Preschool Curriculum and Guidelines Drafts by NCERT stimulate debate on preschool issues in India

In what could become the prelude to extend the right to education to preschooling years (3-6 years) in the country, about 14000 early education centres (ECEs), or best known as anganwadis (as per 2014-15 data there were 365.44 lakh children (aged 3-6) in  13.46 lakh operational anganwadis. Current statistics not available), have been relocated to primary schools in a much sought after convergence and coordination move for early education needs of the children. By this logic, SSA or sarva shiksha abhiyan , the elementary education fund now onwards will be having preschool component as well. However, if indeed this is a move towards universalization of preschooling or extension of RTE to early education, is certainly not clear or indicated by any official.

But at the same time, National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT), the apex school academic body, has recently released two important documents—Preschool Curriculum and Guidelines for Quality early Years Education—public comments for both have closed on May 15. These two documents would potentially bring a paradigm shift in preschool education in the country and India could well be moving to setting early education national standards and uniformity of curriculum framework across the country.  Both these significant documents will consolidate lessons from some good models operational in states like Sikkim, Kerala, Nagaland, West Bengal or Jammu & Kashmir. And, perhaps bring about a change of heart towards the whole preschool education and in the process set preschool business into churning for a better future.

The above-said two water-shed developments have naturally enthused ECCE activists, experts and academicians. While the move has been welcomed across the board as the long neglected and dangerously wrong run preschool education has been a cause for concern. More so the near havoc caused by mushrooming of neighborhood unregulated private preschools that are working in absence of an official curriculum framework and playing havoc with the development of children by subjecting them to rote memorization and undesired motor-sensory writing practices in lakhs of preparatory schools overwhelmingly private preschools all over the country.

The government sector angandawadi centres under ICDS with early education as a major component are doing no better. Showing a reality mirror of anganwadi working on ground, renowned school leader, Lata Vaidyanathan, director Made Easy School, Gurgaon, described her recent experience of the pathetic state of affairs in thee anganwadis of a village in Haryana, which she visited to study them. According to her while just one was operational as against a more than 100 as per attendance register (probably to take food) only 16 were present and some of these were as old as 11 years. “The condition in real sense is pathetic. Parent literacy programs need to be introduced and also ideal distance issue must also be addressed,” she added.

At a conference ‘Re-imagining Pre-school Education’ organized by FICCI ARISE (alliance for reimagining school education) and hosted by FICCI on May 11 in New Delhi, several speakers from preschool subsector including Anil Swarup, Secretary, School Education & Literacy, Ministry of HRD spoke on the issues. While Swarup didn’t elaborate much on government policy, he acknowledged private sector as a crucial partner in building a robust pre-school education format in the country.

According to Dr Venita Kaul, director of The Centre for Early Childhood Education and Development (CECED) at Ambedkar University Delhi and one of the foremost ECCE experts in the country there is no significant impact of preschool years on school readiness of children as they have not been administered developmentally appropriate and benchmarked preschool program. Dr Kaul has done an impact study on 298 ECE centres in three states.

Dr Swati Popat Vats, President, Early Childhood Association, wonders why rote learning is forced on children in every preschool despite best curriculums in states. According to her it boils down to teacher training issue. Echoing the importance of teachers in preschool education, Dr Kaul feels a cadre of professional ECCE teachers is needed along with developing age appropriate curricula along with regulations. Dr Vats also emphasized on looking the whole thing in terms of an enabling culture for children.

Dr Tapaswami Sahi, academic director, I am teacher, teacher training provider, feels that a preschool teacher is need of lifestyle development. They need self-esteem, coaching and mentorship much the same way as any normal teacher does. When asked if six month course or  introducing early education as a subject in B Ed will suffice to handhold or produce more teachers in this segment, experts said only a comprehensive course program can do justice to the role of an early education teacher.

Prof Suniti Sanwal of the department of elementary education, NCERT, who was also the coordinator for NCERT preschool documents said that NCERT expert group has envisaged a two-year pre-school period from ages 3-6 for children. “A preschool program pedagogy must build linkages with primary schooling and with that objective the preschool curriculum should set the child on path of imbibing values, develop attitude and quest for knowledge so that children are involved learners,’ she said. She also informed that NCERT was developing a compendium on latest initiatives in early education pedagogy and practices.

Reacting to the convergence of ECE centres with primary schools, Asha Das, former secretary, Women & Child Development, Govt of India, said that the move is confusing as the convergence involves a host of agencies from health, drinking water and others and it would be better a nodal department is created to oversee its effective implementation . She acknowledged that the education component of ECCE in the ICDS scheme has been a weak link and ministry of HRD must step in to shoulder its responsibility by owning the services it is supposed to provide. It may be mentioned that ECCE Policy 2013 provides for convergence. She also advocated converting primary schools into day care after school hours so that children can be served better. According to Mita Gupta, education specialist, UNICEF, these ECCE centres need to transform from nutrition centres to vibrant ECCE centres.

(to be updated)