How ready are we? NEP 2020 and early years schooling

KanuPriya Jhunjhunwala

Importance of the early years
The National Education Policy 2020 (NEP) has brought Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) into sharp focus. It has reiterated the importance of the early years and proposed a reorganization of the school system to include children aged three to eight years through a universal ECCE continuum. In doing so, the policy reaffirms what brain research has been telling us. The complex process by which intense brain growth takes place (85 per cent of brain development happens by age 3) is highly sensitive to external influence; and children’s early experiences – in the home and community – interact with genes to determine the brain’s architecture. This young brain enables rapid development of early skills across domains (see table below).

Domains of Development Skills
Cognitive early language, literacy and numeracy
Social and emotional perspective taking, empathy, social behaviours
Executive function persistence, attention, self regulation of behaviour and attention
Physical gross and fine motor skills

Each of these domains of development has been found to be strengthened through play-based learning. In turn, they form the building blocks of school success and completion and more fruitful, participation in society. The long-term impact of ECCE is well-established and the NEP’s emphasis on this stage of children’s development is timely and important.

Historical background of ECCE in India
Across India, pre-school education in the government sector is currently provided by the flagship Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS) established in 19751. This central government scheme pioneered a cross sectoral approach to maternal health and nutrition, with a continuity to services for children from birth to six years of age. Approximately 14 lakh Anganwadi centres (AWCs) offer frontline delivery of nutrition, health and education services. The near universal reach of this scheme becomes evident if we consider that there are about twice as many AWCs in India as there are villages. The scheme has been instrumental in the country’s progress on child development – the eradication of polio, raising the number of institutional births, tackling malnutrition, to name a few. Historically, the scheme has emphasized more urgent issues of child-mortality, tackled through health and nutrition efforts.

The National ECCE Policy and Curricular Framework were notified in 2013 by the government of India. As per this policy, states have strengthened the pre-school component of the ICDS. They have adopted play based, developmentally appropriate pedagogy; alongside efforts to improve physical infrastructure and learning environment of the Anganwadi centres. Some states, such as West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Maharashtra have already made impressive gains, where more than 75 per cent of the right age children are enrolled in pre-schools. The aspiration for universal, developmentally appropriate ECCE, adopted in 2013, has been strengthened by NEP 2020.

What NEP 2020 has proposed for ECCE
NEP 2020 has proposed a 5 + 3 + 3 + 4 structure, in which the first five years (ages 3 to 8) will include three years of pre-primary and two years of primary school, forming the foundational stage of education2. The NEP has an unequivocal emphasis on foundational learning, affording the highest priority to ensuring that all children attain foundational literacy and numeracy by grade 3. It highlights that in the absence of universal high quality ECCE, a large proportion of children fall behind in the first few weeks of grade I itself.

The policy rationale for ECCE in NEP 2020 is firmly rooted in social justice – it asserts that by 2030, universally, children will have access to quality early childhood development, care and education, and will be school ready. It proposes that special attention will be given to areas facing socio-economic disadvantage. A second policy rationale for including ECCE in the NEP is that of maximizing human capital. The idea of ‘school readiness’ underpins the goals set forth for ECCE. It is seen as the first step in maximizing human potential and making sure that even the most disadvantaged of India’s burgeoning young population will ‘flourish in the education system throughout their lives,’ eventually ‘transforming India…into a vibrant knowledge society.’

The policy has made the NCERT3 responsible of developing a National Curricular and Pedagogical Framework for ECCE; in recognition of the need for uniformity across what is currently a stratified sector including private and government provisioning, across stand-alone as well as integrated (with schools) pre-schools. The NEP directs that early years pedagogy will be ‘flexible, multi-faceted, multi-level, play-based, activity-based, and inquiry-based learning, comprising alphabets, languages, numbers, counting, colours, shapes, indoor and outdoor play, puzzles and logical thinking, problem-solving, drawing, painting and other visual art, craft, drama and puppetry, music and movement.’ This indicates the NEP’s emphasis on development outcomes across domains, and a move away from formal teaching of subjects and textbooks in the early years.

There is provision for strengthening of Anganwadi centres through better building infrastructure, play equipment and learning environment, as well as the introduction of an ECCE qualification pathway for Anganwadi workers. There is a vision to integrate schools with Anganwadis, through regular visits of staff and children, and through ongoing professional development of Anganwadi workers being undertaken by the school education department.

While the ages 3 to 8 are being viewed as a learning continuum, operationally, children aged 6 and older will belong in the primary school (with age six being regularized across the country as the age for entry to grade 1), while ages 3 to 6 may attend one of three possible settings – anganwadis, private pre-school, or bal-vatika. The bal-vatika is being proposed as a one (or two) year ‘preparatory class,’ for 4-5 year old children, attached to government primary schools. It will have an ECCE qualified teacher and will follow the principles of play-based learning. In order to provide holistic development, supplementary nutrition (mid-day meal), health check-ups and growth monitoring will also be offered in the bal-vatika.

Are schools ready for children?
The ideal of school readiness is central to NEP 2020. The learning crisis4 looms large over the policy and creates impetus to re-imagine the school structure in its entirety, with the early years forming the first step in tackling the learning crisis. In keeping with the latest research on how young children learn, the NEP proposes a much needed early learning continuum. The introduction of a ‘preparatory class’ prior to grade 1, brings the Indian system on par with the global K-12 systems. However, while the NEP is sufficiently preoccupied with children’s readiness for school, it fails to give adequate attention to whether schools are ready for children.

