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Why Early Childhood Education Should Be Made A Priority

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In a country which is ready to have the youngest workforce in the world, the noise needed for nurturing childhood education is still unheard. While scraping through the internet, blogs, and newspapers we might find some articles talking about the importance of education in early childhood and transforming preschools in India. While they do mention and quantify the problems as well as solutions, the hypothesis on which most are based—the very definition of education—seems too unstructured and flawed.

According to the Times of India, early exposure to learning cuts out the drop-out ratios, increases productivity, and income during adulthood. We can boast of the fact that the Anganwadi system is a big initiative. Yet we know how far we are from achieving total literacy, and how inefficient these Anganwadis are when it comes to what is expected out of them.

Most articles suggest that the two main issues our country faces—in terms of Early Childhood Education (ECE)—is quantity and quality. When we talk about quantity, we need to increase the numbers—of teachers, of centers, of students. When we talk about the quality, we need stronger curricula, training for teachers, infrastructure, and more. The Anganwadis also serve as a nutrition or daycare centres, making it all the more important for the economy and future human capital. Yet it is run by employees with no training in child development. Hardly half of them have tools of learning, and they have other duties to take care of as well including surveys, cooking meals, and providing material to pregnant women, to name a few. Needless to say, the task of providing a learning environment for the kids remains mostly incomplete.

Alternatives Usually Discussed

There have been talks about the usage of cash vouchers and its impact in increasing the numbers of enrollment. Such an initiative has worked in rural China. Cash vouchers always encourage in low-income groups to send their wards to schools, no doubt about that. But they cannot guarantee a decrease in drop-outs later. Then comes another question. What happens when a kid enrolls and the quality of education is sub-par? How do we improve the quality of preschool education in India?

Some researchers believe this can be done by partnering with local organisations working on early childhood education in the development sector. “An amount of Rs 7,000 per child per year will be enough to hire a teacher, improve curriculum, train existing Anganwadi staff, and provide uniform and books for students,” Times of India reportedThis sounds an important part as it quantifies the budget required to reach the quality; it has been derived from the effectiveness of private preschool programs which essentially means it is based on the hypothesis that , as they go on to say,“While private preschools are not perfect, they are generally regarded as providing a more appropriate environment and curriculum for children than Anganwadis.”

Firstly, the idea of comparing public preschools with private ones does not consider the great rural-urban divide, as well as the diversity of our nation.

Secondly, when we try and structure education according to the norms or standards set by private preschools, we essentially miss out on defining what education is and for whom. In an agrarian economy like ours, migration is at an all-time high, followed by unemployment. We have been facing a food crisis with the rising numbers of farmers suicides. In such circumstances, even if public preschools reach the level of standardised education provided by private preschools, it will not help the families of farmers or artisans or anyone involved in rural industry. Though a lot of research mentions that these changes and investments will increase quality and quantity, and increase the average wages of these children when they grow up, they fail to mention whether the increase in wages will come from rural work or not.

Thirdly, how right it is to always talk about investing in early childhood education, in terms of the quantifiable money returns provided by or to them in future? When we talk about the human capital, regardless of the increase in the wages, we need to nurture a population with good citizens.

Quantifying Investment in Education

The Times of India has also reported that “Each rupee spent on higher quality education generates a very generous return of Rs 18.” In economic terms, for a political body, this makes a lot of sense as a sales pitch. However they fail to mention that even after passing early childhood education, a kid’s upbringing is impacted by a variety of factors including the society around them, parenting, socio-economic factors, and peer groups. The mentioned increase in wages is usually compared to a kid who gets a year of preschool education with one who remains illiterate. They fail to mention how these two children excel as citizens or human beings. They fail to show if an illiterate kid, who went on to graze cattle and earned less, was happy or not as compared to one who got educated, and increased wages by working in company as an adult. Perhaps we can not quantify morals and happiness, the values which have been missing a lot from the learning environment.

Most authors writing about ECE point out the importance and significant benefits of early childhood investment, an agreeable stance. But there are some important tangents which are always missed. The fact that the current set of teachers at Anganwadis are paid meagerly (for being social workers who take this on as volunteer work) also impacts the system. The fact that the bureaucrats or political leaders handling this department are themselves not trained or educated in this field, is another important point which is missed out. Maybe everyone thinks about this as a business problem, focusing on how it can yield returns like a stock market, if invested in. Scott Ozanus of KPMG, drawing on James Heckman‘s ideas, says “the return on investment in early childhood is even higher than the stock market from World War II through 2008.”

Maybe this issue grabs some eyeballs when we show it as a profitable venture—but is that enough?

A normal Google search about preschools or newspaper reports from January to March will overload you with advertisements from preschools, now a multi-million dollar industry in India. Private preschools have mushroomed all over rural and urban areas and are considered better options than Anganwadis, even amongst those who can barely afford to send their children there. Reasons? Their ads tag them as English-medium, promising individual care and security, and that they start teaching kids writing, speaking, and arithmetic right in preschool itself. This growth of preschools is considered as positive by most, without realising the issues with the same. Firstly, these can never reach the masses. Secondly, the focus at that age needs to be on learning and not teaching; learning through interactions, playing with friends, and building a core value system. Preschools take it a step ahead and burden the kid with much more.

Policy Situation

What about things at the policy level? India had a remarkable milestone in the Right To Education 2009 (RTE), especially with the sec 12 (1) (c) which tried to fill the gap of quantity and quality by reserving 25% seats in each private school for kids from underprivileged backgrounds. Except it didn’t stop the high drop-out ratios, plus there was a low policy usage. What deters families and kids from using it? It’s simple. You can not go to Step 2 by skipping Step 1. The section reserves seats only from Class I onwards, and hence completely ignores ECE as a fundamental right for a child. How do we expect all kids to directly reach Class I and sit in private schools with other kids who have got a formidable base ready? Unless we provide all kids with similar learning through Anganwadis, we can not expect RTE to bear fruit.

So, we have people talking about the importance of ECE; we have research going on; we have some policies in place; we also have numbers and targets quantified to talk about returns on investment in this field of human capital of our country. The last census said we have 158 million children in the age group of 0-6 years. By 2014, only 35 million benefited from ICDS. Also, if the idea of a nation investing in its young population is to create human capital and good citizens, have private preschools or literacy helped? The crime ratios in our country and poverty say otherwise.

What’s the objective of Anganwadis then? Do they prepare kids for schools? What we need is to reevaluate what kids learn and how we want them to learn. Maybe then we can talk about how much investment is needed to reach our goal, and what qualitative or quantitative returns we can expect out of the same.

Co-authored with Charul Dhingra, M.A. Education student from APU.
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