P is for policy, preschool, and potential

The NEP has, for the first time, detailed guidelines for the universal right of children from three to six years to access learning, which States are now beginning to implement, albeit in a fragmented manner. At anganwadi centres in Haryana and Uttar Pradesh, bordering Delhi, where children from low-resource settings come for day care, teachers and parents talk about what they face on the ground

Updated - August 18, 2023 01:29 am IST

Published - August 18, 2023 01:12 am IST

Children at the anganwadi centre that now also functions as a preschool in Sonipat, Haryana. 

Children at the anganwadi centre that now also functions as a preschool in Sonipat, Haryana.  | Photo Credit: R.V. Moorthy

On a humid July morning on Delhi’s outskirts in Sonipat, Haryana, children as young as three and four years are see-sawing and sliding down age-appropriate play equipment in an anganwadi centre that doubles as a preschool. These playthings are new additions to the space, co-located on the campus of the Government Senior Secondary School of the Rai block headquarters. Soon, the warm savoury smell of aloo parathas wafts through, as about 35 children run to get their hot freshly cooked midday meal. Like most anganwadisliterally translated as courtyard shelters, this one too looks after the healthcare and nutrition needs of pregnant women and children up to six years, in low-resource settings. Now, they are also responsible for preschool education.

With the 2020 National Education Policy (NEP) stipulating that early childhood education (ECE) for children from three to six years be taken care of by anganwadisStates like Haryana are developing plans to make preschool-based learning available here. The premise of preschool itself is that over 85% of a child’s brain development occurs by the age of six, and the mind and body need to be stimulated in ways that encourage growth. As per the NEP, free preschool education can be imparted in four ways: through anganwadis either located within government schools, or as stand-alone entities, through government schools that have a preschool, or through stand-alone preschools.

In Haryana, the anganwadi system is the most popular way of disseminating play-way-based learning. Chief Minister Manohar Lal announced in his 2020-21 budget speech that 4,000 anganwadis (of 25,000) would be converted into preschools. In the run-up to next year’s Assembly election, sources close to the CM say that he personally monitors progress on building and running the preschools, in a bid to showcase change.

An anganwadi centre that doubles as a preschool, which is co-located on the campus of the Government Senior Secondary School of the Rai block headquarters. 

An anganwadi centre that doubles as a preschool, which is co-located on the campus of the Government Senior Secondary School of the Rai block headquarters.  | Photo Credit: R.V. Moorthy

Different realities

Still in Rai block, about 5 km from the well-equipped preschool, is another anganwadi centre in Khewra village. Here, the roof leaks, and it is damp and gloomy. A pot of thin dalia (broken wheat porridge) simmers in an aluminium pot in a corner. The ‘official’ menu is paratha, but the anganwadi worker is absent, and the helper says, “It is too stressful to handle the kids and cook at the same time.” There are only six children, and they sit idle on the veranda.

Within the same block that has 203 anganwadis, with 30 of them running preschools, the difference is stark. Sonipat, about 40 km from Delhi, has 1,482 anganwadis, with 220 selected to incorporate preschools. The government has been able to co-locate 85 in schools; 46 are in independent buildings run by Haryana’s Women and Child Development Department; 63 are in the common areas of villages.

Anganwadi workers do an observational assessment of children, ticking boxes in the child’s report card to the parents for physical, cognitive, socio-emotional, language, and premath skills. They look for a child’s ability to jump a rope, hold a crayon and colour within a given boundary, recount a story, count objects, and simply talk about how they are feeling. “These are skills a child needs in Class I: holding a pencil, a sense of numbers, and communicating emotions of pain or happiness to the class teacher,” says Samyukta Subramanian, co-lead, Early Years Programs, Pratham, a non-profit working on the ground with various States on NEP.

In Haryana, the anganwadi system is the most popular way of disseminating play-way-based learning.

In Haryana, the anganwadi system is the most popular way of disseminating play-way-based learning. | Photo Credit: R.V. Moorthy

Parental aspirations

Atul Jyoti, 4, at her preschool at the Rai block headquarters, wears a maroon T-shirt and a pair of cream trousers. She can already hold a pencil in the pincer grasp, and can neatly write out the alphabet in Hindi. As she does this, she says, “A se anar (A is for anar or pomegranate)”, and so on. She is the exception.

