By Ashish Jhalani
On the 75th anniversary of its Independence, India has much to be proud of. Historically, a clutch of visionaries practiced various aspects of Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE), such as experiential learning and learning through play, across the country even before independence. Gijubhai Badheka (1885-1939) introduced several innovative child-friendly practices into ECCE; he opined that teachers must greet children instead of the other way round. Tarabai Modak (1892-1973) founded a Gram Bal Shiksha Kendra in 1945 which served as the early inspiration for India’s Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS), a.k.a. Anganwadis. Together, Gijubhai and Tarabai also started India’s first training college for pre-primary teachers, way back in 1925. Sadly almost a century later, India does not have a formal early childhood teacher training programme similar to the Bachelors of Education (BEd) study programme. Anutai Wagh (1910-1992) also joined hands with Tarabai to develop an indigenous curriculum using low-cost teaching aids. Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948) and Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) also had a keen interest in bringing the best of western and eastern principles into ECCE.
These visionaries knew the positive long-term effects of implementing ECCE right. If children are given the right grounding for learning in school, grade-appropriate reading can be achieved and the number of dropouts reduced, eliminating the need for and cost of future remedial measures. ECCE lays the foundation for becoming responsible adults, fostering cognitive skills along with increased attentiveness, motivation, self-control and sociability. Long-term studies have shown that early childhood education is an excellent investment, with students attending preschool having graduation rates averaging nearly 80 % as compared to the 60% graduation rate for those not enrolled in preschool. And yet, as per National Education Policy (NEP) 2020, quality ECCE is not available to crores of young children in India, particularly those from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds.
The ECCE payoff in India is yet to reach its potential. Education has for long been underserved in the Union Budget, despite policy recommendations since 1968 to allocate 6% to education. While education was allocated a Rs 11,000 crore Budgeted Expenditure in the recent Union Budget, a bulk of this has been chalked out for commitments other than ECCE. Moreover, while the aggregate budgetary commitment to education has risen 12% from 2021-22, education’s overall share in the country’s GDP has declined. Unless concrete measures are taken to address this, illiteracy will remain an Achilles heel (India is home to 37% of the global population of illiterate adults, of which 59% are women). UNESCO studies indicate that the cost of illiteracy in emerging economies is almost 1.2% of GDP – or potentially Rs 3,930 crore per year for India.
Additionally, the 2012 survey of ECCE quality by the Economist Intelligence Unit ranking India last among 45 countries on ECCE quality. As of March 2021, India has 13.87 lakh Anganwadis, with the Union Budget 2022 unveiling plans to upgrade two lakh centres. However, the Government is actively looking to upgrade the quality of service delivery, without which the demographic dividend cannot be reaped. A lack of quality Foundational Literacy and Numeracy (FLN) interventions has limited the potential of generations of Indian children, leading to economic and social losses. Compared to ASER 2018, where 25% of grade eight children could not read a grade two level text fluently, the number of Grade two students in Karnataka unable to read at a beginner level had grown by 13% in 2021. Over 82% of children have forgotten foundational mathematical abilities, and over 92% have forgotten foundational language abilities known in March 2020. When it comes to primary education, the global rate of return on investment (ROI) in schooling is approximately 10%, while the global social ROI is 18.9%. Comparatively, India’s ROI is merely 7.6%.
Looking to the future
A report released in December 2021 by the Prime Ministers’ Economic Advisory Council underlines how effectively implementing FLN can potentially grow GDP by 7.39% (a contribution of $3.8 trillion), when benefits are calculated over 20 years. How do we achieve this?
Hence, the task ahead is to immerse our children in the right learning environment, getting FLN right, enabling access to learning infrastructure, improving content and pedagogical approaches, and empowering educators with 21st century educational skills. Recent policy initiatives (such as NEP 2020 and NIPUN Bharat) have outlined a progressive roadmap for reimagining education, and emphasised developing FLN skills.
Continued investment in ECCE, training teachers to succeed, measuring outcomes, engaging parents and communities, leveraging technology (the national average for schools with computer facilities is 38.54% as per UDISE+ 2019-20) are the way forward. The two pivotal areas for the future however will be-
Private-Public Partnerships: By aligning the innovative and results-based approach of a private operator with the core purpose of governments acting for the greatest good, we can achieve multiple objectives in the farthest reaches of the country, such as empowering women, creating employment opportunities, and expanding access to education and childcare.
Phygital Infrastructure and Learning: Physical infrastructure, technological connectivity, age-appropriate and multilingual content for primary grade children that straddles the physical and digital is the key. While there has been a proliferation of digital content in recent times, its relevance is questionable as it is either not grade appropriate, or it doesn’t use modern pedagogical tools. Additionally, these resources need to encourage a participative model of learning. End-to-end enabling infrastructure such as multilingual play-based games and resources, animated learning videos, interactive e-books, activity sheets, and more can create a learning environment conducive to holistic development.
The past 75 years have seen us move the ECCE needle, but the road ahead is a challenging one. High quality ECCE can unlock every child’s innate potential and help them shape a new world order. An entire generation lies in wait.
The author is the managing director, Square Panda India. Views expressed are personal.