The early childhood edu conundrum

At what age should you send your child to school? Across the globe, the recommended age is four years. In India, of course, it’s a different story. Tiny tots, as young as two, are seen waiting for the school bus with a parent, lugging the bulky school bag in tow. And then, there are autos plying more than half a dozen precariously positioned toddlers in one go.

Curiously, most of these ‘schools’ are little more than day care centres or crèches that have a ‘trained teacher’ or two on board. There’s no need for any registration or licence to run an early education centre. It’s a free-for-all that pro-mises good returns with zero tax liability.

Earlier this year, the Delhi High Court had directed the government to ensure immediate closure of unrecognised schools housed in premises which may pose threat to the safety of students. Suffice it to say that it’s going to be a difficult task, especially at a time when playschools and nurseries are mushrooming at every nook and cranny of the cities and towns.

Article 45 of the constitution says, “The state shall endeavour to provide early childhood care and education for all children until they complete the age of six years.” The Right To Education (RTE) Act also states, “with a view to prepare children above the age of three years for elementary education and to provide early childhood care and education for all children until they complete the age of six years, the appropriate government may make necessary arrangement for providing free preschool education for such children.”

Our National Early Childhood Policy by the Women and Child Development Ministry clearly states that the Government of India recognises the significance of Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE). In the public sector, the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) is touted as the world’s largest programme imparting ECCE.

Despite all this, the ground reality remains far from satisfactory. Young children continue to be burdened with unreasonable academic pressure with most middle class parents willing to shell out lakhs of rupees annually in a bid to secure their wards’ future.

The competition is immense; months before the nursery schools start their admissions, parents are seen making enquiries, trying to dig out influential “connections”, preparing the little ones and themselves for the volley of questions that are likely to come their way at the much-dreaded interview – the one that can make or break the child’s future.

‘No failure policy’
Not too long ago, a four-year-old in Pune was asked to repeat Nursery; he wasn’t fit to be promoted to Junior KG, said the school. Little does it matter that the RTE Act recommends ‘no failure policy’ from Class I to Class VIII. The Act applies only to children aged between six and 14 years; those attending nursery do not fall under this category.

“Early education in India is nobody’s baby,” says Swati Popat Vats, president, Early Childhood Association. It, technically, falls under the domain of the Women and Child Development Ministry. And there’s an early childhood policy, a curriculum draft framework and a quality standards framework in place. “But it is only a vision document, which means it outlines what the government would like the final document to have, but has yet to detail it out,” she adds.

Experts believe that a focused early ‘childhood education national curriculum framework’ needs to be formed – something that is basic yet comprehensive for all centres, be it government or private. “There should be a separate ministry for Early Childhood Development: Care and Education. We need a uniform curriculum across all states,” maintains Swati.

Whether or not we get a dedicated body to manage ECCE, there should at least be a licence or registration required to start an early childhood education programme. There needs to be an accreditation body that has the power to derecognise and close centres, if they do not meet the prescribed standards. Also, minimum qualifications and training of teachers at playschools and nurseries need to be defined.

And finally, parents need to be enlightened that there’s a difference between care and education. There’s nothing wrong in leaving your infant at a crèche or day care (that is safe and reliable), but if you expect the place to turn your little one into the next whiz kid, you are asking for trouble.

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