India's learning crisis is not news. For the last 10 years, the Annual State of Education Report (ASER) data has shown us that over half the children in Class III are unable to subtract correctly or read a Class I level text. We must urgently recognise that the first step to address this disparity is to enhance investment in pre-schooling/early childhood education (ECE).
Multi-disciplinary research from economics, neuroscience and education has demonstrated that maximum brain development occurs between the ages of 0-5 and that quality ECE is critical in determining a child's life outcomes in terms of health and income levels. Further evidence also links importance of ECE to social returns such as lower crime rates and better citizenship. In India, initial data through research conducted by the ASER Centre and the Centre for Early Childhood Education and Development (CECED) indicates that children who were exposed to some form of ECE were more school-ready than those who weren't.
Quality ECE is critical in determining a child's life outcomes in terms of health and income levels.
Yet, despite the obvious evidence pointing to the need for a quality ECE programme, in India, the gross enrolment in formal ECE is estimated to be only around 55%. Further, substantial lacunae exist in quality of service delivery.
The government-run Integrated Childhood Development Services (ICDS), which is the world's largest child care provision programme, has approximately 3.7 crore children in the 3-6 age group in 13.4 lakh anganwadis (child care centres). Introduced in 1975, ICDS delivers six services: supplementary nutrition, non-formal ECE, nutrition and health education, immunisations, health check-ups and referral services. In each anganwadi, a single anganwadi worker (AWWs) is required to manage these varied areas-- so there is insufficient focus and training of the AWWs on ECE.
Parallely, the private sector is growing across India, with an estimated 1 crore children accessing some form of ECE through standalone playschools as well as kindergarten sections of private schools. This sector is however almost entirely unregulated. Across price points, most private providers of ECE have a very rudimentary understanding of child development. Adoption of developmentally inappropriate pedagogical practices could prove to be detrimental to the child's interests in the long run.
Pockets of excellence in ECE, largely managed by civil society organisations, can however be found across the country. Pratham, Mobile Creches, Centre for Learning Resources, Bodh Shiksha Samiti are some organisations which run ECE centres/balwadis and have the potential to contribute a lot of best practices to the sector.
The Central government issued a National ECCE (Early Childhood Care and Education) Policy in 2013 with a focus on strengthening access, equity, capacity, monitoring, research and advocacy. Most states have contextualized the curriculum in accordance with the national framework, but have been slow in implementing the policy. As a result, there has only been sporadic progress in improving access and quality in ECCE.
Across price points, most private providers of ECE have a very rudimentary understanding of child development.
The implementation and delivery of quality ECE in India requires a collaborative effort by government, private sector and civil society and must, therefore, be focused on the following levers:
● Curriculum and content: NGOs can play a critical role in supporting states to develop content aligned with the state curriculum and pilot it in anganwadi centres, with potential for replicability.
● Quality standards and accreditation: The ECCE quality standards framework is likely to be implemented in the next couple of years. To ensure adherence to quality standards, there is a need to develop comprehensive easy-to-use tools for monitoring and evaluation of ECE centres and capture child level learning outcomes.
● Teacher training: There is a dearth in quality pre-service teacher training programmes across the country impacting both government and private sectors. Further, Anganwadi Training Centres (AWTCs) lack the capacity to deliver good in-service ECE training at scale. Civil society and the private sector can collaborate to develop curriculum for teacher training in ECE and share best practices with the larger ecosystem.
● Research and collection of evidence: There is still a gap with respect to the research base on ECE in India. Academicians, practitioners and funders would need to collaborate to undertake research to identify high quality scalable intervention models suitable for India.
● Community engagement: Interventions which revolve around community engagement for ECE - advocacy, parent education, increased involvement in ECE centres, educating and supporting parents with effective home practices for child development can ensure that parents play a more informed and active role in their children's education from their early years.
Laying a strong foundation in the early years is critical to ensuring a better future for our children. There is a need for tighter integration of ECE with the primary school system, an outcomes-oriented regulatory framework for ECE providers, and more funding for research, innovation and programmes in ECE. Only then can India address its learning crisis holistically and effectively.
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