Early childhood education: Valiant teachers in villages

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The crisis in education is best understood when one considers the problem over the entire spectrum – from early childhood education to school and college education. A World Bank report in 2017, calling attention to the learning crisis, pointed out that by 2021, India will have 372 million children in the 0-14 age group and 367 million in the 15-29 youth group. On that occasion, I wrote that the path to improvement of school education would be through significant investment in teacher preparation and development. Now, I want to focus on another, equally critical, area: our early childhood education.

The inequitable quality of education begins right at the formative stage, when more than 20 million children begin schooling. Those with economic means and access provide their children pre-school preparation – Montessori methods, socialization, early language acquisition and so on – while the less economically endowed, especially in rural India, rely on the Anganwadi, an institution that provides valuable child-care but is ill-equipped to provide that kind of pre-school developmental support. 

The draft National Education Policy (NEP) recognizes the criticality of early childhood education. Stating that “Over 85% of cumulative brain development occurs prior to the age of six” and that “Universal access to quality early childhood education is perhaps the best investment that India can make for our children’s and our nation’s future,” it makes a number of recommendations. The draft NEP recommends that the Right to Education Act currently covering children in the 6-14 age group be extended to children in the 3-6 age group. It states that all aspects of early childhood education will come under the purview of the Ministry of Education (the NEP has suggested that the Ministry of Human Resource Development be renamed), to effectively link early childhood education with the rest of school education. This will enable all Anganwadi centres and pre-primary schools to link up physically and pedagogically to a primary school in the area. A curricular and pedagogical framework will be developed with educational guidelines for children in the 3-6 age group. Teachers for this age group will be professionals who are enabled through stage-specific training, mentoring and opportunities for continuous development. An effective quality regulation or accreditation system will be instituted to cover all pre-school education to ensure compliance.

The best of policies, however effectively implemented, take time to reach the ground – from concepts to detailed planning, from resource allocation to people preparation, infrastructure and action. Meanwhile, across India’s 6.5 lakh villages, around 30 million children are going through their early years in the care of Anganwadis before entering formal school. The committed government school-teachers – and I have been privileged to meet hundreds of them in the course of my work at the Azim Premji Foundation – cannot afford to wait for policy and system to improve things. Instead, using all their initiative and autonomy, these teachers create their own innovative micro-mini systems of change so that they can overcome the existing disadvantage.

Let me explain this with examples from my field visits, beginning with my recent one to schools in the hills of Kumaon. Of the eight schools I visited, four had the Anganwadi located within their school premises. In each of these schools, the teachers had taken the initiative to seat the children of the Anganwadi together with the children of the primary school, so that they could observe, absorb and participate in most activities. No wonder little Sakshi Rawat blew me off my feet. She asked me my name and we became friends quickly enough for her to say, “Mera green dress dekho,” almost doing a pirouette before me. When I posed some arithmetic problems to the children of Classes I and II, she keenly watched what they were doing. Thanks to the initiative of teacher Mamta Varma, the children of Aneriyakot in the 3-6 age group, are enjoying a precious head-start that will help them for the rest of their lives. At that age, one does not ‘teach’ math or language, but enables development through a richly supportive social and physical environment. Aneriyakot was doing just this.   

Aneriyakot, Jyoli and Semdhar in Almora district are not rare examples but representative of many good schools that are similarly proactive. Sarita, head teacher of a school in Garhwal, provides this insight: “Private schools have an advantage because they admit children at ages three and four in nursery and KG. Government schools admit children only in Class I. Once a child enters KG or nursery in a private school, it is difficult to attract that child to the government school. I overcome this problem by asking my students to bring along their three and four-year-old siblings to school with them. These younger siblings sit with the older children, observe, assimilate and participate in the daily assembly and games, thus developing a bond with the school. Ab woh yahin rahenge, private school kyon jayenge?”   

Down South, in Hunusugi village of Surpur taluk in Karnataka, Basavagowda, the indomitable head teacher, has turned around a dysfunctional school into a dynamic institution. When I met him, Basavagowda was already embarking on a personal initiative to begin an ‘unofficial’ LKG and UKG for the children of the village. He was going to put his own money into this and said, “I came from abject poverty and must do something for these children who come from a similar background. But even more important is that if I provide the children this education in their most formative years, it will help them learn better all their lives.”

Farsighted policy is critically important to any talk of systemic change, but ultimately, it is the hard working, motivated teacher who makes all the difference. Some 41% of Anganwadis are currently co-located with primary schools. The committed teacher in these schools may not wait for new policy nor will she understand what we mean by systemic change. For her, it is what she can do with all her ingenuity for the children who will come into her care from the Anganwadi.

(The writer is Chief Operating Officer, Azim Premji University, and author of the soon-to-be-released book, ‘Ordinary People, Extraordinary Teachers’)

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