All Indian children could soon enter the formal education system at the age of three, with the draft National Education Policy projecting an expansion of the Right To Education Act to cover the three years of preschool before Class 1.
The draft policy also wants early childhood education to be overseen and regulated by the Ministry of Human Resource Development (HRD) as part of the school system, rather than the private pre-schools and anganwadis that currently cater to the 3-to-6 years age group.
This could result in an upheaval in the anganwadi system which has been overseen by the Ministry of Women and Child Development (WCD) for more than four decades.
An inter-ministerial task force will work out a roadmap for the transition by the end of 2019, says the draft policy.
The HRD Ministry is in the early stages of assessing the implications of such a move. Additional costs will come in the form of teacher recruitment and training, infrastructure and learning materials, as well as nutritional aspects (including the proposal to provide breakfast to young children), said Ministry officials.
The Ministry does not yet have accurate data on what percentage of children are neither in pre-schools nor the anganwadi system. Given that the WCD Ministry has been in charge of this for over 40 years, it’s not clear if they would be willing to give it up, said one official.
The draft Policy praises the contribution of anganwadis to improving health and nutrition, but notes that their record in education is not so strong.
“While providing some essential cognitive stimulation, play, and day care, most anganwadis have remained relatively light on the educational aspects of ECCE [or Early Childhood Care and Education]. Anganwadis are currently quite deficient in supplies and infrastructure for education; as a result, they tend to contain more children in the 2-4 year age range and fewer in the educationally critical 4-6 year age range; they also have few teachers trained in or specially dedicated to early childhood education,” says the draft Policy.
It adds that private pre-schools often consist of formal teaching and rote memorisation with limited play-based learning. A 2017 study by the Ambedkar University showed that “a significant proportion of children in India who completed pre-primary education, public or private, did not have the needed school readiness competencies when they joined primary school,” says the draft Policy.
The draft Policy suggests a new integrated curricular framework for 3 to 8-year olds with a flexible system based on play, activity and discovery, and beginning exposure to three languages from age 3 onwards. This framework would be implemented by training and strengthening anganwadi capabilities and linking them to a local primary school, co-locating anganwadis and pre-schools with primary schools, or building stand-alone pre-schools also linked to a local primary school.
All aspects of early childhood education must come under the HRD Ministry, says the draft Policy, just as health services in anganwadis lie with the Health Ministry. A joint task force from Health, HRD and WCD will draft “a detailed plan outlining the operational and financial implications of the integration of early childhood education with the school education system”.