Dr. Ghassan KHALIL: "Government, private sector and civil society should join efforts to prioritize children"

14.11.2022 (Caucasian Journal) Our today’s guest is Dr. Ghassan KHALIL, the Representative of UNICEF (United Nations Children's Fund) in Georgia.

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  Read the Georgian version here.

Alexander KAFFKA, editor-in-chief of CJ: Dear Dr. Khalil, welcome to Caucasian Journal. You were appointed UNICEF Representative in Georgia in autumn 2018, so it’s exactly four years that you have been working in this country, correct? Let me start with a straightforward question – has the situation in Georgia improved during recent years in the areas that are monitored by UNICEF?

Ghassan KHALIL:  Thank you very much, Mr. Kaffka, for giving me the opportunity of talking about UNICEF’s interventions in Georgia. The four years have been extremely interesting and very challenging especially during the Covid-19 pandemic. I can proudly say that the UNICEF team has contributed a lot during these four years and since the establishment of the UNICEF Office in Georgia in 1993. But worth mentioning is the expansion that UNICEF team implemented in the last couple of years, thematically and geographically in various regions and areas of Georgia. 

AK:  With a doctorate diploma from Sorbonne, and many years in protection of child rights, I believe you are one of top professionals in your field working in this country today. Can you tell little bit about yourself, and how did you get to Georgia?

GK: First time Georgia came to my professional attention was in 2002, when a UNICEF senior colleague was appointed a Representative in Georgia. I noticed how happy he was, and I kept beautiful thoughts about Georgia in my mind since that time. In 2018 I underwent the selection process, got appointed to this position and have been very busy since then in delivering along with the wonderful UNICEF Georgia team tangible results for children, young people and their families. 

Can you share one or several brightest or most emotional experienced that you had in Georgia? Perhaps the ones which were eye-opening, funny, or sad… 

GK: Since the start of COVID-19 Pandemic we have been travelling a lot and meeting families and children throughout Georgia to learn firsthand about the challenges they faced. Meeting with people, talking to them and learning about their concerns is crucial for us to understand how the work we do impacts people on the ground, what kind of changes we make in the lives of these people. In the village of Nikozi during the pandemic we met a family where four children had to share a cell phone to participate in online lessons.

In Khulo region of Adjara I met 4-year-old Ademi, a smart and energetic boy with disabilities who goes to the kindergarten in his village. The kindergarten is now inclusive, and UNICEF in partnership with the government of Norway equipped educators with knowledge and skills to support children like Ademi in receiving education and support they need to fully realize their potential. I was so glad to see Ademi fully integrated in pre-school education, and teacher told me that they observed a lot of changes in Ademi’s development. He became more open, communicable and active.

In Akhaltsikhe I met Barbare, a mother of eight children, who was a winner of the essay contest on child rights organized as part of the Batumi International Conference on Child Rights. I visited Barbare and her children personally to congratulate her and hand over a prize for her great work.

So, there are many such stories, and it is so rewarding to see how our efforts result in changing the lives of children and families in Georgia.

A modern education should build... skills in problem-solving, creativity and critical-thinking that young people need for work, to start a business and to engage productively in their communities.

AK:  I am sure you will agree that education – starting from pre-school and upwards – is rather burning issue in our country. We do our best to cover the problems of education, and some time ago Caucasian Journal published the alarming data on Georgia’s position in the PISA Worldwide Rankings (see here). How is UNICEF assisting Georgia  in the field of education?

GK: The world is facing a learning crisis. Millions of children and young people worldwide are not developing the skills they need to break out of poverty. Covid-19 pandemic school closures and disruptions have deepened the crisis, sharply increasing learning poverty and exacerbating the inequalities in education. Over 50,000 children in Georgia are on the wrong side of the digital divide, limiting access to the same opportunities as their connected peers. The cost of inaction will be high. We urgently need to re-imagine education. A modern education should build and accredit basic skills – reading, writing and math – as well as skills in problem-solving, creativity and critical-thinking that young people need for work, to start a business and to engage productively in their communities. The availability and potential of technology means that digital learning should be part of a basic basket of essential services for every child and young person.

Yes, you are right. Georgian students’ performance is still among the lowest for OECD countries. Though 15-year-old students in Georgia improved their learning in reading, mathematics and science over a decade, Georgia’s progress has not been equitable across all population groups. Urban students outperform rural ones; socio-economically advantaged students outperform their disadvantaged peers; and students who speak Georgian at home outperform those who do not. UNICEF is working with our partners to support the government of Georgia in quality education reforms through a strengthened teaching workforce and enhanced educational innovations using digital technologies.

