Since 2005, the NGO Pratham’s Annual Status of Education Reports (ASER) have shone a light on a critical failure of India’s education system: A large number of school-going children across the country are short on basic learning skills. These reports have led to debates on seminal policy interventions such as the Right to Education Act and have been catalysts for meaningful conversations on the pedagogical deficiencies of the formal school system. The latest edition of ASER, released on Tuesday, directs attention to children between four and eight years of age, and suggests that India’s learning crisis could be linked to the weakness of the country’s pre-primary system.
More than 20 per cent of students in Standard I are less than six, ASER 2019 reveals — they should ideally be in pre-school. At the same time, 36 per cent students in Standard 1 are older than the RTE-mandated age of six. “Even within Standard I, children’s performance on cognitive, early language, early numeracy, and social and emotional learning tasks is strongly related to their age. Older children do better on all tasks,” the report says. This is a significant finding and should be the starting point for a substantive debate on the ideal entry-level age to primary school. In this context, policymakers would also do well to go back to the pedagogical axiom which underlines that children between four and eight are best taught cognitive skills through play-based activities. The emphasis, as ASER 2019 emphasises, should be on “developing problem-solving faculties and building memory of children, and not content knowledge”.
ASER 2019 talks about leveraging the existing network of anganwadi centres to implement school readiness. The core structure of the anganwadis was developed more than 40 years ago as part of the Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS). Pre-school education is part of their mandate. But at the best of times, these centres do no more than implement the government’s child nutrition schemes. A number of health crises — including last year’s AES outbreak in Bihar — have bared the inadequacies of the system. A growing body of scholarly work has also shown that the anganwadi worker is poorly-paid, demoralised and lacks the autonomy to be an effective nurturer. The ASER report is alive to such shortcomings. “There is a need to expand and upgrade anganwadis to ensure that children get adequate and correct educational inputs of the kind that are not modeled after the formal school,” it notes. The government would do well to act on this recommendation — especially since the Draft Education Policy that was put up for public discussion last year, also stresses on the pre-school system.