If the vision of the NEP for ECCE is to be realized in full, especially with regard to bringing quality provision to the most disadvantaged children, then attention must be paid to the following issues:

Structural issues: Education belongs on the concurrent list and while the NEP provides national guidance on ECCE, ultimately it will be up to the states to integrate the ICDS system of anganwadis, the privately run pre-schools and the pre-school sections of state primary schools into one cohesive system, leading to grade 1 and beyond. Each state has its own linguistic, historical and socio-economic milieu that dictates educational provision, the level of private participation and regulation. For instance, in 13 states, till very recently, age for entry to class 1 was five years, despite the Right to Education Act (2009) notifying that elementary education extends from 6 to 14 years. It is likely that in these states, where five year olds have long endured formal teaching of reading, writing and arithmetic, a sudden shift to the bal-vatika system might seem regressive to parents and teachers (although more developmentally appropriate). The private pre-school market in India remains largely unregulated, and although NEP 2020 acknowledges their existence, it says nothing about regulating this vast and stratified market. It is noteworthy that following from the guidance of the National ECCE policy in 2013, Himachal Pradesh is the only state to pass an ECCE Regulation Act (2015), regulating all providers under the same quality parameters.

Systemic inertia: There is evidence from national level studies of pre-school education in India to show that a downward extension of primary school syllabus, and formal teaching of subjects, is the main impediment to quality in the early years5. Evidence from the longitudinal Young Lives study (Alwani, 2019)6 also shows that despite pre-school participation, long-term educational gains remain low for Indian children. One reason for this could be that belief and conviction in the process by which children learn through play (play learning beliefs) across the systemic hierarchy (from policy makers to state level functionaries, to frontline teachers and care workers) are weak. Play is still not accepted as a way of learning – and an emphasis on formal teaching-learning in the pre-school years is having no positive effect, if not adverse effect, in the long run. There is a need to build public discourse around learning through play and the importance of developmentally appropriate practice, which leads to skills in each of the domains mentioned in the first section of this article. In the absence of such a mass communication exercise there is a danger that despite the best intentions, the implementation of NEP 2020 will only end up promoting premature (and detrimental) teaching of literacy and numeracy.

School variance: Schedule I of the RtE Act (2009) created a legal obligation to ensure uniformity in the physical and human resources available to schools. Overall, at the state level, the average school seems to be doing well, with respectable pupil-teacher ratios, adequate numbers of classrooms and safe drinking water and toilets. However, variance between states, and more importantly, within states and at the district level remain high. A large proportion of schools are not equipped for early years practice – physical classrooms, appropriate learning materials and environment, and most importantly, teacher availability and quality, remain problematic. For instance, small schools (single and two teacher schools, with one or two rooms), which number about 93,000 across the country, the majority of them in Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh, will find it impossible to cater to another complex layer of multi-grade multi-level teaching. These schools exist in the poorest districts and villages of the country, where it has been historically very difficult to supply good educational resources, mainly due to geographical, linguistic, social or other accessibility issues. Unless earmarked budgets are made available, it is more likely than not, that children from these regions will remain outside the ambitious ambit of the new ECCE provisions.

‘Social Distance’ between home and school: In the poorest areas, where schools are most stressed, the care needs (health, nutrition and pastoral care) of young children are also likely to be highest. There is evidence to show that early experiences of children in various domains/contexts interact to influence brain growth; maternal nutrition, maternal depression, domestic violence, parental responsiveness, availability of water and sanitation, hygiene practices, availability of and practices around nutrition, all contribute to children’s ability and readiness to learn. It is easy to see how a child’s gender may have an impact on all the above mentioned factors. The ICDS provides essential ‘care’ services, through a holistic approach, intimately situated within the community where family context is visible to the Anganwadi worker. In communities where children’s care needs are high, a perfunctory transition to primary school (which is likely to be a low resource school), and loss of contact with the ICDS family based approach, can do more harm than good. For example, in families with limited resources, girls are more likely to attend ICDS than boys (who are more likely to attend private pre-schools or integrated primary schools). If they are forced to attend primary schools, which are typically further away as compared to the AWC, they may drop out, either temporarily, or permanently.

Health and nutrition – beyond the mid day meal: In the early years, at a time when the brain develops at an astonishing rate, and when health and nutrition play an essential part in brain development and subsequently cognition, any discussion of cognitive progress (towards school readiness) without considering the nutritional status of children, will be incomplete. In the ASER 2019 ECE survey across 26 states, girls were found to be ‘behind’ boys on cognitive tasks. There was a clear correlation to socio-economic status and mothers’ education levels – this automatically begs the question – are these girls also nutritionally ‘behind’ boys? The NEP has mentioned that health check-ups and growth monitoring will continue in the bal-vatika, however, there are no clear mechanisms mentioned. Although operational issues do not always fall within the purview of a policy, health and nutrition remain critical at this stage, especially for the most disadvantaged children, and processes by which these provisions will be offered within school settings, need to be clearly spelt out.

Conclusion
The urgency and importance that NEP 2020 has attached to early childhood care and education is very welcome. However, the translation of policy to practice will require two main things – first, a fulfilment of our commitment to children made as part of the Right to Education Act in 2009, that all children, everywhere in India will have adequate classrooms and teachers; and second, a paradigmatic shift in how school systems regard children and their learning. The undoing of teachers’ beliefs about childhood and learning may become the biggest barriers in the implementation of this policy. In many ways, because Anganwadi workers and nursery staff are not considered ‘teachers’, they will require less unlearning of what is, and is not learning.

The author began her career as a teacher’s aide in an inner city classroom in Philadelphia. Since then she has worked to build equity in education and equity through education. She likes asking questions in the quest for positive change in classrooms. She can be reached at [email protected].

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