Early childhood education, or ECE, is included in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for 2030 that were approved by India among many countries around the globe. SDG Target 4.2 states that by 2030 countries should “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”.
This global goal emerged thanks to extensive international research in disciplines as varied as neuroscience, psychology and economics, which show that early childhood — defined internationally as the age group of 0-8 years — is a critical period. During this time, the foundations of life-long learning are built, with 90 per cent of all brain development taking place by age six.
In India, too, the importance of early care and stimulation has been recognised in the National Policy on Early Childhood Care and Education (2013), which aims to provide “developmentally appropriate preschool education for three to six-year-olds with a more structured and planned school readiness component for five to six-year-olds.” The recently created Samagra Shiksha Abhiyan scheme has also brought renewed focus and attention on ECE through the Integrated Scheme on School Education that aims to treat school education “holistically without segmentation from pre-nursery to Class 12”.
There are currently two main avenues for accessing early childhood education in India. The most widespread comprises the 1.3 million anganwadi centres run by the Ministry of Women and Child Development across the country under the Integrated Child Development (ICDS) Scheme. The other is the burgeoning private sector, with more than 40 per cent of privately managed primary schools reportedly offering pre-primary LKG and UKG classes as well. Some states in India offer a third possibility as well, in the form of preschool classes integrated within government primary schools, for example in Assam and Jammu & Kashmir.
According to the RTE Act, enrolment in formal schools should begin at age six, with ECE exposure recommended for children between age three and six. However, 26 of India’s 35 states and union territories allow children to enter Class 1 at age five. National trends from the recently released Annual Status of Education Report (ASER 2018) indicate that enrolment patterns broadly meet these policy prescriptions. At age three, two-thirds of children were enrolled in some form of preschool; while seven out of every 10 were enrolled in primary school at age six. But we also see that fairly large proportions of children are already in primary grades even at age three and four; and many are still in preschool at age seven and even eight.
As with many estimates at the all-India level, these national trends hide major variations, both across the country as well as at different ages. For example, at age three, national policy recommends that children should be in an ECE programme. Gujarat comes close to meeting the norm, with well over 90 per cent children in some form of preschool, the majority in ICDS Anganwadis. In contrast, in Uttar Pradesh, almost two thirds are not attending anywhere. At age four, almost a quarter of all four-year-olds in Rajasthan are already in primary school, with almost equal proportions in government and private schools. But in Assam, about seven out of 10 children are attending an anganwadi. At age five, nationally, about a third of all children are already in primary school. But in UP, close to two in every 10 children are not enrolled anywhere; and, in Rajasthan over 60 per cent children are in primary school. At age six, although all children are expected to be in primary school, over 40 per cent of all six-year-olds in both Telangana and Assam continue in some form of pre-primary class.
These varied pathways in the early years have major consequences for what children experience and learn along the way. From the perspective of the primary school, children in Class 1 are far from homogenous in terms of age. ASER 2018 data shows that nationally, more than a quarter of children entering primary school are five years old or younger. Less than 40 per cent are at the mandated age of six years. And a third are seven or older. These age-grade distributions have obvious implications for teaching and learning. A four- or five-year-old child is simply not developmentally ready to handle Class 1 curriculum. From the point of view of a teacher, moreover, teaching the same content to a class with wide variation in students’ age is not a trivial challenge. The requirement that teachers complete the curriculum for a given grade in a given year — and, by extension, that the children master the content being taught — does huge disservice to both.
The outcome in terms of learning is clearly visible. In the elementary school sector, ASER has demonstrated for more than a decade that getting all children into school, while undoubtedly a major achievement, does not by itself ensure that children are able to learn at the expected level. ASER data shows that gaps between what children can do and what is expected of them emerge very early in children’s school trajectories and widen as they move through the system. A quick look at the Class 1 language textbook in any state provides a good indication of what children are expected to do during their very first year in school. But ASER 2018 data shows that even several months into Class 1, nationally more than 40 per cent of children are unable to recognise letters of the alphabet, let alone read words or connected text.
As implementation of the Samagra Shiksha Abhiyan rolls out across the country, ASER data on young children suggests that a “one size fits all” solution is unlikely to be successful. While helping children get a head start in the early years is important, it is critical to ensure that all stakeholders — parents, teachers, policymakers and textbook developers — understand that the key words are “quality” and “developmentally appropriate”. The continuum envisaged for the early years curriculum should start from and build on what children bring with them when they enter preschool and school, so that they are able to grow and thrive.
This article first appeared in the January 23, 2019, print edition under the title ‘What the children learn’