Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) in India: History, Trends, and the Way Forward
The interest in early childhood care and education (ECCE) has risen sharply in the last decade or so. Several studies have shown that early childhood education and care are crucial for brain development, cognitive growth, and even for the long-term prosperity of individuals. There has also been a realization that without improving early childhood care and education, it would not be possible for countries to achieve sustainable development goals (SDGs). This awareness has led many countries to reform their early childhood care and education programs to make them comprehensive and responsive to the needs of the children. Taking cognizance of the developments across the world, the policymakers in India have included the ECCE in their reform agenda.
The draft national education policy (NEP, 2019) has set its objective to provide ‘every child in the age range of 3–6 years access to free, safe, high quality, developmentally appropriate care and education by 2025’ (pg. 45, draft NEP). The policy-document also promises to reform the curriculum for early childhood education so that ‘children of ages 3–8 have access to a flexible, multifaced, multilevel, play-based, activity-based, and discovery-based education’ (pg. 47, draft NEP). There has also been a realization that the children who lack a proper, developmentally appropriate early childhood education and care not only lag in the foundational stages of learning but also struggle in the later stages of their lives. To counter the ill-effects stemming from early deprivation, the policy document envisages to view the period starting from pre-school years (ages 3–6) to the end of grade 2 (till age 8) as a foundational stage where the attempts would be made ‘to develop and establish such an integrated foundational curricular and pedagogical framework, and corresponding teacher preparation, for this critical foundational state of a child’s development’ (pg. 51, draft NEP). The draft document uses convergence as a strategy to make provisions for expanding and strengthening existing ECCE infrastructure, professionalize and capacitate ECCE educators and institute a responsive and accountable regulatory system.
The policy also suggests that ECCE should come under the purview of the RTE act so that the commitments made during the 86th amendment of the constitution which directed the “state to provide ECCE to all children until they complete the age of six years” are fulfilled. These proposed reforms also recognize the primacy of demand-side factors in the successful implementation of ECCE policy as ‘all stakeholders, including policymakers, parents, teachers, and community members must be well-informed on how a young child’s needs are so different from what formal education provides, and why fulfilling these needs is so important for a child’s lifelong learning and development’ (pg. 53, draft NEP). While some of the provisions for ECCE in the draft NEP policy are new, many of them follow from the previous policies such as the National ECCE policy (2013), etc. As these proposed reforms are located within a certain discourse, it would be a valuable exercise to look at the current discourse and practices of ECCE in India, before making any assessment of the draft NEP proposal.
Discourse and practices related to ECCE in India
The study of childhood(s) in India (and elsewhere) has been greatly influenced by the western middle-class idea of ‘childhood’. While this notion has brought out many innovations in the study of childhood, its essentialized notion has limited our understanding of childhood in many ways. For a very long time, the early part of childhood came in the exclusive domain of the head of the family (Tuli, 2012). The child in a family has no will of herself. It is only in the mid-18th century when ideas of philosophers like Locke, Rousseau, etc. came into the mainstream, the notion of childhood being separated from adulthood started getting traction. Even the Piagetian and Montessorian notions of childhoods, which seemed to have brought the focus on childhood, gave children little agency in terms of freedom, individuality, and equality (Kumar, 2016). Similarly, behavioral and Freudian studies presented yet another deterministic notion. The common thread among all these notions was the universality of childhood and how it could be studied and analyzed in a standardized manner, with cultures and diversities making no difference to the interpretation. It is only after both the world-wars were over and there was a realization that these wars affected the children most, the industrialized and developed counties established norms and institutions for child-care and protection.
In contrast to the developed nations where childhoods in itself became an important site, to be studied and analyzed, our policies on ECCE remained rooted in our cultural and colonial legacies. India being a dominantly oral culture, it was believed that children first learn from their mothers, and then elders in the family. Children were exposed to an outside tutor at the later stage of their childhoods (Raman, 2000). Our colonial policies on education too showed little concern for childhood as their main objective was the education for citizenship. Despite article 45 of the constitution clearly stating that the “state shall endeavor to provide within a period of 10 years from the commencement of constitution for free and compulsory education for all children until they complete the age of fourteen’, the critical period of childhood continued to be seen as fragmented, with health, nutritional, and educational needs of children being addressed by separate departments and agencies. Even the Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS), launched in 1975 focused only on the nutritional aspect of child development. From Acharya Ramamurti Committee report (1990) to Yashpal report (1993), all discussed the criticality of childhood, but no report offered a clear vision and roadmap for implementing early childhood education and care policies which would cover the whole gambit of protection, nutrition, play, learning, and education, both inside and outside an institution.
Even the famous Unnikrishnan judgment, which is often hailed for making elementary education a constitutional and fundamental right, ignored the criticality of early childhood. The RTE act came as another shocker to the practitioners and policy-makers in early childhood it limited the provision of free and compulsory education to the age group of 6–14 years. It was left to the ‘appropriate authorities’ to decide whether they would provide free pre-school education and care or not. Section 11 of the RTE act states that ‘with a view to prepare children above the age of three years for elementary education and to provide ECCE for all children until they complete the age of six years, the appropriate government may make necessary arrangements for providing free pre-school education for such children’ (pg. 6, RTE act). Ironically, despite being talked about so fervently in the policy circles, the first policy on ECCE came out only in 2013. This goes on to show that the current understanding of ECCE has not come naturally, but has been a long-drawn battle where various stakeholders have played important roles.
