Getting a place in pre-school is a lottery

A school employee serving pupils hot water during a lunch break at the Metropolitan 5th Elementary School in Mongolia’s capital Ulaanbaatar. The country’s baby boom is pushing its schools to breaking point, with desperate parents of kindergarteners facing
A school employee serving pupils hot water during a lunch break at the Metropolitan 5th Elementary School in Mongolia’s capital Ulaanbaatar. The country’s baby boom is pushing its schools to breaking point, with desperate parents of kindergarteners facing the stark choice of relying on a lottery system or paying for pricey private schools.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
Fed up with having to work in overcrowded classes for low pay, public-school teachers in Ulaanbaatar went on strike recently. Overcrowding also poses health risks, with germs and the flu being passed around easily.
Fed up with having to work in overcrowded classes for low pay, public-school teachers in Ulaanbaatar went on strike recently. Overcrowding also poses health risks, with germs and the flu being passed around easily.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Mongolia's baby boom has led to balloting for toddlers and crammed classes

ULAANBAATAR • Mongolia's baby boom is pushing its schools to breaking point, with desperate parents facing the stark choice of relying on a lottery system or paying for pricey private classes in the capital Ulaanbaatar.

Places in coveted government-funded kindergartens, for children aged two to five, are determined by a ballot.

Those who miss out risk being left out of the early-years education system - unless they can afford a fee-paying option.

Mr Sukhbaatariin Boldbaatar and his wife cannot afford a private nursery for their two-year-old son. He is looking for work, while she cares for their one-month-old infant at home.

"We thought we would win (a place in the online ballot) and we were going to buy his school materials," Mr Boldbaatar said.

"But we got a text message saying he was not selected, and I thought, 'how could they treat a two-year-old based on luck?'"

The city's publicly funded kindergartens have space for just half of the 146,000 children between the ages of two and five who live there, according to the municipal education department.

Experts blame the shortage on bad government policy and poor long-term planning.

  • 49,000

    Number of births in Mongolia a decade ago.

    80,000

    Number of births in Mongolia last year.

    60

    The number of pupils per class in one particular kindergarten.

Most of Mongolia's state-run schools were built in the Soviet era, and relatively few new facilities have been added since the country became democratic in 1990.

Those who do get in face crammed classrooms and overburdened teachers as resources are stretched.

Fed up with having to work in overcrowded classes for low pay, public-school teachers went on strike from Sept 21 to 26.

The 122nd kindergarten of Bayanzurkh has 660 pupils, double its capacity.

"We had to adapt to working with over 60 pupils (per class)," said teacher Tsergiin Bayalag. "This double workload doesn't just affect teachers. The cooks must make twice as much food. I want the government to pay a good enough salary for teachers."

The overcrowding also poses health risks, with germs and the flu being passed around easily, leaving hospitals struggling to attend to a high number of sick children.

Parents with a high enough income no longer even bother with the ballot as the private options offer better learning environments.

Poorer families who do not secure a place in the public system have little choice but to keep their children at home until age six, as kindergarten is not compulsory.

WARNING SIGNS IGNORED

Mongolia's birth rate has soared from 18.4 babies per 1,000 population in 2006 to 25.4 per 1,000 last year, according to the national statistics office.

There were some 49,000 births a decade ago, compared with around 80,000 last year.

A possible explanation is that a generation from a previous baby boom in the 1980s has reached reproductive age.

In the capital, where half of the country's population live, migration of jobless herders from rural areas has added to the problem.

Mr Batkhuyagiin Batjargal, executive director of the Mongolian Education Alliance non-governmental organisation, said the crisis is the result of bad public policy: "There were enough warning signs, but not enough measures taken."

Birth rates soared in the Year of the Golden Pig in 2007, as Mongolians believe that year brings wealth, but little was done in anticipation of the extra demands on resources as those babies grew up.

The government is building schools in the slum districts of Ulaanbaatar but the country's debt problems have limited spending.

Secondary schools are also packed but there is no lottery to enrol as the Constitution guarantees free education to all children from the age of six.

Teacher Lkhagvasurengiin Oyunchimeg, who has 44 students in her class at School Number 65, cannot find empty classrooms to give extra classes to children who lag behind.

"Sometimes we work with those kids in the corridors," she said, "but the corridor is not a proper study area and they get easily distracted."

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 02, 2017, with the headline 'Getting a place in pre-school is a lottery'. Print Edition | Subscribe