In a first-of-its-kind partnership, Delhi’s Jamia Millia Islamia university and NGO Save the Children have come together to set up the Centre for Early Childhood Development and Research.
A major focus of the centre will be early childhood education, an area largely neglected by the government and policy makers.
The Human Resource Development (HRD) ministry is responsible for the education of children above five years whereas the Ministry of Women and Child Development looks after the health and nutrition of children in the aged six and below.
So, the below-six age group is often neglected when it comes to learning, in government-aided programmes.
Besides, the government’s flagship programmes such as the Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS) and the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA) have taken a piecemeal approach to early childhood education.
While anganwadi (child care centres operating under the ICDS) workers have some training in imparting pre-school education, children often enter school without preparedness.
As a result, many of their learning levels are abysmally low. At 5 years, many children enter Class 1 without knowing alphabets and numbers.
“Both the SSA and the Right to Education Act talk about children above the age of six,” said Renu Singh, director (policy and technical support), Save the Children. “The HRD ministry has ignored the 0 to 6 years (group) when children are most likely to learn and develop their mental faculties.”
While inaugurating the new centre at Jamia Millia on Tuesday, HRD Minister Kapil Sibal said: “I will urge the Planning Commission to allocate more funds under the 12th five-year plan to evolve a policy of caring for children in the early years.”
Under the ICDS, which started in 1975, pre-school education was provided to more than 34 million children by March 2009. But the ICDS –– which focuses primarily on child nutrition and health –– has not made a big impact on learning levels of children.
“There is no curriculum for pre-school education. Anganwadi workers are given a few days’ training and left to innovate,” said Singh. “There are also no infrastructure norms under the ICDS, which means most anganwadis run from the homes of workers.”
A 2008 study by the National Institute of Public Cooperation and Child Development questioned the quality of pre-school education in government programmes.
Titled “Quality of pre-schooling under different programmes including ICDS”, the study, conducted in Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh and Punjab, concluded that 50 per cent ICDS centres and 41 per cent SSA centres had pre-education kits such as charts depicting alphabets and numbers –– but only 50 per cent crèches, 44 per cent SSA centres and that 65 per cent ICDS/anganwadis were using the charts.
Use of picture books, toys and indigenous material for early childhood education was less than 50 per cent, the study said.
“ICDS is a weak and ill-provided scheme. The people running the anganwadi centres are not well-trained and often ill-paid,” said Amod Kanth, chairperson of the Delhi Commission for Protection of Child Rights, an advocacy and advisory panel on child rights issues. “How can the government expect the same worker to look at both the health and education programmes?”
A success story
There have been a few success stories, though.
In 2007, the ‘annual status of education’ report by NGO Pratham showed that 32 per cent Class 1 students in Chhattisgarh could not read. The figure dropped to 9.3 per cent in 2008.
The turnaround came after the state government put in place a comprehensive early childhood care and education curriculum. Of the state’s 33,000 anganwadis, 20,000 were trained and provided with learning kits.
“We ensured that each child learnt alphabets and numbers, and took part in activities in the anganwadis,” said Nand Kumar, school secretary, Chhattisgarh. “The anganwadi worker then ensured that all five-year olds were enrolled in the nearest primary school.”
Education experts agree that a concentrated effort is needed in bringing early childhood care to the fore.
“We need a whole new set of pre-schools that will cater to the zero-to-six-year-olds,” said Singh. “Only then can we expect children, especially those belonging to weaker sections of society, to take advantage of their right to free and compulsory education.”