Lack of pre-schools means Morocco's children are at a disadvantage from the start

Schools teach in classical Arabic but Moroccans speak Darija dialect, meaning children have to start learning in what is essentially a foreign language to them

Moroccan children wait in line to attend a kindergarten class, in Sidi Moumen, a low-income suburb of Casablanca.

In a bright, modern classroom in Casablanca, 24 children aged between four and six are seated on small chairs, learning how to count.

It may look like it but these children are not at school. They are taking part in a programme run by Oum El Ghait, an NGO that offers pre-school education for 50 Moroccan dirhams (Dh20) a month in the city's Sidi-Moumen district, one of the most disadvantaged areas of Morocco.

"Our model is to work with public institutions that give us some rooms in the public school. We equip the rooms and employ trained educators," says Amal Kadiri Berrada. She founded the Oum El Ghait programme in 2013 because she firmly believes that education can lift children out of poverty and the need was particularly great in Sidi Moumen. The funding comes from public and private institutions and the fees, which are half the cost of even the least expensive facilities.

The programme runs 50 such classes every week in Sidi-Moumen, from 8.30am to 4.30pm (with a break for lunch), Monday to Friday, teaching children the alphabet and the basics of reading as well as socialising them through games and play - filling the yawning gap between what the country needs and what the state provides.

Pre-school is particularly important in Morocco, where a third of the population is illiterate. Education is compulsory from the ages of six to 14 and teaching is in classical Arabic, or fusa. But the everyday language of Morocco is the Darija dialect or a local language such as Amazigh, meaning children are beginning their education in what is essentially a foreign language for them. Pre-school for four to six-year-olds is considered essential as a bridge between home and classroom, to prepare children for formal education.

But despite constant demands, Morocco has no state pre-school system. Those who can afford it pay for private pre-schools. Others must hope for a place in a pre-school run by religious or community groups or an NGO.

In the September 2015 to June 2016 school year, only 43 per cent of Moroccan children aged four and five were enrolled in pre-school education, according to figures from the World Bank. In rural areas, the number falls to 28 per cent. Both figures are far short of the Unicef target to guarantee access to pre-school education for all children by 2030.

Another problem is the lack of standardisation and regulation within the private sector, said Amine Mejjari, director of pedagogy at La Nouvelle Espérance, a private pre-school in Casablanca.

"The purpose of pre-school is to bridge the gap between the 'maternal world' of home and school. Today we have pre-schools but each one has its own schedule or it is oversubscribed, not to mention those which focus more on making money than on education," she said.

Nursery or pre-school?

Of those children who do enter education before the age of six in Morocco, 60 per cent of them go to a  kouttab, a more informal type of pre-school known  often run from someone's home. Though they in theory provide a basic grounding in literacy and numeracy, along with Islamic principles, they are in fact more like nursery or playschool.They are often overcrowded with as many as 90 children at a time, but with little or no equipment and with questionable sanitation - and they charge Dh40 a month per child.

In one such "school" in Sidi-Moumen, 33 children are crammed into one small room with little to do. Said Lâamime has run a kouttab since 2015 and charges Dh40 a month, although he says that he also takes children whose parents cannot afford the fees. He offers little in the way of learning besides singing and drawing but says he keeps the children safe. He says many have "personal and family" problems and hints at poverty and domestic violence.

Out on the street below, Abdelaziz, 44, waits to collect his four-year-old daughter. “This is the only (pre-) school I can afford," he says. "It is the cheapest option."

'Weakest link'

Rita El Kadiri, general director of the Zakoura Foundation, an NGO that runs pre-schools in mostly rural areas of Morocco, says 1,200 villages in the country lack any pre-school facility. "Pre-school education is the weakest link of the Moroccan education system," she said.

In response, Oujour  Hssain, director of informal education at the Ministry of Education, told The National, "Morocco is looking for a model of pre-school education for the long term, which the state could finance. But first we have to make sure that the primary school system is ready to integrate the pre-schools." 
Morocco spends 26 per cent of its total budget on education and training, and plans to establish pre-school education before 2010 under its Vision 2015-2030 programme, Mr Hssain said. However, a previous plan — the National Charter for Education and Training, published in 2000 — promised pre-school education for all by 2004 but has not delivered it.  And the director also admits that he personally disagrees with pre-schools. Children should be learning  at home with their parents until they are six, he says.