Early Childhood Education in India and School Readiness Program

All eyes are on the upcoming National Education Policy 2019. Time is ripe and expectations are high. It is natural to expect the NEP to deliver guidelines that transform the education scenario in the country. There are very many subjects that have rightly found voice in the NEP but there are subjects that have been obscured within the rhetoric. The one of which pertains to the early childhood education. The chapter on early childhood education is not only inadequate in detail it is also rife with inaccuracies the most glaring ones are made while making a case for early childhood education. In the days that followed there appeared many commentaries on the subject of pre-schooling in India and the NEP‘s handling of it. In this article the subject of early childhood education is addressed.

It has been shown through extensive research in child development and neuroscience that the first five years are developmentally crucial for a child’s life. It has a clear implication for schooling and it bears heavily on the prescription of pre-schooling. Before the child enters class 1 i.e. formal schooling, the preparatory school equips him with the appropriate cognitive, pre-literacy and pre-numeracy skills. These skills are critical to succeed in the school environment. These skills comprise what is referred to as school readiness. Other skills that are desirable to be acquired in some measure before the formal schooling begins include the capacity to be sedentary and pay attention, social interaction, shape and color identification, and correlating alphabets to their sounds, count numbers etc. it cannot be said that in India these skills are cultivated before formal schooling begins. These gateway skills are not attained by a majority of children, especially in rural India.

It is known to us that pre-schooling in India is not universalized and the Right to Education Act does not cover pre-schooling. The coverage of children in their pre-school age i.e. between 3 to 6 years happens under the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) program of the Ministry of Women and Child Development (MWCD). ICDS approximately caters to 3.7 crore children through 13.4 lakh anganwadis.

The NEP does dwell in some length about the role of aanganwadis and the plans of ICDS strengthening yet it does not present any clarity whatsoever on the course that early childhood education in India should take in the absence of clear cut policy directions and universalization. And the aanganwadis that have been entrusted with the foundation laying of the child development in fact have a very limited view of pre-schooling. It can be proven by citing the simple fact that the aanganwadi worker on whom lies the onus of early childhood education has a mandate that entails six defining tasks , of which, the education is least prioritized. The tasks such as health and nutrition are the tasks which are closely monitored and prioritized.

In the near complete lack of state apparatus, the early childhood schooling arena has seen the advent of the private sector. The sector is burgeoning but in the absence of regulations and clearly laid guidelines, the sector is replete with issues and has a tentativeness about it. And at best, it is limited to a minority of urban populace.

At this juncture, when the importance of pre-schooling is being acknowledged and when the data that puts into perspective our backwardness in this respect is emerging, the discourse on universalization, or at least regulation, of early childhood schooling is gaining centrality. Having said that, there are fiscal and policy constraints in its materialization and we have to be remain contented with measures that are short of universalization of quality pre-schooling.

What are these measures?

An option that is mentionable given its immediate feasibility is called accelerated School Readiness Program (SRP). It is basically a 40-day-long program undertaken in class 1 at the beginning of the academic year which aims to build essential skills in children and prepare them for primary schooling.

SRP has been taken up in India by an organization called Central Square Foundation. The success that the program saw in countries like Cambodia and Ethiopia made a good case for its adoption in India. A pilot that involved 5000 class 1 students have been stared in states including Karnataka and Gujarat. The organization did gain some technical partners in its enterprise and state governments also aligned their agenda to some extent with that of the organization. Training of the teachers was, for instance, taken up by Akshara Foundation in Karnataka and by UNICEF in Gujarat.

The pre and post- program testing was also organized to authenticate the efficiency of the SRP. An independent M&E agency was collaborated with for evaluation purpose. The results came out to be encouraging. Numeracy and literacy post-program scores were indicative of the efficiency of the program. In Karnataka, it was found that there was 18% positive change in the cognitive development scores of the children who underwent SRP.

These interventions are qualitatively different from the business model of the burgeoning pre-school franchises. Global organizations who are pushing for educational reforms, 21st century skill development and fulfillment of Sustainable Development Goals have stressed on the need of early childhood education in the developing nations. With effective advocacy and mobilization, scaling up of the operations can be achieved and R&D for alignment of curriculum for accelerated SRP can be taken up.

It must be said that we need such endeavors and need them in urgency if we are serious about our developmental goals.

Vinod Kakumanu

Vinod Kakumanu

Founder & Consultant - School Serv

Vinod Kakumanu heads a team of school services professionals and is an independent commentator on Indian school education scenario. Vinod has assisted school promoters establish 35+ schools besides providing ancillary services to over 1000 schools across India. He envisions a future where quality education is made available to every child of the country. The focus he places on the quality of the deliverables and customer satisfaction has made him renowned in the field of K-12 school education.

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