It is common sense that a strong and sturdy foundation is crucial for a good building. It is also well known that these foundations make a critical difference to the strength, scope and scale of the actual building. Similarly, what we do with our children in early years in pre-school and in early grades in school sets the tone and pace for what will be possible for them to achieve in the future.
The thrust of policy and practice in India is beginning to shift from “schooling” to “learning”. India’s Right to Education Act “guarantees” education from age six and provides 25% reservation in private schools for economically disadvantaged students from the first year in school. The central government’s Padhe Bharat Badhe Bharat programme also aims to provide special focus for early reading, writing, comprehension and arithmetic in the early grades.
For all of these old and new reasons, it is worth taking a closer look at Standard I to understand how strong foundations of learning can be built for children. First, let us explore who is in Standard I. Available data from the series of Annual Status of Education Reports (ASER) is helpful in answering some of these questions. Interestingly, although six is the age stated in the Right to Education Act for starting school, more than half of all five-year-olds in rural India are enrolled in some kind of school. Another 39% are enrolled in pre-school or in anganwadis.
If we look at the age distribution in Standard I, approximately two-thirds of children enrolled are either six or seven and the rest are either younger or older. Of those in Standard I, 31.5% of children are enrolled in private schools and the rest in government schools. Interestingly, children in Standard I in private schools are almost a year older than their counterparts in government schools. This is because many children enter government schools directly in Standard I but in private schools, even in low-cost private schools in villages, children are usually first enrolled in lower KG (kindergarten) or upper KG and not directly in Standard I. This gives private school children an age advantage right from the start.
Looking at the different age patterns in Standard I, the obvious question that crops up is whether age matters for learning in early grades? Based on data from ASER, the quick answer is, yes. Let us take the ability to recognise letters as an indicator of getting “ready to read”. Data shows that across both types of schools, a higher fraction of older children are able to at least read letters compared to younger children. Thus, the beginnings of different learning trajectories for different kinds of children can be seen as early as Standard I. Within the same type of schools, older children seem to have a definite advantage in learning and there is evidence that the early learning advantage does persist over time.
The Right to Education Act specifies age six as the starting point for formal schooling. If entry into school and into Standard I is supposed to be the first step in “guaranteeing education”, then what steps can be taken to ensure that children are not left behind even before they start? How can we provide “school readiness” and preparation for children, especially to those who enrol in government schools and who may be younger than age six at entry.
Reforming the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) structure to give priority to pre-school education may be a tall order but certainly within the school system decisions can be taken to ensure that children have a good opportunity to become “ready for school” and the school to become “ready” for children. The world over formal school systems start with “reception” classes or kindergartens. Is it not time for India to consider such a step? For improving the child’s ability to learn and the system’s ability to enable a child to learn, early years are the best place to invest.
Serious discussions also need to take place in India about curriculum expectations in Standard I. Where to start from, how to move forward, in what language, how far (and deep) to go and how fast? Analyses of Standard I textbooks across states show a wide range in content, activities and pace of progression. At age five, children’s ability to learn needs to be well scaffolded but in most states the Standard I textbooks cover a great deal of ground very quickly so that many children get left behind even before they have started.
The curriculum and textbooks are means to an end. It is the end – the development of capabilities — that is of key importance. Learning goals need to be clearly stated. What do we want our children to be able to do by the end of the first year (or even the second year) of school needs to be clearly laid out. The articulation should be simple enough so that parents and teachers understand it well and can work together to enable children to achieve these goals.
The goals need to be within the current ability of teachers who can help the majority of Standard I children achieve them. Regardless of what the Right to Education Act says about completing the syllabus on time, it is critical that the goal of the first year in school is widely understood not as a race to finish all chapters in the textbook but to enable all children to reach the learning objectives that have been decided on.
Finally, the role that families, especially mothers, can play in supporting children’s learning must be integrated into learning support interventions for children in Standard I.
For example, a recent study tracking children in early years in Assam and Andhra Pradesh found that although a high proportion of young children in Andhra had been to private schools and pre-schools, children in Assam who had attended anganwadis did better on many dimensions. What was different in Assam was that mothers were more educated and home literacy environments were much richer — more mothers telling stories and reading stories to children, and so on.
Another study conducted in rural Rajasthan and Bihar with mostly illiterate and unschooled mothers of children (age four to eight) concluded that specific engagement activities that mothers did with children led to improvements in their children’s ability to read and to basic arithmetic.
Enrolling children only after they are six, preparing children to enter schools through school-readiness programmes, involving mothers in the child’s learning, are all necessary initiatives to ensure a strong beginning for all children. As the new education policy gets formulated in the next few months, it is critical that we as a country take our children’s first steps very seriously.
Rukmini Banerji is with Pratham and has led the Annual Status of Education Report initiative since 2005.