India has one of the largest education systems in the world with over “1.5 million schools and over 250 million enrolments”.1 Despite high enrolment, the quality of education suffers from certain fundamental drawbacks; the most significant issue is the imbalance in learning levels. As per the ASER Report in 2018, “only half of all students enrolled in grade V (50.3%) can read grade II texts”.2 When it comes to proficiency in arithmetic, “only 28% of students on the same level can do simple division”.3
This imbalance in learning outcomes, as suggested by the ASER report, has been a factor for debate amongst the pedagogical community which includes scholars and educators. Until recently, for improving quality in education, the focus has mainly rested on infrastructure development, teacher training, curriculum development and appropriate assessments. A significant aspect which is often ignored in these discussions is the role of early childhood care and education in making the children school-ready. This article explores the need for a robust Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) policy, its impact on learning outcomes, and the key issues related to this policy in India.
Early Child Education and Cognitive Development
Research in neuroscience and psychology has shown that early years of childhood is a key stage where development of the brain is at its peak. It is argued that a “child’s early experiences have a long term and direct impact on the way the brain is structured, which further influences their cognitive, emotional and social development”.4 According to the preschool guidelines by NCERT, “there are critical stages in the development of the brain during this period that influences the pathways for physical and mental health, and behaviour throughout the life cycle”.5 The emotional wellbeing and social competence developed at this stage provides a strong foundation for other cognitive abilities required to be successful in school and workplace in the future.
The importance of ECCE is widely recognised internationally as well. The Sustainable Development Goal 2030 acknowledges children as the agents of change and includes early child development in its goal 4, target 4.2. It states that “By 2030, ensure that all girls and boys have access to quality early childhood development, care and pre-primary education so that they are ready for primary education”.6,7 This further impresses the importance of astutely designed and quality early child or pre-school education (PSE) programmes.
In India, where most of the children enrolled in public schools are first-generation learners and have parents who are either illiterate or not literate enough to support their cognitive needs or are unable to provide them the right kind of environment that is conducive to their learning, the importance of ECCE programmes becomes even more significant.
India’s Answer – the National ECCE Policy
The recognition of the problem and the formulation of effective policies for those problems is the prime role of policy makers.8 However, despite the recognition, policy formulation and implementation in India often gets caught in infirmities that are either structural in nature or miss the linkages between these two stages of policy making process.9
In the Indian context, ECCE and its importance has been significantly acknowledged in the form of the National ECCE policy. The Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) is the largest public programme providing ECCE services in the Anganwadi Centres. Through the Anganwadi Centres set up under the policy, children access non- formal pre-school education provided to them by the Anganwadi workers.
However, Early Childhood Development in India still suffers from structural and fundamental shortcomings and significant gaps in formulation and implementation stages. A large number of children are not enrolled in pre-schools or Anganwadi Centres for early child development. If they are, the quality of such programs suffers from serious challenges.
Challenges to ECCE in India
Amongst the several issues that hamper the effectiveness of the National ECCE policy, the inadequate budget allocation towards the pre-school component of the policy is a crucial limiting factor. The overall budget for education in India has always been “less than 3%, in any given year till now”, but the financial sanctions for the Pre-School Education (PSE) have been even lower. The budget allocation of 2017-2018 reveals that less than 1% of the total education budget is allocated to the early child development and the ECCE policy.10, 11
The lack of political will to prioritise and mobilise budget for ECCE further impacts the effectiveness of the policy. An analysis of the monsoon session of the Parliament in 2019 reveals that “only less than 3% of the questions raised were related to early child development”.12 Further, one should also note that the Right of Children to free and compulsory education (RTE) Act 2010 that guarantees children their right to quality elementary education still fails to recognise Early Childhood Education (ECE) as a compulsory provision.
In terms of human resources, the policy completely depends on the Anganwadi Workers (AWW) for the provision of pre-school education to children. A detailed analysis of the educational and skill competencies of these workers indicates that they are only required to be high school graduates to be eligible for this job. Additionally, the AWWs are often the voluntary ‘social workers’ from the local community who render their services as an Anganwadi Worker on a “part-time” basis. This suggests that the policy lacks in targeting individuals who are educationally competent to provide quality early childhood education from the very start.
A lack in key competencies and skills are not the only challenges for an Anganwadi Worker on ground. She (the AWWs are only women) is also underpaid and overburdened with work which is outside the ambit of the ICDS such as Booth level officer (BLO) duties and surveys, to name a few.13 Operating under innumerable constraints, with extra work and little income, the Anganwadi Worker then, limited in her sense of rationality takes decisions that suit her immediate needs. They take up tasks that involve lesser risks and those that can be done with less effort. Due to little or no support to undertake ECE activities in the centres, the Anganwadi Worker, under her “bounded rationality” then believes that “nutrition and health services are more important than ECE. This then makes them pay less attention to Early Child Education or may cause them to ignore it almost completely”.14,15
The way forward
Developing an efficient, skilled and empowered cadre of Anganwadi Workers is crucial to improving the pre-school education conditions. They need to be made professionally capable and skilfully trained in order to execute the program and bridge the gap between pre-school and formal education to positively impact the learning level outcomes in school. Targeting experts on ECCE for imparting the age appropriate skills to children or a specialised training component for the AWWs could ensure that quality Early Childhood Education is imparted.