The discourse and practices of ECCE in India have also been shaped by its social and cultural complexities. The dominant western notion of childhood in the policy documents has often ignored the caste and gender realities in vast geography called India. The caste and gender boundaries create significant hurdles in the physical and intellectual development of a child. Having no critical awareness of these issues while imparting education to young minds has only reproduced the pre-existing social hierarchies and power relations. Even the notions of child protection, as Krishna Kumar (2016) argues, are embedded in the western notion of childhood, and might not be reflective of how an Indian child navigates through her childhood. While the western countries have long banned child labor, here children’s participation in the family’s occupational life is a fact. The prevalence of child marriages in India only adds to the complexities of studying childhood in India.
In recent years, the fast-paced growth in media and communication technologies has significantly changed the way childhood was being looked at. Access to these technologies has blurred the previous boundaries of regions, cultures, and ages. Now, the children are exposed to various cultural markers, with parents or teachers having little or no control over it, which has added new dimensions to childhood studies in India. While many still take it as a more techno-romantic view and do not seem to entirely agree with it, various researches have pointed out how technological innovations have truly transformed the way we have imagined childhoods till now. It is increasingly becoming hard for parents and teachers to stop children from playing PUBG or Minecraft. The policy-makers too seemed to divided on the potential impact of these media technologies on the growth and development of children, with one section suggesting a complete withdrawal from technology till a child reaches a certain year of age. On the other hand, authors like Jonathan Shapiro (2019) have advocated for a new paradigm where adults are advised to let their children create new social behaviors and forms of relationships using these technologies. The ECCE section of the latest draft NEP report prominently reflects most of these concerns and suggests the ways through which ECCE can be made more comprehensive and contemporary in nature.
A review of ECCE developments across states in India
With education and childcare coming under the state’s domain, there has been uneven progress in the implementation of ECCE policies across states. Southern states like Kerala, Tamil Nadu, and Telangana have taken a lead in legislating state-specific ECCE policies, with an aim to overhaul the existing ECCE eco-system. Tamil Nadu has also created a dedicated portal for ECCE teachers and has made tangible progress towards integrating its Anganwadi system with the primary schools. Similarly, eighteen thousand Anganwadi (a quarter of all Anganwadi in the state) has been merged with nearby government-run schools. Some nineteen thousand schools were instructed to mentor Anganwadi’s in their respective areas by the Rajasthan government in 2018. Gujarat has also instituted a policy to train Anganwadi caretakers to impart language cognition and some basic reading and mathematics skills to children. Many states like Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Odisha, etc. have focused on the nutritional aspect of ECCE by providing additional nutrition in form of eggs, milk, or by adding a meal to the menu (Kaul and Shankar, 2009).
Many states have also made reforms, taken corrective measures and actions to control the growth of un-aided, un-recognized privately run pre-schools. Now there are rules for the registration, regulation, inspection, and accreditation of day-care centers and pre-schools and they have to follow a mandate given by the appropriate authority. Despite the frequent reforms, foundational learning and skills remain a problem in most of these states. The recent study conducted by the Center for Early Childhood Education and Development (CECED) and UNICEF explored ECCE practices in the rural areas across three states; Telangana, Assam, and Rajasthan from a school readiness perspective and found that despite having near-universal access to ECCE in these areas, Anganwadi centers lacked development appropriate curriculum and focused on formal teaching. Overall, the study found the children’s school readiness level was very low (Kaul et al., 2017).
ECCE in the draft NEP: a critique
While the draft NEP shows a positive intent towards addressing many issues plaguing the implementation of a comprehensive ECCE in India, it also needs to deal with the challenges which often emerge when the policy recommendations interact with the local realities. For instance, the policy has provisions for allowing local authorities to not merge Anganwadi or pre-school center to the local primary school if there are appropriate social or infrastructural reasons for it (pg. 51, NEP). This not only dilutes the obligatory aspect of ECCE but also provides local authorities to play with the provision. Similarly, the draft policy has a recommendation for including breakfast in the mid-day meal. There is no denying the fact that the breakfast would provide additional nutrition to an impoverished child, but would not have been great if the policy document had also talked about improving the quality and quantity of existing mid-day meals. There have been reports that have documented open adulteration and corruption while delivering mid-day meals to children in schools.
The caste and gender questions do not seem to figure in the draft national policy on education. Any keen observer of the education system in India would tell how caste still affects various aspects of schooling such as access, participation, and identity issues. The policy tries to wish away these issues through curricular reforms and infrastructural improvements and if the past experiences have anything to show, this has always ended with disastrous consequences. Similarly, the word ‘sexuality’ finds no mention in the draft NEP document, ‘sex education’ has been subsumed under the component of “[e]thical and moral reasoning” (pg., 95, NEP). It is done with the intent to advance “[b]asic health and safety training, as a service to oneself and to those around us” (pg. 97, NEP).
It, moreover, sparingly envisions equipping students to make “future judgment surrounding consent, harassment, respect for women, safety, family planning, and STD prevention” (pg. 97, NEP). This is sheer neglect as the social-justice- and rights-based curricular understandings of sexuality in education have shifted the discourse towards Comprehensive Sexuality Education (CSE) for some time now. The most recent edition of the International Technical Guidance on Sexuality Education (2018), developed jointly by UNESCO, UNAIDS, UNFPA, UNICEF, UN Women, and WHO, delineates CSE as a “curriculum-based process of teaching and learning about the cognitive, emotional, physical and social aspects of sexuality. It aims to equip children and young people with knowledge, skills, attitudes, and values that will empower them to: realize their health, well-being, and dignity; develop respectful social and sexual relationships; consider how their choices affect their well-being and that of others; and, understand and ensure the protection of their rights throughout their lives” (16). Another point which the draft NEP document has stressed so much is the use of technology in the teaching and learning process at the ECCE level. Existing evidence on the use of technology in classrooms is mixed, and technology seems to be making no inroads if the traditional nature of the classroom remains unchanged.
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