Written by Prabhat Rai and Prachi Vashishtha
There has been a congratulatory mood, especially among the early childhood community, that “early childhood care and education” (ECCE) has got due emphasis for the first time in the National Education Policy (NEP) 2020. When we go beyond the hollow rhetoric of “first” and critically evaluate recommendations of the policy, two aspects of early years’ education demand special scrutiny: One, what are the epistemological commitments and ways of knowing in early childhood education? Two, what do we know about the universal provisioning of ECCE?
One of the biggest disappointments of the document is that it resorts to an archaic, stage-based understanding of children’s development. The ways of knowing in early childhood are seen from the lens of school education. It is worth highlighting that the section on ECCE features under Part 1 of the document—- School Education. If this is not enough the very first clause (1.1) of the section states the purpose of early years’ education is to “ensure that all students entering grade 1 are school ready”. International experience suggests that this excessive focus on school-readiness leads to target-oriented and formal curriculum being introduced from very early years. A question worth asking would be how do we conceptualise the role of early childhood education — preschools or prep schools. With an emphasis on school readiness, the policy document has valued school traits in early years, thus conceiving ECCE in terms of “prep schools.” The emergent capacities of children could not find any space in that context. By its very design and vision, the document calls for the “schoolification” of early years which has been highlighted by research as one of the serious concerns facing the early childhood education sector.
The challenge at the pedagogic and curricular level is that instead of understanding and designing the curriculum from the sensitivities of children and their unique developmental age period, NEP 2020 makes a consistent attempt to situate the value of early years education based on later outcomes either in schools or in the labour market. The social and pedagogical task of preschool education is positioned to the requirement and characteristics of school instruction. The “care” aspect of ECCE is invisible in the document. The pertinent danger of this approach is that early years development is not seen as qualitatively different from the school-age period.
These commitments of the document also need to be read in the light of the subsequent section on “Foundational Literacy and Numeracy”. Let’s make it clear: Foundational learning or foundational skills are not the same as “foundational literacy”. The rhetoric of “foundational literacy and numeracy” as expressed in NEP 2020 draws its roots from the large-scale achievement surveys. As a government’s effort to know about the capacities of children to read and write, using large-scale achievement surveys is fine. The imminent danger is that reading and writing becomes the default pedagogy as teachers start to respond to the standards. More recently, we have seen a similar effort by several state governments, including Delhi, where achieving standards of large-scale achievement surveys became the default pedagogy. The other important question it raises is: Whose knowledge base would inform early years curriculum and pedagogy? The document probably sees ECCE at the “bottom of the epistemological hierarchy” of the disciplines. School expectations of learning alphabets, counting, numbers etc and (so-called) 21st-century skills of problem-solving, logical thinking and solving puzzles are enumerated as the central pedagogic approach. This would leave little space for story-telling, role-play and imagination. The curriculum framework for early years to be developed after NEP 2020 must emphasise on the aspects of “emergent literacy” like phonological awareness, print awareness, oral language rather than learning alphabets and numbers. There is a fine line between teaching children based on their emergent learning capabilities and teaching according to the set standards of foundational literacy.
Early years’ education is not a feeder programme for schools. In most private schools, it has become a school entry option and probably NEP 2020 has limited it in that framework. Deciding pedagogical purposes and practices based on the achievement surveys will take away any possible professional autonomy that early years educators have at the moment. This commitment to large-scale assessment will lead to formulaic teaching and learning to achieve standards with little focus on children’s emergent literacy and numeracy capabilities. Even if we consider raising achievement scores as an important goal, it demands improvement in teacher quality, and improving teacher quality demands better teacher development programmes. The document invests little imagination in ensuring teacher autonomy and supporting fundamental research that can inform evidence-based teacher education models in the early years. The theoretical and conceptual muddle is so deep that to save itself, the document follows a “mosaic” approach and lists all possible early childhood pedagogies and purposes together in Clause 1.2. In its framing NEP 2020 is still based in the stage and age-based developmental theories whose era is long gone. The fragmented division between cognitive, physical, social and emotional is both unnecessary and archaic. For example, when the child starts to walk in early years, it is not a mere physical development but also leads to cognitive exploration and a social motive for children to reach out to caregivers on their own initiative.
The document also promises to achieve universal provisioning of Early Childhood Care and Education by 2030 but it does not offer any clear roadmap. With more than 16 crore children in the age group of 0-6 years, India has around 14 per cent of its population which would need early childhood care and education. The NEP 2020 does not commit any financial or policy roadmap to achieve this. It is worth noting that the NEP draft 2019 submitted by the Kasturirangan Committee recommended that “the availability of free and compulsory quality pre-primary education for all 3-6-year-old will be included as an integral part of the RTE Act”. The 66-page MHRD document, though, does not commit anything on these lines.
NEP 2020 promises a special joint task force of the ministries of HRD, Women and Child Development (WCD), Health and Family Welfare (HFW), and Tribal Affairs. Offering nutritious breakfast, health check-ups, 100 per cent immunisation and issuing health cards are welcome steps but lack of policy direction and no commitment to free and compulsory care and education from 0-6 makes it a far-fetched notion. As a first step, it is important that funding for ECCE be made ongoing and permanent similar to the school sector. Another important investment is needed in developing research infrastructure that can inform evidence-based policymaking in early years’ care and education. There is also a need to think about teacher education programmes for preparing teachers for ECCE.
The policy seems to be hiding behind rhetoric where details are needed. “There is no need,” declares Socrates in Plato’s Gorgias, “for rhetoric to know the facts at all, for it has hit upon a means of persuasion that enables it to appear in the eyes of the ignorant to know more than those who really know”. NEP 2020 has played a similar game of rhetoric with the early childhood care and education sector.
(Rai is Faculty at Monash University, Vashishtha is an Early Childhood Researcher. Views are personal)
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