Evidence on Early Childhood Education (ECE) suggests that children who engage in early and play-based learning activities have better developmental outcomes than those who don’t. The National Early Childhood Care and Education Curriculum Framework in 2013 mandated a ‘play-way’ curriculum in all Anganwadi Centres (AWCs) and preschools. In 2018, the government launched the ‘Transformation of Aspirational Districts’ initiative. One of the components involved capacity building, improving infrastructure, and nurturing a child-centric environment in the AWCs of these districts. The National Education Policy (NEP), 2020, envisions universalising Early Childhood Care and Education through Anganwadis. However, the advent of COVID-19 led to an abrupt halt in ECE services and progress.
AWCs fall under the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) Scheme. Preschool education is one of the six services provided in this package. AWCs are expected to provide preschool education through low-cost, locally sourced material that caters to the sociocultural context of mothers, and children below six years. The infrastructure usually consists of an open space and one or two rooms to carry out activities. On the other hand, private preschools usually mimic the formal schooling approach in terms of infrastructure and learning activities.
Evidence on AWCs and private pre-schools indicates that neither model provides appropriate inputs for the holistic development of young children. An impact study on early childhood by the Centre for Early Childhood Education and Development at Ambedkar University and ASER Centre found that children who regularly participate in a preschool programme perform better than children who do not. But at the same time, preschool education (AWCs or private preschools) is not developmentally appropriate for children. As a result, children’s early learning outcomes were nowhere close to the expected levels. An all-India survey of young children by ASER in 2019 found that not even half of the enrolled children between the ages of four and eight could perform age-appropriate cognitive tasks.
The cause of this learning crisis in Anganwadis may lie in the fact that such centres are under-resourced and overburdened. A report on the ICDS by the Ministry of Women and Child Development identified the absence of adequate space, lack of play-based learning materials, low investment in ECE and “constraints of human resources” as some key reasons for this situation. It said the implementation of the ICDS scheme in AWCs was uneven across States. The report also highlighted the lack of research and development in non-formal preschool education, making it one of the weakest dimensions of the ICDS model. The evidence showed a severe deficit in the delivery of quality ECE services even before COVID-19.
The pandemic has impacted 28 million young children across India due to the sporadic closure of AWCs and private schools (UNICEF). As a consequence, any progress made in ECE may be reversed. However, innovative strategies were devised to continue early education in some States. In Gujarat, the ‘Umbare Anganwadi (doorstep Anganwadi)’ initiative, a video series consisting of educational modules and easy-to-follow activities, was telecast every alternate day and streamed on online platforms to promote interactive learning. Similarly, Anganwadi workers in Haryana, Punjab, Odisha and Bihar visited homes to conduct activities with children. However, anecdotal evidence suggests that access to these strategies was not uniform. They also placed a huge burden on Anganwadi workers. Paramjeet, an Anganwadi worker in Punjab, said, “We give activities for children via WhatsApp, but I cannot reach all children as every parent does not have a smartphone. Sometimes, I cannot track children as the parent who owns the smartphone is at work.” To understand the repercussions of school closures, ASER conducted three field surveys in 2021 and found that the learning abilities of children had regressed. As we move into the third year of the pandemic, more children may be entering primary school severely unprepared.
Improving the model
The Anganwadi model has been struggling to deliver quality ECE, but the potential of Anganwadis remains enormous. Over the years, Anganwadi workers have ensured last-mile delivery of ECE and education care schemes. It is crucial to leverage their vast reach by filling implementation and infrastructural gaps. If we increase the honorarium of Anganwadi workers, build capacity and invest in research and development of a meaningful ECE curriculum, AWCs will be an ideal launchpad for children entering primary school.
Avantika Thareja is research associate at ASER Centre