While the importance of good early childhood education has been known for a long time, the draft New Education Policy (NEP), released in June 2019, links the “severe learning crisis” to what goes on with young children in India. The voluminous policy document points out that close to five crore children currently in elementary school do not have foundational literacy and numeracy skills.
The draft NEP points out that the major part of this crisis may well be happening before children even enter Std I. The document cites several possible reasons for this. First, many children enter school before age six. This is partly due to the lack of affordable and accessible options for pre-schooling. Therefore, too many children go to Std I with limited exposure to early childhood education. Like with everything else, children from poor families have a double disadvantage—lack of healthcare and nutrition on one side and the absence of a supportive learning environment on the other.
The draft NEP points out that the major part of this crisis may well be happening before children even enter Std I.
Although the anganwadi network across India is huge, by and large, school readiness or early childhood development and education activities have not had high priority in the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) system. Private pre-schools that are mushrooming in urban and rural communities have increased access to pre-school but are often designed to be a downward extension of schooling. Thus, they bring in school-like features into the pre-school classroom, rather than developmentally appropriate activities by age and phase.
Over the last 15 years, the Annual Status of Education Reports (ASER) are well known for data on basic reading and arithmetic levels for children in the elementary school age group. What is less known is that in ASER there is rich data over time about the educational status of children below the age of six. While the nation-wide ASER 2018 report has data on enrollment patterns in age group four to eight, the recently released ASER 2019 report is completely focussed on exploring more deeply where young children are and what they can do.
Looking at these data, three clear trends are visible.
First, there is considerable scope for expanding anganwadi outreach for three and four year-old children. All-India data from 2018 shows that slightly less than 30 percent children at age three and 15.6 percent of children at age four are not enrolled anywhere. But these figures are much higher in states like Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. Expanding access to anganwadis is an important incremental step. Strengthening the early childhood components in the ICDS system would help greatly in raising school readiness among young children.
Less than 30 percent children at age three and 15.6 percent of children at age four are not enrolled anywhere.
Second, it is commonly assumed that children enter Standard I at age six and that they proceed year by year from Std I to Std VIII, reaching the end of elementary school by age 14. The Right to Education (RTE) Act also refers to free and compulsory education for the age group six to 14. However, the practice on the ground is quite different. ASER 2018 data show that 27.6 percent of all children in Std I are under age six.
Third, there are important age implications for children’s learning. Data from ASER 2019 (26 rural districts) indicate that in Std I, the ability to do cognitive activities among seven-eight year olds can be 20 percentage points higher than their friends who are five years old but in the same class. In terms of reading levels in Std I, 37.1 percent children who are under six can recognise letters whereas 76 percent of those who are seven or eight can do the same. Interestingly, age distribution in Std I varies considerably between government and private schools, with private schools in many states having a relatively older age distribution. A big part of the differences in learning levels between government and private school children may be due to these differences in age composition right from the beginning of formal schooling.
After several decades of efforts to universalise elementary education, there is widespread understanding of the importance of schooling. In fact, parents who have not had much education themselves have high educational aspirations for their children. Children as young as three or even less are enrolled into pre-schools and play schools, especially in urban areas and in middle-income and high-income families. Many believe that more years of schooling is better than less and that the sooner the child enters ‘school’ the faster she or he will learn and be ready for future learning. In many private schools, parents are encouraged to bring their children at age four or five into kindergarten (LKG or UKG) and not directly into Std I. Poorer parents, who cannot find accessible or affordable pre-school alternatives and who do not see anganwadis as an option for education, will often enroll their children in Std I in the nearest government school. These patterns lead to very different age distributions in Std I in government school and private school.
Available data and evidence strongly reinforce the recommendations suggested by the June 2019 draft New Education Policy. Understanding challenges that children face when they are young is critical if we want to solve these problems early in children’s lives rather than waiting till much later to attempt the much harder to do remedial action.
Within the anganwadi system, early childhood education is not given the priority it needs.
The gap between policy and practice is also very visible in what happens inside pre-schools and pre-primary grades. In fact, the early years’ space (age four to eight) in India can be seen like a ‘see-saw’. Large numbers of young children are enrolled in anganwadis. But within the anganwadi system, early childhood education is not given the priority it needs. Although children are in anganwadis, they are not benefitting to the extent that is possible in terms of getting children ready for school.
At the same time, increasing numbers of children are entering private pre-schools and pre-primary grades. But even as the name suggests, the activities at this stage are very much like a downward extension of schooling. Therefore, for different reasons, neither the government provision nor the private delivery can adequately provide exposure to developmentally appropriate ‘breadth of skills’ that children need at this age.
On the pedagogy side, a reworking of curriculum and activities is urgently needed for the entire age band from four to eight, cutting across all types of pre-schools and early grades regardless of whether the provision is by government institutions or by private agencies. Anyone looking closely at the status of young children in India will agree with the draft NEP statement that early childhood education has the potential to be the “greatest and most powerful equaliser.” The year 2020 marks the 10th anniversary of the RTE Act. This is the best moment to focus on the youngest cohorts before and during their entry to formal schooling and ensure that 10 years later they complete secondary school as well-equipped and well-rounded citizens of India.