Every morning in the former Soviet republic of Uzbekistan, a fleet of bright yellow school buses heads out to playgrounds in remote communities—not to deliver children to school, but to bring school to them. The buses are mobile classrooms in places where regular preschools and kindergartens don’t exist.
Five years ago, just one in four children in the country went to preschool; in rural areas, only one in ten children had access to a preschool. Other toddlers had to walk long distances to reach schools. Many preschools had been shut down after the collapse of the Soviet Union, while others were privatized. The government realized that school buses could provide new access immediately—and just years after the program started in 2017, preschool enrollment has jumped from 27% to 67%. More than 6,200 children now attend school on the buses.
“While the government gradually builds public preschools across the country, we have to think of those children who will not be able to have a proper kindergarten anytime soon in their area,” says Shaknoza Mirziyoeva, adviser to the preschool education ministry in Uzbekistan. “We do not want to leave them behind, because our aim is to provide equal starting opportunities for every child. Also, as of last year, buses were over 80% more economically efficient if compared to building a conventional kindergarten.”
The buses are equipped with solar panels and tiny bathrooms so they can run off the grid. “The majority of remote areas do not have the necessary infrastructure in place, meaning that even if we build a small kindergarten, it will have problems with water and the electricity supply as well as sewerage,” Mirziyoeva says. The solar panels power basic equipment on board, including air-conditioning and a microwave oven.
In the morning, each of the 65 buses in the fleet drive to locations where children otherwise couldn’t access preschool easily, pulling up to a playground built at a location chosen to serve the most students. As many as three groups of children under age 6, with 16 kids at a time, can attend three hours of play-based learning on the bus. The next day, the bus goes to a second location in the community; preschoolers in each location attend school every other day.
It’s a model that could potentially be used in other countries. Nearly half of preschool-age children around the world don’t attend school, according to UNICEF data; in low-income countries, only one in five attend preschool, often because there isn’t a school nearby.