Hitesh Kumawat has begun early. Almost four years before his son Kapil is old enough to start formal schooling, Chennai-based Kumawat has joined the race to find schools and unravel their admissions policies.
But he’s stumped. The policies of a prestigious pre-school he is interested in rule the boy out because of the month — October — in which he was born.Over 2,500 km away, in Katajhar Pathar village in Assam’s Barpeta district, 35 pre-school children are finding out what it means to be unwanted. The village’s primary school teachers and anganwadi workers each insist that the other take care of the children’s early education.
India’s landmark right to education law guarantees schooling for all children from the age of 6. But for parents and children across India’s cities and villages, the battle for quality education starts two years earlier, at the pre-school stage. An absence of any regulations and standards means that thousands of urban parents like Kumawat are each year left to the whims of individual institutions.
Meanwhile, a severe shortage of pre-schooling facilities in rural India means that the children of villages like Katajhar Pathar lose out on the early education many of their urban counterparts receive, and start formal education a few paces behind.
Unlike the formal education sector — schools, colleges and universities — pre-schools and playschools are not bound by the Supreme Court’s ruling that bars profiteering in education. They can charge any fees they like and can teach any curriculum they wish to. And they need not adhere to any standards of teacher qualifications or infrastructure.
Nipankar Kakati of Guwahati had to admit his son in a playschool that barely has space for a portable slide and a seesaw after four frontline schools he applied to rejected his application.
Pre-schools can also set any admission procedure, and entry barriers, that they choose. The uncertainty this breeds was what led Chennai’s Kumawat to start scouring through schools’ admission procedures early. Not that it helped.
For the school he was keen to see his son in, children born in October are either too old — four-and-a-half — or too young — three-and-a-half — to sit in the same class as other four-year-old pre-school students.
The state of rural pre-schooling is even grimmer.
As many as 6% of five-year-olds in rural India never go to any anganwadi, as opposed to 3.3% who miss enrolment a year later in formal schools, according to the latest Annual Status of Education Report published by NGO Pratham.
But even those who are formally enrolled in anganwadis, managed under the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS), rarely receive the early education city children from economically better-off families benefit from.
Though pre-schooling is a part of the ICDS mandate, most anganwadi workers are trained in helping young mothers and children with their health and nutrition, with pedagogical skills largely ignored.
At Katajhar Pathar village 160 km west of Guwahati, anganwadi worker Asmanera Ahmeda and her assistant Sufia Begum argue that they have no time to teach, with maternal and child health keeping them busy. If they are to teach, they must be paid at par with teachers, they demand.
The 35 pre-school children they have reluctantly taken charge of were part of the village primary school. But the school, which itself has only two teachers, detached the Ka and Kha sections — the two pre-primary years — and left them for the adjoining anganwadi to manage.
“We made this decision on our own after repeated pleas to the authorities concerned failed to cut ice,” said headmaster Pranesh Chandra Basak. “How can two teachers manage 356 children across seven sections (Ka to class 5)?”
For children and parents trapped in the vortex of these pre-school blues, the right to education — with its guarantees, standards and legal powers — may well be beginning two years too late.
Schools minus classrooms, drinking water, toilets... No state has managed to overcome the infrastructure issues.