India needs to focus on early childhood education
The idea and practice of universal and compulsory primary education is about 150 years old. In comparison, the idea of universal early childhood education (ECE) is much more recent. Private schools have pre-school classes, but this is not true of government schools, except in some cities. Although the need for ECE for all, and particularly the underprivileged, has been emphasised in policy documents, universal ECE is not practiced the way it should be.
Twenty-five years ago, Pratham started its work with ECE in slums of Mumbai. How can anyone start balwadis (pre-school education centres) when there are no trained teachers, no space and no money to support the project? Despite the constraints, we did set up 3,000 balwadis in three years. They depended on the enthusiasm and skills of local young women who received a bit of training and big doses of motivation as the local community called them “didi” and “teacher”. The main reason why this project scaled up quickly was because of a strong latent demand. Parents, especially mothers, wanted their children to go to pre-schools just like the children of middle-class families. We also found that they were happy as someone else was looking after the children for a couple of hours. They could use the time to relax or earn. Of course, they wanted the children to learn, but these other reasons were significant too.
The demand for pre-school education had another dimension. Although the pre-school centres were for children between three and five years, most of the children who came were four or five. So, we expected the four-year-olds to stay in our pre-school centres for two years. But we found that a large proportion started moving to kindergartens in private schools after one year because parents were eager to give their children “English” education. If parents can see an alternative they think is better and within reach, they go for it. That was 1995-98 when a majority of children in slums of Mumbai still went to the municipal schools. Today the municipal school enrolment has dropped to nearly 30% of what it used to be.
Government policy and practice has not kept pace with people’s aspirations as the economy liberalised. Most young mothers in the next decade will not be very young, as median age of marriage has increased from 18.2 years in 2001 to nearly 21.7 in rural India and 23.4 in urban India by 2016. Further, most of them would have had at least five years of schooling. These changes in the profile of the Indian mother need to be taken into account when thinking of the education inputs to be designed for the Indian child of the next decades.
In addition, the Labour Force Participation Rate (LFPR) of females (15 to 64 years) has dropped significantly over the last 30 years. It was around 32% in the early 1990s and it is estimated to have dropped to about 25% in 2019.
The status of participation of women in the labour force is both a reflection of their status in society and the needs of the economy. Higher economic growth will need much greater labour force participation of educated, skilled women both in rural and urban India. This is likely to be correlated with the structures that society creates to look after young children, so that young females can be freed for work.
The Integrated Childhood Development Scheme was created first in mid-1970s. Although it has had its successes, there is a need to expand and upgrade it to ensure that children get adequate educational inputs of the kind that are not modelled after the formal school. Second, there is a need to create day care centres that will allow mothers of young children to work when they find opportunities.
The cause of universal compulsory primary education got a big boost in the 1990s as Unicef, the world over, started talking about “primary education: the best investment a country can make”. In India, with a liberalised economy, this tagline was picked up by many, then young, industrialists. Later, many who became billionaires created big foundations for education. The link between social justice and education had been around for more than a century in India, but its connection with economic growth was new. The two together created the force necessary to push for at least the creation of infrastructure for education.
It is now important to stress that early childhood education is not only good for the child but it is good for the mother, the family, the society and the economy. It is for these multiple reasons that we need to strengthen and expand early childhood care and education based on what we know about the growth of the child.