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The Pratham Column: Where are all the quality pre-schools?

Are young children in India getting the foundation education they need?
BY Ankita Dubey |   12-05-2014
Pratham: Every Child in School and Learning Well...
It was a hot summer day in a village in Jharkhand. We could see just a handful of people sauntering towards us for a meeting we had called for to discuss the learning levels of children of the village. Disappointed at the low turnout, we began to wonder if our efforts would bear any fruit at all. However, an hour of patiently waiting and the school veranda turned into a bustle of activity. The children had told their parents that their “test” results would be shared at the meeting.

We had just spent the last two days in the same village, moving from one house to the other, gathering information and testing children on basic reading and arithmetic, as part of the Annual Status of Education survey 2013. The agenda of this meeting was to disseminate the survey findings with the stakeholders; parents, teachers, and the children themselves. 

The results were grim. Only 33% of Std 5 children had been able to read a Std 2 level text. The discussion began with the expected accusatory arguments blaming teachers for absenteeism and parents for not sending their children to school daily. Moderating this discussion was getting difficult with everyone engaging in the blame game. The Sarpanch, who was listening intently, stood up and made an important point. “Our children are weak because in government schools, there is no provision of any form of education till the children are six years old, while children in private schools go through kindergarten before joining school,” he remarked. The school teachers added that children are not even able to hold a pencil when they first come to school.

A lengthy discussion ensued, and the gathering of parents and teachers began to see merit in the Sarpanch’s comment. The local anganwadi, they argued, barely provided any foundational skills to the young kids.

An anganwadi, besides addressing the need for nutrition, is meant to be a place to hone a child’s social and cognitive skills through games, sharing, asking of questions and learning through mistakes. It is meant to provide children with the opportunity to be creative, to bring into their creations their own experiences and interactions with life. A pre-schoolteacher is under no pressure to complete the curriculum and can give his/her students the space to become constructors of knowledge instead of passive recipients of information, which is almost always mistaken as knowledge.

The truth of the matter is that pre-schooling in India is a largely ignored area. This is evident through the ASER 2013 data - which reports only 56.8% children (aged 3) were enrolled in anganwadis and 7.7% in LKG/UKG last year across India. Thirty-five point five percent  of  children (aged 3) were not enrolled in any school or pre-school.

Let’s look at one of our bigger states, Uttar Pradesh. The figures for 2013 are: 67.6% (aged 3) children and 50.7%, (aged 4) not enrolled in school or pre-school. However, Himachal Pradesh is doing far better in this regard. The percentage of children, aged 3, not enrolled in school or pre-school is 15.6% and 8.1%, aged 4. This is a substantial decrease from more than 40% of three-year olds in 2006, who were not enrolled in pre-school.
In Himachal Pradesh in 2013 the percentage of Std II children who could not even recognise letters was 5%. In Uttar Pradesh, for the same class, the number is as high as 30.1%.

So then, can pre-schooling explain the difference in the learning levels of children in higher grades? It certainly needs further in-depth research, but just a glance at the numbers above is a clear indication of a correlation.

The Right to Education Act does not cover aspects of pre-schooling in great depth - “the appropriate government may make necessary arrangements for providing free pre-school education” is the only visible stipulation in the Act. It is important for the States and Central government to recognise the role of pre-school education in the holistic development of a child. The latest report filed by the Central government records a total of 13, 18, 912 anganwadi centres in existence across the country.  

With a majority of Indian children dependent on the government system, the need of the hour is to train anganwadi workers in child development - and ensure that these centres have adequate teaching-learning material such as toys, blocks, charts, story books and poems. It can certainly go a long way in giving children a rich foundation before they begin formal schooling, and building their social skills.

Ankita Dubey is a Research Associate at ASER Centre, New Delhi. She manages the ASER survey in Bihar, Jharkhand and Uttar Pradesh along with other projects in these states.


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