The fact that most parents are still ignorant about the need for effective early childhood education and its importance in the development of their child highlights gaps in the communication and campaigning framework (Information Education and Communication – IEC) of the National ECCE policy. Till now, the ICDS and its related IEC has only focussed on the health and nutrition of the child and the mother. The education, especially foundational learning phase of the child continues to be ignored.
Incentives also play a role in the success of any policy. Therefore, provision of scholarships, easy access to formal schools after pre-school, take–home learning kits and worksheets, could be another way to invest in and incentivise parents to send their children for pre-school education. Inter-Anganwadi activities and competitions, ECE community fairs could be some of the strategies to incentivise the workers to deliver effectively while incentivising children and parents to attend these centres.
Can Public-Private-Partnerships transform ECE?
The implementation of the ECE policy could also benefit from exploring new avenues currently making their way into governance systems. Public-Private partnerships in education, for example, are a new breakthrough. Several private organisations are tackling the issue of ECE and its importance in different communities. The government can collaborate with such organisations that could help lead the Anganwadi Centres to transform the way ECE is imparted.
Organisations that are creating a remarkable impact in the ECE include several NGOs. Pratham, an organisation started in 1995 provides pre –school education to children in the slums of Mumbai. Its Balwadi (pre-school) programs have been successful in creating a sustained impact in these communities. Their model has been emulated all over India by various other organisations.16
Similarly, Meraki Foundation, a non-profit in Delhi, works to empower the parents from the disadvantaged communities in order to reverse neglect, attune them to a child’s developmental needs, give them the tools to address those needs, and help build support systems for them.17
One could argue that Public Private Partnerships in Education will not only enhance the existing system but also develop innovative solutions in areas the government has had difficulty in transforming, so as to fill the gaps in this sector. With the government’s ability to scale and the acumen of private players to innovate new solutions, this could ensure that their work is scaled-up effectively and efficiently at a larger level and is not restricted to selected pockets or communities.
Early childhood is an important stage in the child’s learning and development. The early years help the child build skills that are not just cognitive in nature, but also crucial for social interaction skills and awareness. This period requires key stimulations in the form of right education and learning methods to establish neural pathways for optimal development. Therefore, a positive environment that includes the required learning techniques facilitated by trained professionals could help a child learn better in the foundational years.
To this effect, the National ECCE policy plays a fundamental role in ensuring that every child has access to quality ECE programs. Considering the drawbacks in the current policy, there is a need for us to revisit the policy and improve its framing and incentives to ensure proper implementation through trained Anganwadi Workers. A well-formulated and implemented ECE policy which provides a stimulating environment for a child to grow and function in, can be the new silver bullet for improving learning outcomes in school education in India.
1. Government of India. “EDUCATIONAL STATISTICS AT A GLANCE.” New Delhi: Ministry of Human Resource Development, 2018. https://mhrd.gov.in/sites/upload_files/mhrd/files/statistics-new/ESAG-2018.pdf.
3.“Annual Status of Education Report (Rural) 2018.” ASER, January 15, 2019. http://img.asercentre.org/docs/ASER%202018/Release%20Material/aserreport2018.pdf.
4. “Nurturing Care Framework for Early Childhood Development Launched at the 71st World Health Assembly,” Text/HTML, World Bank, accessed October 17, 2019, https://www.worldbank.org/en/news/press-release/2018/05/23/nurturing-care-framework-for-early-childhood-development-launched-at-71st-world-health-assembly.
5. “The Preschool Curriculum.” New Delhi: NCERT, n.d. http://www.ncert.nic.in/pdf_files/preschool_curriculum.pdf.
6. “Education – United Nations Sustainable Development,” accessed February 21, 2020, https://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/education/#tab-bec3d6b2e412d024e05
7. “In Brief: The Science of Early Childhood Development,” Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, accessed October 9, 2019, https://developingchild.harvard.edu/resources/inbrief-science-of-ecd/.
11. “Union Budget: A Window of Opportunity for Our Children? Budget for Children 2017-18.” New Delhi: HAQ: Centre for Child Rights, 2018https://www.sabrangindia.in/sites/default/files/budget_for_children-quick_budget_analysis_2017-18_final_corrected.pdf?79.
14. “What Is ‘Bounded Rationality’?,” Economy, accessed October 18, 2019, https://www.ecnmy.org/learn/you/choices-behavior/what-is-bounded-rationality/.
15.“REVIEW OF PRE-SCHOOL EDUCATION WITHIN THE CONTEXT OF THE ICDS PROGRAM IN MEDAK DISTRICT, ANDHRA PRADESH.” Azim Premji Foundation, 2013. https://azimpremjiuniversity.edu.in/SitePages/pdf/Medak-Study2012-13.pdf.
16. Amrita Thakkar, “Essential Guide to Organizations in Indian Early Education,” Medium, April 22, 2019, https://blog.firstcrayon.com/essential-guide-to-organizations-in-indian-early-education-b3b774d33d29.
17. Ruth Reader, Ruth Reader, and Ruth Reader, “This Organization Empowers Parents to Lead Their Children’s Early Education,” Fast Company, April 8, 2019, https://www.fastcompany.com/90328139/this-organization-empowers-parents-to-lead-their-childrens-early-education.