 Georgian students’ performance is still among the lowest for OECD countries.

In partnership with the government of Estonia, UNICEF has been supporting the Ministry of Education and Science of Georgia to build a highly skilled national teaching workforce, as well as to improve the quality of learning for children. The main components of the partnership included the revision and improvement of the National Curriculum, based on the Estonian model of teaching and learning methods, and the establishment of university training courses for Georgian educators. 

The National Curriculums for Grades 1-12 were revised with the support of Estonian educational experts in line with international and Estonian best practices, with the school system subsequently witnessing the introduction of new technology and innovative learning approaches.

Along with the revision of the National Curriculum, teachers from 20 schools across the country went through training and studied innovative learning approaches. This included study visits of Georgian education practitioners to Estonia to observe and learn from the Estonian model first-hand. The programme continues and now includes 100 more public schools throughout Georgia, including remote and mountainous areas, and is focused on sharing the Estonian experience in distance teaching to contribute to the professional development of the educators. Elementary school teachers have been trained in competency-based teaching and learning methodology. Administrations of these schools, and representatives of local Education Resource Centers, have been trained in educational environments and school management.    

The use of technology in the classroom has changed the way lessons are run in the twenty pilot schools of the programme, but this also factors into the transformative process of Georgia’s educational system – student engagement and happiness. Innovative teaching and learning resources have been developed, including teacher’s guidebooks and student’s textbooks. Digitalization improves access of children and teachers to quality learning materials. Special attention was paid to building the capacity of teachers in the use of innovative approaches. 

Fully-fledged BA and MA programmes were designed and introduced in eight Georgian state universities for pre-service training of prospective teachers to support their successful entry into the profession.

 The children who have dropped out or are at risk of not being in school include children with disabilities, children living in the streets, children from ethnic minority groups, children in public care, orphaned children, internally displaced persons, stateless children, refugees, and children from remote areas.

AK: I know that some European countries are joining forces with UNICEF in supporting the education sector in Georgia. Can you share some detail and future perspectives of this cooperation?

GK: We are grateful to our partners - governments of Estonia, Norway, Bulgaria and Poland - for their tremendous support in enhancing quality and inclusive pre-school and general education of Georgia. With their support we work to ensure that every child in Georgia has access to quality education which is essential for his/her future success and wellbeing. I mentioned above the partnership with the Estonian Government in this regard. 

In Georgia, 11% of upper secondary school age children are out of school. A large number of students drop out of school after grade 9. This is a concern for Georgia because the vocational education sector is underdeveloped, so students who drop out do not have the opportunity to develop important competencies, and enter the labour market without formal qualifications. The children who have dropped out, or are at high risk of not being in school include children with disabilities, children living and working on the streets, children from ethnic minority groups, children in public care, orphaned children, internally displaced persons, stateless children, refugees, and children from remote areas.

UNICEF with the financial support from the Bulgarian government supports the Ministry of Education and Science of Georgia in developing a systematic approach to addressing the challenges faced by out of school children and children at risk of dropping-out of school. We had an amazing story of 13 year old Kristine who was out of school, and with the support of UNICEF the teachers managed to support Kristine to return back to school and to catch up.
The Ministry of Education and Science with the support of UNICEF and the Norwegian government are implementing the initiative to strengthen the inclusiveness of the national education system. The programme focuses on children between 3 – 18 years of age, with a specific emphasis on children with disabilities, national minorities, and marginalized children, including those who are currently not attending school and are at risk of dropping out. In particular, effective teacher learning programmes and supportive teaching and learning resources have been developed; training of resource school leaders, teachers, representatives of educational resource centres and local government members have been conducted; partner schools have provided children with after school programmes for learning, recreation, and supervised leisure; pre and in-service teacher training programmes in universities and in the Teacher Professional Development Centre have been strengthened to provide new teachers with adequate knowledge and skills; and stigma and harmful social norms against children with special educational needs and disabilities are being addressed.

With the support of the government of Norway, eight Child Rights Centres were established in seven state universities to serve as a resource hub and spread knowledge about child rights among different professionals, educators, academia, civil society organizations, parents and children. The Centers support future and current education specialists, parents and communities to better understand child rights. The Centres organize various activities like trainings, open lectures and discussions and develop specific education materials on child rights. 
AK: Though foreign assistance is very important, the education is always the primary responsibility of the national authorities.  The recently published World Bank’s “Georgia Human Capital Review” is also quoting the above-mentioned PISA rating, lamenting that 65% of the Georgia’s 15-year-old students are functionally illiterate, “meaning that they cannot correctly process and understand a simple text” (full text is here). Do you agree with this evaluation? 

