The Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education (RTE) Act 2009 mandates that children should enter Class 1 at age six.
Parents across the world want their children to be happy and successful; most know that a good education is the passport to upward mobility and offer their children the best they can.
But what if many of us need to rethink our basic assumptions? What if play-based activities that build memory, reasoning and problem-solving abilities are far more important in the early years than content knowledge? What if “success” depends not on how soon a child becomes part of the formal school system but on whether his/her “early years” or pre-school stage are spent acquiring foundational skills necessary both in school and in life?
Globally, there is a growing body of research that demonstrates that high-quality pre-primary education is the foundation of a child’s journey, that every stage of education that follows relies on it and that equitable pre-primary education is also an effective strategy for promoting economic growth.
But despite the proven and lifelong benefits, more than 175 million children — nearly half of all pre-primary-age children globally — are not enrolled in pre-primary education, says Unicef.
These are critical issues not only for our youngest children but also the country’s future. Early childhood education needs to be a top national priority, as is evident from the 14th Annual Status of Education Report (ASER 2019), released earlier this week. The report’s focus is on the “early years”, on children between the ages of four and eight.
Facilitated by non-profit Pratham, which started its work 25 years ago with early childhood education in the slums of Mumbai, the report is based on surveys conducted in 26 districts across 24 states. Covering 1,514 villages, 30,425 households, and 36,930 children, it offers a wealth of data on the “early years” and eye-opening insights into the roots of India’s learning crisis.
The Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education (RTE) Act 2009 mandates that children should enter Class 1 at age six. For children between three and six, it recommends exposure to early childhood education (ECE). But many states and Union territories allow entry to Class 1 before six.
The report foregrounds key questions. What are young children doing? Are they enrolled in pre-school/school? Are they ready for school?
Sampled children were assessed on four domains of development — cognitive skills that include the ability to sort by colour, arrange objects by size, recognise patterns etc; “early language” needed to express thoughts and feelings and engage with others; “early numeracy” that includes recognition of single and double digit numbers, doing simple numeric problems and the ability to apply these concepts in day to day life; and social and emotional development which aims at gauging if the children can identify emotions and regulate them, if they can resolve a situation of conflict and if they empathise with others.
The ASER (Rural) 2019 Early Years report shows that more than 90 per cent of sampled children in the 4-8 age group are enrolled in some kind of educational institution, ranging from anganwadis (childcare centres) to government or private pre-primary facilities, to government or private schools.
At age five, 70 per cent of children go to anganwadis or pre-primary classes while 21.6 per cent are already enrolled in Class 1. At age six, 32.8 per cent children are in anganwadis or pre-primary classes, while 46.4 cent are in Class 1, and 18.7 per cent in Class 2 or higher.
The report points out that boys and girls, even in the 4-8 age-group have different enrolment patterns, with a higher proportion of girls enrolled in government institutions and a higher proportion of boys in private institutions. These differences widen as they grow older.
Where the children go also depends on educational level of their mothers. Among the pre-primary age group, children with mothers who had eight or fewer years of schooling are likely to be attending anganwadis or government pre-primary classes, whereas children whose mothers had studied beyond elementary stage are more likely to be found in private lower kindergarten or upper kindergarten classes.
The Draft National Education Policy released last June points out that a very large number of children currently in elementary school do not have foundational literacy and numeracy skills, and that about 50 million children are behind or have fallen behind. Once children fall behind, most of them are unable to catch up. Going early into formal schooling leaves younger children at a huge disadvantage. In the same grade, older children are able to do much more than their younger friends, says Rukmini Banerji, CEO, Pratham Education Foundation.
It is vital to make sure that children acquire cognitive skills in their early years because this is closely linked to outcomes in many other areas. Evidence comes from The India Early Childhood Education Impact Study (IECEI), as Suman Bhattacharjea, director of research, ASER Centre, points out. Conducted between 2011 and 2016 by ASER Centre and Centre for Early Childhood Education and Development (CECED) at Ambedkar University, Delhi, with support from Unicef, the study tracked 14,000 children in the 4-8 age-group, the same age range covered by ASER 2019. It found that children who were able to do tasks that involved sequential thinking at age five also had better early language and numeracy skills than their peers and this advantage persisted even three years later.
India has made a huge investment in its early childhood programme. The Integrated Child Development Service (ICDS) with its network of 1.3 million anganwadis provides supplementary nutrition, immunisation and pre-school education to children below six. It is the largest programme of its kind in the world. The findings of ASER 2019 make a clear case for strengthening these Early Childhood Development Centres so that they implement appropriate school readiness activities, says Wilima Wadhwa, director, ASER Centre. Ms Wadhwa also says a case can be made for streamlining the curriculum at the pre-school stage so that they focus on activities that build cognitive, early language and early numeracy skills rather than expose children to rote-based mechanical learning of competences that they are supposed to learn when they enter school.
There are important recommendations in this ASER report — strengthen the outreach of anganwadis, especially for children between three and four; avoid admitting underage children into a school grade as it only disadvantages them; focus on breadth of skills rather than formal subject learning in the early years.
Policymakers must act on these recommendations. They must also ensure that there are more trained teachers who understand the development needs of the youngest children.