Only 20.5% of children in Class III (from both government and private schools) — about the age of eight — could read Class II textbooks, said results of the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER), a countrywide survey by Pratham.

Sushma Rani, 40, a preschool instructor and anganwadi worker, says that in the absence of access to preschools, children would mostly directly get enrolled in Class I. “However, now children as young as three have started attending preschool with us and we are working hard to strengthen their basics so that they seamlessly transition into Class I,” she says.

Rani, who is a graduate and has been an anganwadi worker for 17 years, says she is attached to the children. She earns ₹12,660 a month, but her work hours have increased by an hour after the introduction of education as part of the job. “The workload has also increased, so my salary should go up too,” she feels, adding that since the centre has shifted into a school, she has to walk further to come to work.

Rani has another complaint: “Atul’s mother insists on sending her to private tuition, in addition to preschool. Many parents insist on this.” She tries to dissuade them: “I tell them that burdening children with extra work is unfair.” But parents have great expectations of their children, who they hope will fare better in life than they have. Atul does not enjoy her tuition class, but her mother, Jyoti, 30, says it’s the reason she can write the alphabet.

“One of the biggest challenges for the Haryana government was to have an adequate, good quality alternative to private preschools for younger children,” says Karthik Menon, lead, operations, government partnerships at Pratham. There’s a perception that private preschools and schools are better than government-run ones, and they often charge a high fee, putting a great deal of pressure on parents.

With the 2020 National Education Policy (NEP) stipulating that early childhood education for children from three to six years be taken care of by anganwadis, States like Haryana are developing plans to make preschool-based learning available here. 

With the 2020 National Education Policy (NEP) stipulating that early childhood education for children from three to six years be taken care of by anganwadisStates like Haryana are developing plans to make preschool-based learning available here.  | Photo Credit: R.V. Moorthy

Infrastructure challenges

In the scaling up of anganwadis, three aspects are considered: the space itself, the anganwadi workers who must now double as teachers, and the lesson plans that contribute to the play-way method of teaching.

With infrastructure, there is a cost implication. In Khewra village, for instance, “the primary school, when asked to allocate space, gave away one unused room in a terrible condition for the anganwadi centre. The roof can collapse and the children could get hurt”, says a local, who did not wish to be named.

Editorial| Playing with learning: On status of early childhood education

The Haryana government commissioned an infrastructure gap analysis survey for each district in 2021-22. The Hindu accessed data for 220 anganwadis in Sonipat. Of these, nearly 40 have no electricity, and there is no water supply to the toilets in 50. “Even if a water purifier is installed [a necessity as per the Ministry of Women and Child Development], it will be useless in these facilities if they lack power and water supply,” a source in Haryana’s Women and Child Development Department says.

The source adds that in structures that are old and unstable, water seepage is common. “This makes it difficult to paint the walls. Bala paintings are a must in these centres, but we haven’t been able to accomplish this for nearly 100 anganwadis,” the source says.

A senior district official in Sonipat, who is involved in monitoring education-based schemes, says ₹41 lakh had been designated in 2021-22 to upgrade 15 anganwadis in the district. However, the fund lapsed because it wasn’t used. “Now we are working on a plan to select 10 anganwadis to upgrade them into model preschools,” the official says.

 Children with anganwadi workers, who now double as preschool teachers, at Basantpur Saintli in Uttar Pradesh’s Ghaziabad district. 

 Children with anganwadi workers, who now double as preschool teachers, at Basantpur Saintli in Uttar Pradesh’s Ghaziabad district.  | Photo Credit: R.V. Moorthy

Tech glitches

About 50 km from Rai block in Haryana and 40 km from Delhi is Uttar Pradesh’s Basantpur Saitli, which until 2021 was a sleepy little village in Ghaziabad district. That was before the National Capital Region Transportation Corporation’s Regional Rapid Transit System (RRTS) project came in. The elevated train corridors, now visible, will connect the village to New Delhi.