GK: We also refer to these data while developing our programmatic interventions. National assessment data are limited in Georgia, but results from international surveys can be used to analyses student outcomes in Georgia. It is critical that Georgia develop educational evaluation and assessment systems that can detect areas of low and inequitable performance and address them before they become entrenched. In particular, student assessment can more accurately identify student achievement, teachers can be trained to give students better support, schools can be given more oversight to help them succeed, and the system as a whole can develop the research capacity and data tools needed to facilitate improved learning for all students in the country.

AK: From your standpoint, what are the factors which have led to this situation, and what must be done? For example, if you were a chief decision-maker in the education sector, what would be the first decree you would sign? 

GK: Developing students who are ready to compete in 21st century economies requires teachers who are knowledgeable, skilled and motivated to continue improving. Teachers in Georgia participate in professional development much less than teachers across OECD countries. Without continuous training, teachers are not introduced to the latest evidence-based instructional practices that are proven to help students learn. Many teachers instruct students in a traditional manner that emphasises the memorisation of facts instead of the acquisition of skills and competencies. Students in Georgia then struggle to develop the competencies that they need to succeed in higher education and the labour market. 

As per the recommendations of OECD, minimum standards for teachers should be set and enforced to ensure that all teachers have the basic skills needed to help students learn. The teacher professional development scheme should be revised to motivate teachers to develop in ways that helps students learn. Finally, older teachers should be supported to transition out of their positions, thus opening space for young, talented teachers to renew the profession.

 We do hope that by the end of the year we have a specific model of school nutrition for Georgian schools.

Another area I would like to highlight is introduction of school nutrition programme. Adequate nutrition is vital for students’ physical, mental, social, emotional, language and cognitive health and development, particularly in the early years.  Adverse effects of nutrition problems in the early years extend into adulthood, impacting on wellbeing, mental health, physical development, literacy and numeracy proficiency and economic participation across the life course.
Experts and policy makers also agree that having access to healthy food while being at school can enable children to develop healthy eating habits and at least partially compensate for disparities in socio-economic conditions of households.

We are supporting the Ministry of Education and Science in taking concrete steps to introduce of the School Nutrition Programme for students in Georgian schools. The National Center for Education Quality Development of the Ministry of Education and Science of Georgia and the National Center for Professional Development of Teachers, alongside with UNICEF, are working together to analyze the world practices of School Nutrition Programmes, to conduct a situational analysis and to assess the current situation in order to identify local infrastructural and logistical needs. The work also includes development of possible school nutrition models and quality standards, legislative/regulatory frameworks, and healthy nutrition curriculum. We do hope that by the end of the year we have a specific model of school nutrition for Georgian schools.

AK:  Besides the education, what are the other important sectors that you would like to mention? I know that UNICEF in Georgia has pioneered in highlighting some extremely important problems – such as overloaded, underfinanced, and understaffed kindergartens… Or the unexpected taboos in the relations between teenagers and their parents…

 Georgia faces... low levels of preschool participation among disadvantaged children, a lack of preschool teachers who are trained in modern, child-centered approaches, and limited investment in preschool education.

GK: Pre-school education is a very important phase of children’s development and education, so it should be considered as part of education. As well as preparing children for primary education, good quality preschools help children navigate social relationships and find their place in the world. With the right resources – human and financial – a good preschool improves school readiness and thereby heightens a child’s chances of reaching their full potential. Investments in early childhood education enhance the health, well-being, learning and protection of young children, but the benefits go far beyond the individual child to include economic growth, sustainable development and equal opportunities for all citizens. Investing in Early Child Development is one of the most cost-effective strategies to increase a nation’s human capital, to reduce poverty, and overcome inequities.

Georgia faces challenges in terms of access and quality of pre-school education, including relatively low levels of preschool participation among disadvantaged children, a lack of preschool teachers who are trained in modern, child-centered approaches, and limited investment in preschool education.
The Law on Early and Preschool Education and Care adopted by the Parliament of Georgia in June 2016 – developed with UNICEF’s technical support – includes innovations to improve quality, access and equity in early childhood education and care. One key innovation has been the introduction of mandatory national standards for all public and private preschool institutions such as standards for teacher qualification, education process, sanitation, hygiene and nutrition. Every kindergarten must meet these new mandatory standards if it is to be authorized.

