The first chapter in NCERT’s grade one Hindi textbooks expects children to write small words and names. It assumes that children already have alphabet knowledge. Similarly for mathematics, the curriculum assumes that children have number knowledge, when they enter grade one. But most children enter grade one with almost no pre-schooling and here lies the learning gap, which is reflected every year in Pratham’s ASER survey. Around 50% of grade 5 children, can’t even read 2nd grade text. Government is trying to pump in resources and frame regulations though RTE to build strong elementary education in India but an almost nonexistent pre-schooling in the Indian schooling system is responsible for a very weak foundation for its elementary education.
Is early childhood education important for child?
Research shows that the period between 3 and 6 years of age, is the ‘critical period’ for complete development of a child’s brain. The formation of later attitudes and values as well as the desire to learn are also influenced at this stage. Therefore, lack of adequate support or neglect at this stage can lead to negative consequences, which are sometimes irreversible in nature. Early Childhood Education (ECE) requires that young children be provided opportunities and experiences that lead to their all-round development — physical, mental, social, emotional and school readiness. Alongside health and nutrition, learning is equally important. Learning at early stage must be directed by the child’s interests and priorities, and should be contextualized by her experiences rather than being structured formally.
Even the charter of Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) describes the pre schooling education (PSE) as a significant input for providing sound foundation for a child’s development but also as a contributing role in the universalization of primary education, by providing to a child the necessary preparation for primary schooling. Furthermore, it offers substitute care to the younger siblings, thus freeing the older ones – especially girls to attend school. And a projected 1billion USD market inIndiafor pre schooling market by 2012 underpins the demand and importance of early children education.
Current Constitutional provision for early childhood education
There are several provisions in the Constitution of India either under the Fundamental Rights or the Directive Principles of State Policy that have been invoked to promote quality ECE services in the country. Initially, the Indian Constitution committed to the provision of ‘free and compulsory education for children up to fourteen years of age’. In the absence of lower age limit, early childhood education services were considered as part of the Constitutional commitment. However, the subsequent Eighty – Sixth Amendment to the Constitution in 2001 divided the span of 0-14 years into two clear categories to cover their interests under separate Articles in the Constitution. Article 21A has been introduced, which makes elementary education for 6-14 years old children a Fundamental Right. With a great deal of effort from several professional organizations and civil society, ECCE has been included as a Constitutional provision but not as an enforceable Right of every child through Article 45, which reads “The State shall endeavor to provide ECCE for all children until they complete the age of six years”.
ECE: A tussle between two ministries
In spite of a weak Constitutional framework for ECE, some efforts are being made towards the same. The fifth FYP saw a major breakthrough in the concept of child development with a shift in the approach from welfare to development and the declaration of National Policy for children in 1974, in pursuance of which, Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) program came into existence under the Ministry of Women and Child Welfare (MWCW), in which pre-schooling is one of the six services provided in the anganwadis.
Ministry of Human Resource (MHRD) also took cognizance of the importance of ECE as an important factor in promoting retention of children in primary schooling and it was subsequently included in the design of the externally funded District Primary Education Program (DPEP). The approach under DPEP was one of convergence. It was provided for strengthening of existing provisions for ECE through the ICDS by strengthening their linkage with primary schools. Under SSA, which is one of the eight identified flagship program of the Government of India (GOI) for universalizing elementary education and which has succeeded the DPEP, provisions have been made not only for greater convergence of pre school education initiatives, specially of ICDS, with that of primary schooling but also of setting up Balwadis as pre school education (PSE) centers in uncovered areas, training inputs for stakeholders, organizing awareness and advocacy campaigns to create awareness about the importance of PSE. Further, in order to introduce any innovative approach to strengthen ECE, a financial provision of Rs 15 lakh per annum in a district has been made available.
So the ball of ECE fell into the courts of two ministries – Ministry of Human Resource (MHRD) and Ministry of Women and Child Welfare (MWCW) and thus started the step-motherly treatment of ECE. None of them owned it and none left it. MWCW’s Rajiv Gandhi National Crèche Scheme for working mothers which is running 5303 crèches through Indian Council for Child Welfare (ICCW) further fragments the purpose, efforts and fund allocations towards early childhood care and education.
How effective are anganwadis ?
So from last 37 years more than 30 million children between the ages of 3 to 6 are attending the pre-schooling in anganwadis in India. Pre-schooling is just one of the six components handled by the anganwadis worker (AWW) along with other services like health and nutrition of the children. On an average one AWW maintains more than 25 registers, for enrolling children, maintaining their immunization records, records of hot cooked food, weight progress charts, details of distribution of nutritional supplement, referral records for acute malnourished cases. While doing all the above, an AWW needs to engage around 40-50 children in her anganwadi for 2-3 hours daily for pre-schooling education to prepare them for class 1 in primary school. Needless to say that she needs to maintain some more registers for the same and the aforementioned services hardly leave any time for this very important component. And for all these she gets a salary of Rs 1,500 per month ($35/month). Our kind-hearted government made it Rs 3,000 per month ($70/month) in the last budget, but even that is not realized in most of the states. After all this, even if she somehow motivates her to take the uphill task of pre schooling outsourced to her by the government, she lacks training and teaching and learning resources.
Though appropriate curriculum guidelines are available in the country for ECE; the reality is that there is a huge gap between what is prescribed or suggested and what is practiced. In the absence of any minimum specifications concerning ECE centers, the currently the public sector ECE seems to be following a minimalist approach, which is not likely to pay dividends. Even in the private sector pre schooling, the overriding emphasis is placed on pedagogical concerns of formalized cognitive domains by way of down ward extension of primary schooling and thus marginalizing a dozen of other affective and psychomotor domains. In fact, the early childhood education centers have to offer such activities in which cognitive development may occupy an important place but is not an overriding focus of attention.
Given this situation, NCERT, NUEPA and NIPCCD may be required to evolve minimum specifications incorporating different pedagogical, infrastructure, administrative, staffing and training parameters of ECE centers, which can later be applied to all categories of centers, using different instrumentalities appropriate to each sector.
Do we have a hope?
In the current gloomy scenario for ECE, the recent draft National Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) Policy put in the public domain by Ministry of Women and Child Welfare comes as a silver lining. Once the policy is screened, reviewed and approved, children between the ages of 3 and 6 can be brought under the ambit of the Right of children to free and compulsory education. Kerala state RTE rules give significant emphasis on ECE. We need to invest significantly on ECE infrastructure and capacity building of teachers for the same. Infrastructure and expertise of various private players, which have shown prominence in the last decade, can be used through public private partnerships (PPPs).
According to the 2011 Census, around 158.7 million children inIndiaare in the 0-6 year age group, of which an estimated 60 million are in the age group of 3-6 years. Currently 48 per cent are reported to be covered under the ICDS scheme. Broad estimations also indicate that a significant number is also covered by the private sector, besides some limited coverage by the NGO sector, for which there is no data available. But in absence of any clear direction, policy, curriculum and budgetary provisions millions of children are deprived of a meaningful childhood engagement.
The opinions expressed in this essay are those of the authors. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of CCS.