Sensing an opportunity, Amarpal, 30, a daily wage labourer at a construction site near the RRTS corridor, moved to Basantpur Saitli from Shahjahanpur, over 300 km away, five years ago. He says he went to school until Class V; his wife Preeti has never been.

Their three children — Karthik, 2.5, Anupam, 4, and Hrithik, 6 — all go to an anganwadi co-located in the village school. Karthik enthusiastically grabs a picture book, points to objects in them and identifies a car, a tiger, and an owl.

Preeti is happy to send the children to preschool. “Abhi se jayega toh aage school mein baithna seekh jayega (If he goes now, he will later learn how to sit in school),” she says.

Sudesh, 50, the anganwadi worker who teaches the three, shows the class a five- to 10-minute instructional video that comes to her through a WhatsApp group run by the U.P. government’s Department of Women and Child Welfare. They have tied up with a non-profit, Rocket Learning, to implement ECE services. “Sometimes lessons on video have a rhyme that involves recognising animals and their sounds, another time it is counting, or separation of big and small objects based on an activity,” says Sudesh, who has been an anganwadi worker for 26 years now, and jumps and sings with the children. She forwards these activities as 5MB to 10MB videos to parents on a WhatsApp group, where she encourages engagement. Parents are expected to play the videos at home and practise with their children.

Children at an anganwadi centre co-located in the village school at Basantpur Saintli, Ghaziabad district, Uttar Pradesh.

Children at an anganwadi centre co-located in the village school at Basantpur Saintli, Ghaziabad district, Uttar Pradesh. | Photo Credit: R.V. Moorthy

Namya Mahajan, a Harvard University graduate and co-founder of Rocket Learning that offers teacher training and digital guidance to anganwadi workers, says, “When you repeatedly perform certain activities with children in these formative years, their neural connections become strong.”

Neuroscientists note that in the first few years of life, over a million neural connections are formed in a child’s brain every second. Mahajan’s team advises the newly trained preschool teachers to get parents in these low-cost settings to count onions and potatoes instead of blocks; use atta instead of Play-Doh to hone their gross and fine motor skills; and trace numbers or letters in flour on the floor, in the absence of stationery.

The organisation also develops phone-friendly content. Mahajan says the ASER data of 2022 stated that post-pandemic up to 74.8% of the households surveyed had smartphones, which is why their content goes out via the phone.

But two months ago, Karthik flung his father’s new phone that cost ₹12,210 into a pond. Amarpal earns all of ₹10,000 a month. He is still paying off the monthly instalments of ₹2,035 over six months. “Now, only incoming services are active on the phone, and I cannot afford even ₹250 a month for internet data,” he says.

Also, he leaves for work at a construction site at 7 a.m. and returns only by 10 p.m. taking the phone with him, making it difficult to use it for study, play-way or any way.

One of the challenges is the scaling up of preschool education to 1.4 million anganwadis across the country.

One of the challenges is the scaling up of preschool education to 1.4 million anganwadis across the country. | Photo Credit: R.V. Moorthy

The big picture

The biggest challenge for the Ministry of Education is to convince States to admit only children of age six and above to Class I. With different States taking different approaches, there is a paucity of Central data for preschool education.

Many anganwadis grapple with simple shortages like the lack of workers. For instance, in Sonipat, official data suggest that of the 1,482 anganwadis157 do not have a worker, while there are 280 anganwadi helper posts lying vacant across the district. “Elsewhere in Himachal Pradesh, where preschools are being established in existing schools, of the 10,500 schools, up to 6,000 have preschool sections. However, there are no separate teachers, and preschoolers have to make do with teachers of Classes I and II,” says Pratham’s Menon.

Another challenge is the scaling up of preschool education to 1.4 million anganwadis across the country. An estimate by international non-profit Save The Children found in 2022 that 99 million children in India are eligible for ECE services as per the 2011 Census. Up to 31.4 million children are being covered through anganwadi services and pre-primary sections in government schools, but up to 68% of children between three and six years are out of the ambit of the public provisioning for ECE in India.

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