UNICEF has supported the Ministry of Education and Science in developing training modules, guidelines and visual resources to help preschool teachers put these standards into practice. Many preschool teachers do not have a relevant academic background, or may have been educated many years ago, when approaches to early childhood education and development were very different. We aim to help them catch up with the latest thinking and methods, which emphasize child-friendly, play-centred and culturally responsive techniques. UNICEF also intensified our partnerships with Georgian universities to develop and introduce the Bachelor degree programmes to better train and equip future preschool teachers and managers.

We also work with municipalities to strengthen their capacity to implement the new standards, examine alternative models of service delivery to better reach all children as well as retraining and continuous professional development for all preschool personnel.

AK:  We have touched upon the cooperation fields in connection to UNICEF. But maybe there are important issues outside the current UNICEF Georgia agenda, which you would like to draw attention to, speaking as an expert? Perhaps they might find a place in the tomorrow’s cooperation agenda? 

GK: UNICEF has been the main supporter of the Juvenile Justice and Child Care systems reform in Georgia. The results produced within both reforms are remarkable. 

UNICEF supported the development and adoption of the major legal documents ensuring wellbeing of children and their families. In 2015 Georgia adopted the Juvenile Justice Code which introduced child-friendly approach for children in the criminal justice system. Later, in 2019 the Code on the rights of the Child was adopted – a comprehensive legal act covering all rights and freedoms of children and their implementation and protection mechanisms. UNICEF has been supporting the implementation of both codes through bringing relevant laws in compliance with the requirements of the Code, strengthening existing and creating of new mechanisms, increasing the specialization of professionals, developing relevant methodology, tools and quality assurance mechanisms. 

UNICEF with the support of the European Union continues strengthening systems and services for child protection in Georgia. The three-year project aims to strengthen legislation, policies and guidance to support the de-institutionalization process; and enhance the capacity of the professional workforce at central and municipal levels to support and protect children and families in Georgia. 

The Code on the Rights of the Child mandates the State to carry out all necessary legislative and administrative measures which involve the gradual substitution of the residential care of children, including children with disabilities, by foster care and other family and community-based services. For the purpose of deinstitutionalization, the Government of Georgia shall develop and implement a single national strategy and an action plan to ensure that large residential care facilities are gradually closed. 

It is essential that the safety, well-being, and development of any child placed in state care be thoroughly supervised by specialists, and that regular review of the appropriateness of the care arrangement is provided. The Code on the Rights of the Child puts an emphasis on the importance of family support services at the central as well as municipal levels. Strong family support services are required to ensure a family environment for every child, and to avoid the separation of a child from a family. Social welfare staff at central and municipal levels are key to providing quality social services.

Where the preventive and family support services do not prevail, the quality of the alternative care for children should adhere to international and local standards of childcare. The State’s monitoring and support capacity for the alternative care services should be strengthened in line with the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Code on the Rights of the Child, Guidelines for Alternative Care of Children, and other international and local childcare standards.

We need to consider the children’s best interests in this process and understand what is the best solution for a particular child. We carried out assessment of children in institutions and created a model to support the transition to family-based care. It is essential that as large institutions close down, community-based and family support services are introduced to guarantee further support for children leaving institutional care, and that their families and professionals are working with them. 

UNICEF supports the development of social work services through identifying needed interventions  and developing methodologies and tools, capacity building of social workers and other professionals. Social workers are equipped with relevant knowledge and methodology to better identify the risks of suicide as well as the risks of sexual abuse of children in a timely manner and to prevent it. 

UNICEF with the support of Estonian government and in cooperation with the State Care Agency and other partners, supported the establishment of the integrated service for child victims of sexual abuse - the service which offers all kind of investigation activities and rehabilitation programmes in one, child-friendly and safe space.  

UNICEF continues supporting the justice system reform for children though further strengthening diversion and mediation programme for children in conflict with the law, multidisciplinary mechanisms for the implementation of the Juvenile Justice Code, specialization of professionals and support mechanisms for children below the minimum age of criminal responsibility. 

AK:  If there is anything that you would like to add for our readers, the floor is yours.

GK: I would like to once again highlight the importance of investing in children and positioning child rights high on the government’s agenda. Make greater investments in young children to see greater returns in education, health and productivity and ultimately economic growth. So, all layers of the society including the government, private sector and civil society should join their efforts to prioritize children and to give them the best start in life if they want to have a better country. 

AK: Thank you very much!

Read the Georgian language version here

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