NEP 2020: Recognising the primacy of early education
Perhaps the most significant change envisioned by the National Education Policy (NEP) 2020 is at the very beginning of a child’s educational journey — the first step of the learning ladder. The critical importance of good quality early childhood care and education (ECCE) has been understood by experts for a long time. But by bringing ECCE to the centre of the education stage and by clearly stating that “ECCE is the greatest and most powerful equaliser”, NEP 2020 has given the highest priority to building strong foundations early in a child’s life.
The policy document released in its final form last week sees the age group — three to eight — as a continuum. This continuum is not only a conceptual construct; it will need to be operationalised in terms of provision, approach, curriculum and pedagogy. The transitions from pre-primary to primary will have to be made in a way such that each year’s progress builds on the previous year’s learning. The policy document stresses that an urgent national mission is needed to ensure that by the end of class 3, every child has acquired foundational literacy and numeracy skills.
Let us stay for the moment with the first building block outlined by the policy — the first five years of a child’s educational life. Already there are debates about difficulties in implementation. Further, in the current context, where fiscal pressures are high, where will the resources come from?
Today in India, even at the age of three, at least seven out of 10 children are already enrolled in early childhood centres, according to the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) 2018. Apart from states such as Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Bihar, in most other states, only one out of every five children at age three is not enrolled anywhere. Therefore, although coverage is not universal, India has come a long way in spreading the net for early childhood centres.
Families take decisions on where to send their children, considering available options in their neighbourhoods. On the one hand, private schools, even low-cost ones in rural areas, enrol children in lower kindergarten (KG), who then move to upper KG before entering class I. On the other hand, in the government sector, there are anganwadis in the community as well as those which are physically located within school compounds. In the past, some states such as Assam (with the ka-shreni class) and Bihar (with the bal-varg) have tried to create opportunities for the pre-primary age group. More recently, Punjab and Himachal Pradesh have brought in a pre-primary class into their school structures supporting these initiatives with age and developmentally-appropriate classroom materials, training, and mechanisms for academic support. Thus, while the key blocks for the first step of NEP will have to be strengthened, it is not like they have to be built from scratch.
Undoubtedly, there is much to be done. We need to expand access to pre-primary opportunities for those who are still outside the net. Next, it will be essential to introduce and integrate developmentally-appropriate practices both in pre-primary groups and primary grades. This needs to be planned systematically, one step at a time, keeping in mind the goals and ground realities. Further, different departments, parents and teachers must work closely together to ensure a smooth transition from early childhood centres into schools.
While at the ground level, many co-located anganwadis and primary schools use common sense to share and maximise resources, convergence at higher levels of their departments and ministries will urgently need to be planned and operationalised. For example, there are roughly 13,000 government primary schools and close to 27,000 anganwadis in Punjab. Of these, well above 10,000 anganwadis are in school compounds. In both Punjab and Himachal Pradesh, where governments are giving serious priority to preparing the pathway from pre-primary to primary, discussions on how to productively bring in anganwadis as an integral part of this process are well underway. Learning from these experiences is essential. It is possible that a careful analysis of budgets from the ground up may show that more effective deployment of existing resources is possible for enabling young children to get more out of their pre-primary experience.
NEP 2020 boldly states that if the stage-wise goal of foundational skills is not achieved by class 3, the rest of the policy is irrelevant. It also lays out timelines and asks states to create implementation plans and goals to be achieved by 2025. Every child needs to have a strong start to their educational life. The high priority to early years given in the policy document can give a strong backing to effectively translating policy into practice. Ten years after the Right to Education came into force, let us take bold and much-needed steps to give every child the right to learning.
Rukmini Banerji is CEO, Pratham Education Foundation
The views expressed are personal