One in four children in India is entering the formal school system earlier than they should be — most of them in government schools — while evidence points to how older children learn better than younger children in the same class.
This is among the key findings of the Annual Status of Education Report (Rural) 2019, which focussed on the ‘Early Years’ — reporting on schooling status as well as a range of developmental indicators for children aged 4 to 8.
The study, which surveyed 36,930 children in this age group across 26 districts in 24 states, found that well over 90% of them are enrolled in some kind of educational institution (anganwadis, pre-primary classes in government schools, private pre-schools or formal schools, both government and private).
But 26.1% of the surveyed 5-year-olds were already in Class 1 or above, and 8.1% of 4-year-olds were enrolled in Class 1 or above, setting the stage for them to fall behind academically throughout their school years. This, when the Right to Education Act, 2009, mandates that children enter Class 1 at the age of 6.
The consequence of entering school before they are age-ready is that children are met with the curriculum expectations of formal schooling before their cognitive skills are developed enough.
This is borne out in the findings of the report which suggest that at this early stage, older children learn better than younger children who are in the same class. For instance, in Class 1, only 6.3% 4- and 5-year-olds could read words, while that goes up to 14.9% among the 6-year olds and 20.7% among 7- and 8-year-olds.
Speaking at the release of the report, Director of ASER Centre Dr Wilima Wadhwa said these years “are known to be the most important stage of cognitive, motor, social and emotional development in the human life cycle”.
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Pratham CEO Rukmini Banerji said: “It is very clear that older children can do more than younger children even in the same grade and type of school. Children being enrolled into formal schooling when they are too young is a big reason for their falling behind others throughout their school life.”
The report also shows that among those who enter formal school before they turn 6, mostly do so in government schools. Among the 5-year-olds surveyed, while 7.2% are in Class 1 or above in private schools, the figure stands at 16.7% in the case of government schools.
Banerji called this a consequence of the “over universalization” of elementary education.
“At this point of time, the understanding that schooling is important is widespread among parents. There is also the belief that more years of schooling is better and the earlier children enter schools, the readier they will be for future learning. Aspirational parents want to give their children a headstart into formal school but parental demand is not met with affordable facilities. Those who can afford it, send their children to LKG and UKG in private schools. In states where the education component in anganwadi centres is not seen as strong enough, poorer parents will then choose to enrol their children in the nearest government school, where the earliest class is Class 1,” she said.
The relationship between the availability of affordable pre-primary options and the age of entry into formal school is reflected in numbers from different states.
At 33.6%, Rajasthan has one of the highest percentage among states of 5-year-olds enrolled in government schools, while 16.2% of them were enrolled in private schools and a mere 9.3% of them were in anganwadi centres. In comparison, 36.4% of them were enrolled in private pre-primary institutions. The numbers suggest that government facilities in the state for pre-school children were either not readily accessible or weren’t sought after.
On the other hand, Karnataka has the highest number of 5-year-olds enrolled in government pre-primary institutions. Here, 44.6% of 5-year-olds are enrolled in anganwadi centres and only 5.1% are enrolled in Class 1 or beyond in formal school. Here too, a large number of children — 49.8% — are enrolled in private pre-primary institutions.
The report also shows that gender discrimination begins early in life, with a 4- to 5-year-old girl more likely to be in a government school than a boy that age. These gaps, says the report, widen as the children get older.
For instance, among 4- and 5-year-olds, 56.8% girls and 50.4% boys were enrolled in government pre-schools or schools while 43.2 % girls and 49.6% boys are enrolled in private pre-schools or schools. For 6- to 8-year-olds, 61.1% of all girls versus 52.1% of all boys went to a government institution.