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Early Childhood Education: A Head Start to Learning

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Early Childhood Education
 

While the schooling years sets the trajectory for learning and development, the years that precede the start of the primary schooling age are considered to lay down the early foundations for this learning and development. Year after year, the ASER report has chalked out the learning deficit posing serious questions on the efficacy of our schooling system. However, it is also important to analyse the contribution of inadequate early childhood education to this deficit and its cascading implication on life-long learning.

The importance of early childhood education (ECE) has received international consensus. It is part of the 17 sustainable development goals (Target 4.2) of the UN’s 2030 Agenda. Several research studies have emphasized upon the development of neural synapses between the ages of 2 to 6 years that form the basis of cognitive and socio-emotional functioning of the rest of a child’s life. It lays the foundation for numeracy, language and mental skills. This necessitates adequate stimulation during the early years of a child’s life when the large majority of physical brain development occurs. Early childhood education plays a key role in offering the kind of engaging and stimulating learning environment needed in the child’s early years. Further validating its economic context, Nobel Laureate professor James Heckman explained the compounding effect of early investments in a child’s life on its life-long returns (The Heckman Curve – the earlier the investment in human capital, greater the return).

Early childhood education in India

India follows a rights-based approach to education designating it as a legal entitlement. The RTE Act currently mandates education for children aged 6 to 14 years leaving early childhood education (3 to 6 years) outside its ambit. The provision of ECE is mainly catered by Aanganwadis and private preschools in India. The common perception is that private preschools offer better quality education and charge higher fees, favoured by families with a better economic background.

Anganwadis take centre stage in the provision of ECE in India due to its extensive reach and accessibility. In terms of scale, Aanganwadis have a network of almost 1.4 million centres throughout India. It falls under the budgetary provision of the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) scheme (launched in 1974) and is run by the Ministry of Women and Child Development.

Anganwadis have been embroiled in their own set of challenges for years now. Under the ICDS scheme, the Aanganwadis are entrusted with a holistic set of responsibilities amongst which providing early childhood education is arguably the least effective. The other services range from providing nutrition, health and childcare, supporting pregnant and lactating mothers to maintaining a multitude of record registers. A typical Aanganwadi is operated by an Aanganwadi worker, an Aanganwadi helper and an ASHA or community health worker. They are generally underpaid and inadequately trained to provide preschool education. In a nutshell, we arrive at the same problem – accessibility without effectiveness. This is coupled with the lack of awareness of the importance of ECE among Indian parents, especially in rural areas.

The National Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) Policy 2013 acknowledges the Government’s commitment towards providing quality ECE. Last year, it renewed this commitment by launching the ambitious Samagra Shiksha scheme which envisages the ‘school’ as a continuum rather than following a segmenting view as pre-school, primary, upper primary, secondary to senior secondary levels. However, the scheme is still to face the test of effectiveness.

ECE in India needs immediate attention and cannot be queued to the lethargy of policymaking. It is the age of our children and their learning abilities linked to it that we are racing against. Failing to cope up with this race can only widen inequalities over the long run.

Shunmuga SundaramShunmuga Sundaram Yadav has previously worked for an Italian consulting firm promoting Italian businesses in developing countries and assisting them to participate in projects funded by Multilateral Development Banks. He has also worked on consulting projects for strategizing market entry of Italian brands in India. He has completed a course in Aircraft Maintenance Engineering and a Bachelor’s degree in Commerce. He is currently pursuing a Master’s Degree in Public Policy from Mumbai University.

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