Structured education should begin at an early age, says K.R. Maalathi, an educator on a mission.

“I agree we have play schools mushrooming all around us, but how many of them offer space for children to play,” asks K.R. Maalathi, CEO, Auuro Educational Services. “Our skewed approach to Early Childhood Education (ECE) is baffling, particularly because it’s an area which needs much attention. Sadly, we give it the least,” she says.

The second National Convention on Quality Early Childhood Education organised by her was held recently in Chennai. It had speakers of eminence dwelling on the importance of education for children before they reach six years of age.

Surprisingly, Maalathi began as a teacher of adolescents, where she had to make children unlearn a lot before the learning process could begin. “Repairing a broken adult isn’t easy. To develop social and emotional skills, we ought to begin structured education at an early stage. I tried plugging in loopholes, in vain. Callousness was a norm and consideration for others, nil,” she explains. “We have to have an integrated curriculum that weaves in ways to create responsible individuals.”

She sincerely believes that cases of molestation, gender discrimination, female foeticide and other social ills are on the rise because of neglect of ECE. “The horrific cases of rape and acid attacks on young women in the recent times reiterate the point I’m trying to make. Early years up to eight are ideal for inculcating values such as gender sensitivity, as the mind is alert and imbibes ideas that last a life time. Children can be moulded into quality citizens at this stage.”

The lacunae

As Maalathi details the lacunae in the most significant period in a child’s education, the enormity of the problem hits you. “Though through Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS), the Government lends a helping hand to middle class parents also, not often does it reach them. And our RTE Act doesn’t include ECE.

It doesn’t come under the Ministry of Human Resource Development either. And the age group of 3-6 years is under the Women and Child Welfare umbrella.” Thankfully, now a National Draft Policy that emphasises the need to bring ECE under the RTE Act is under way. “The time to stem the rot is probably near,” Maalathi strikes an optimistic note.

Maalathi’s mother was a superintendent of juvenile homes. Even as a child she understood that delinquents had been driven to lives of misery because of uncaring families, broken homes and abusive parents.

“The seed of care for children was sown then,” she remembers. She has helped set up 14 international and 12 CBSE schools and two for children with special needs. SPICE is an acronym which sums up Maalathi’s vision for ECE. “Social, Physical, Intellectual, Creative Education is what it stands for. Easy to remember because we like spice in food and in life,” she laughs. Shouldn’t parents share equal responsibility?

“Undoubtedly, and it is to create awareness among the disadvantaged sections that I travel to remote corners of the country. Even politicians may not know the places that are now familiar to me,” she smiles. Maalathi forays into several two and three tier cities for on-the-ground analyses. “Nearly 40 per cent of them are single parents. Divorces and extra-marital affairs are rampant among the middle class. Then you have harassment and physical abuse, with the child at home being a mute and perplexed witness to it all. Only happy parents can keep the child’s environment happy and only happy children can make a happy nation. ECE can contribute a lot to it.”