Catching them early: foundation stage education

Venita Kaul

The Draft National Education Policy (2019) has been making headlines on a periodic basis ever since it came into the public domain. There have been some recommendations that have raised a political controversy such as the three-language formula. Unfortunately, this is taking attention away from several very commendable reforms suggested in the policy, one of which is the concept of a foundation stage to be created in the school structure. The foundation stage is envisaged to cover children from 3 to 8 years of age. This includes the ECCE (Early Childhood Care and Education) or pre-primary sub stage in upward continuity and in conjunction with grades 1 and 2. This proposal may be seen as a significant departure from the present structure of school curriculum, in which the preschool stage of 3 to 6 years is delinked from grades 1and 2. This sub stage has even been kept out of the ambit of the RTE and the MHRD does not currently assume any responsibility for it.

I believe the committee must be commended for making this excellent proposal. This recommendation needs to be understood in two parts. One, this implies that ECCE for 3 to 6 year-olds, which is currently outside of the organized school structure as well as of the RTE, will now become an integral part of it, and thus become the responsibility of the Education Department. It is hoped this will also make ECCE a justiciable right of every 3 to 6 year-old child in India under the RTE Act, so that the government will be duty bound to ensure access to good quality ECCE for every child. The committee rightly considers this to be “among the very best investments that India could make in education.” This understanding is based on credible research evidence from neuroscience and cognitive sciences which demonstrates that “the learning process for a child commences immediately at birth and over 85% of a child’s cumulative brain development occurs prior to the age of 6, thus indicating the critical importance of developmentally appropriate care and stimulation of the brain as a sound foundation for life.” Returns to investment studies also indicate an estimated return of Rs 10 or more for every Re. 1 invested in ECCE! Given this significance of ECCE, the policy rightly acknowledges that the country’s aspirations for a skilled and well-educated youth population in the years to come can only be fulfilled if due attention is paid to this critical stage, on which all future learning rests.

The second part of this recommendation is that the ECCE stage of 3 to 6 years will be considered for curriculum purposes in upward continuity and in conjunction with grades 1 and 2, and together these will form the first or foundational stage of school education with “a single curricular and pedagogical phase of play and discovery based learning between the ages of 3 to 8 years.” Why is this part of the recommendation not only significant, but the need of the hour?

For one, it is consistent with the global definition of ECCE which indicates this stage to be from birth to not just 6 but 8 years of age. This definition is guided by the logic that children up to 8 years tend to broadly have developmental characteristics similar to those of younger children. In effect, this implies that till this age children tend to respond better to play-based, interactive and activity-based classroom processes, as compared to formal teacher-centered, ‘chalk and talk’ methods, typically seen in classrooms. Secondly, the objectives of this foundational stage of education are different from the later primary grades. These are not to introduce children to the 3 Rs (reading, writing and arithmetic) and academic knowledge, which children are developmentally better prepared to receive in the later primary grades. Instead, the focus in this stage is to provide children experiences, interactions and opportunities which support their all-round development, while also giving them foundational skills for later school learning.

What should these ‘developmentally appropriate experiences’ be? It is important to note that play is the ‘medium’ for children’s learning at this stage. These experiences should therefore include planned activities for outdoor and indoor play; easy access to free play opportunities and materials such as building blocks, puzzles, toys, picture books, art activities, doll’s corner; teacher-led activities like storytelling and recitation of rhymes, language and cognitive games, role play and so on which are not only enjoyable for children but promote their learning and development. In addition there can be some teacher-guided activities with materials to help children form different concepts which help them to make sense of the world around them and understand the environment better.

What can we expect children to actually learn from these methods? Children learn to become more self-confident, expressive in the school language and their own, develop a good vocabulary, be creative, curious, learn to solve simple problems; learn to make relative comparisons of size, quantities, measurement; develop concepts of colours, numbers, shapes in the environment; develop social skills of sharing, collaboration, waiting for their turn, compassion, importance of personal hygiene and so on. Above all, by interacting with story books and print in various forms, they not only begin to learn to read and write more meaningfully, but enjoy reading and writing – an interest that stays for life and serves them well! Formal teaching, on the other hand, is not developmentally appropriate for them at this age as these methods do not engage children adequately and they respond at best only through rote learning and memorization, with little conceptual understanding. As the Draft Policy emphasizes, there is a need for all stakeholders including policy makers, parents and teachers to 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.”

