preventing dropout and ensuring school success.