17 February 2015

Breaking down barriers: Making education accessible for all

Ankhbayar writes on the board at the non-formal education center ©UNICEF/2015/Zetty Brake

On a cold, Mongolian winter’s day, Aduuch and Gantsetseg bring their two youngest children Ankhbayar, 8, and Sarangoo, 7, to school in Naliakh, 36 kilometers east of the country’s capital city Ulaanbaatar. Ankhbayar is dropped off at the Non-Formal and Life-Long Education Center of Nalaikh District (non-formal education center), while his younger sister attends the primary school in the same grounds.

“I love going to school,” Ankhbayar exclaims. “I like to write and learn things. All my classmates and my teacher like me”. When he grows up Ankhbayar wants to become a music teacher.

Ankhbayar was born premature, weighing less than a kilogram at birth. He is a bright, outgoing boy, but because of his physical disability uses a wheelchair. The family walks 45 minutes to reach the non-formal education center, as they don’t own a car and there is no public transport between their ger and the center.

There are closer schools to the family’s ger, a traditional Mongolian home, but none of them would accept Ankhbayar, saying his disability is too severe. It was a similar story when they tried to enroll Ankhbayar in kindergarten. “When we approached some kindergartens they said that they couldn’t accept him because he needed lots of care,” his mother Gantsetseg says. “We even reached out to the kindergarten for children with disabilities, but they would not take him because he was in a wheelchair. They only wanted to take children with disabilities who could walk”.

Until they learnt of the non-formal education center where Ankhbayar now attends, the family’s only options were to send him to a boarding school for children with disabilities in Ulaanbaatar, where they would only see him on weekends, or to keep him at home.

Gantsetseg explains that they only learnt of the center in early September last year. “I didn’t think there was a school here in Nalaikh that accepted children with disabilities, but when Narantuya (Ankhbayar’s teacher who has been working at the center for five years) visited us at home, made us aware of the center and encouraged us to send Ankhbayar there”.

The visit was part of the center’s regular outreach work targeting vulnerable children, such as children from ethnic minority and poor families and children with disabilities, who are not attending school. During these visits, staff talk to parents and guardians about why the children are not going to school and look at education options, often through non-formal education centers, where there is greater support for each child, and less discrimination.

After the home visit, Aduuch, Gantsetseg and Ankhbayar visited the non-formal education center. Aduuch said the family was surprised at how accessible the center was. “I thought that I would have to carry him into the center because not many buildings are wheelchair friendly in Nalaikh,” he explains. “But that wasn’t the case, there was a ramp and the center has a bathroom facility for him”.

Renovations and upgrades

Ankhbayar and his teacher Narantuya ©UNICEF/2015/Zetty Brake
Until recently the center would not have been able to accept Ankhbayar either. During the summer break in 2014, the center was renovated to upgrade the facilities and repair damage to the building. A new indoor bathroom, with a toilet for children with disabilities, and running hot and cold water was installed. In addition to the renovations, sporting equipment, desks and chairs for students and extra furniture was purchased. UNICEF Mongolia provided the funding for the upgrades.

Narantuya says the students are responding to the renovations well and they are able to increase the number of children with disabilities attending the center.

“Before around a quarter of students at the center were children with disabilities, but now that we have new facilities that cater for them, we have seen that number increase to nearly 40 per cent,” Narantuya says.

And the center is not only helping children with disabilities, according to Narantuya. “The center is a home away from home for many children,” she says. “Often it is the only place for them to socialize with other children. Some don’t have heating at home, so it is cold, whereas the center is warm. Many children stay late after class, attending art, music and sports clubs, doing their homework and using the facilities, till we tell them they have to leave”.

More needs to be done

Ankhbayar with his parents, Gantsetseg and Aduuch ©UNICEF/2015/Zetty Brake
UNICEF Education Specialist Bolorchimeg Bor says many of the children who are attending these centers have left the mainstream education system because they were not getting the attention or support they needed, or because of discrimination from other students. “Others have never attended school before, so they are much older than their classmates, making it hard for them to fit in and thrive within that learning environment,” she says. “The non-formal education system is providing children who have dropped out or never started school, a second chance at education.”

“While these centers are providing a vital service to some of Mongolia’s most disadvantaged and in need children, they do not receive the same level of funding as mainstream schools and are often in need of learning materials, repair and upgrades,” Bolorchimeg explains. “This can lead to barriers which stop children accessing education opportunities. Upgrades like the ones at the non-formal education center are a step forward because the improved accessibility makes it possible for children with disabilities to get an education. But much, much more is needed”.

For Ankhbayar the center has provided an opportunity that he would not have otherwise had, to go to school and live at home with his family. His mother, Gantsetseg, is very appreciative of the center and the impact it has had on her son. “The center is a brilliant place, and please say thank you to whoever made this possible.”

Zetty Brake, Communications and External Relations Officer, UNICEF Mongolia

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