The importance of this second part of the recommendation also rests on the suggestion that ages from 3 to 8 years should not be seen in a discrete manner but as continuous and integrated within “a single curricular and pedagogical phase,” with upward extension of pedagogy and continuity of curriculum. This recommendation addresses a vital gap caused by a faulty assumption curriculum framers tend to make for the primary stage, which is that each grade of children is homogenous in terms of age and abilities and all children learn at the same pace, that too as prescribed in the curriculum! A recent study by Ambedkar University and ASER center which tracked 14000, 4-year-olds for 5 years in 3 states demonstrated that there is no homogeneity, either of age or abilities and children do not necessarily move forward in a linear mode between preschool and primary in these early years. It is only by age 8 that the participation trend of children stabilizes with most now in school. Even in situations where children do adopt a linear approach, as possibly in high end urban, private preschools/schools, it is a known fact that every grade is inevitably multi-level and not homogenous in terms of abilities. This results in gaps in learning at the end of each grade.

The key issue is that this gap does not necessarily get addressed at all since children move forward to the next level in the school, but with little or no opportunity to revisit the previous year’s curriculum. Since learning is a continuous process, this rigidity of the grade structure leads to cumulative learning deficits in children, an outcome of which can be possibly seen in our schools today in the form of the prevailing learning crisis in primary schools. This recommendation of treating preschool and grade 1 and 2 as a single unit is expected to allow for a more flexible curricular approach with opportunities for children to learn at their individual pace in a more spiral mode, so that by grade 3 most, if not all children, will have at least gained a sound basic foundation for learning, as per their potential.

In conclusion, the proposal for a developmentally appropriate foundation stage is an important and welcome move. The challenge will lie in its implementation. To begin with, a major issue is that the age range of 3 to 8 years is divided between two separate ministries/departments with 3 to 6 being with the Ministry of Women and Child Development and 6+ with the Ministry of Human Resource Development. Most states prescribe 5+ as entry to grade 1 leading to double counting of children under both departments! The institutional provisions to facilitate convergence and coordination between the two departments are extremely weak.

The proposal to co-locate anganwadis with primary schools has been suggested as one model in the way forward in the draft policy. However, the number of anganwadis in a particular catchment area is expected to be much larger than the number of primary schools, thus distorting the ratio. Left to itself, the ICDS (Integrated Child Development Services) has a single anganwadi worker to deliver six services of which preschool education is one and this requires a very different skill set as compared to other services. With an overburdened, ill-equipped, under-trained and ill-paid anganwadi worker to cater to the development needs of the young child in this fashion, reviews show that the program is designed for failure. A consistent recommendation for a second anganwadi worker dedicated to handling preschool education has never been accepted. Added to this, the co-location of anganwadis in the schools, if opted for, is likely to create issues of dual management for the anganwadi workers with the school head and ICDS supervisors both becoming the reporting authority!

The policy does not give a clear and categorical direction as to how the recommended consistency and continuity envisaged for this stage will be implemented. It has left the option to the states whether to deliver through the existing system in the anganwadi or establish preschool sections in schools. Either way, if this has to be successful, requirement for specially trained and exclusive teachers for this foundation stage will be non-negotiable. The states are looking up to the center to provide the financial support for these, but what is coming to the states through the Samagra Shiksha Abhiyan is of little consequence. Unless these nuts and bolts issues are resolved, this vision of the policy will remain a welcome one, but difficult to implement.

Note: Some parts of this article were published by The Hindu dated 25 June 2019 in its OpEd page.

The author is Professor Emerita (Education) Ambedkar University Delhi and currently Chairperson of the Advisory Committee of Center for Early Childhood Education and Development (CECED) at the university. She can be reached at [email protected].

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