Early Childhood Education (ECE) is crucial to the overall development of children, with impacts on their learning and even earning capabilities throughout their lifetimes. Despite the importance of ECE, little has been said about the continuance of ECE delivery during the COVID-19 school closures, reminiscent of its status quo even prior to the novel coronavirus pandemic. Those attending preschool are primarily enrolled in the nearly 14 lakh anganwadis spread across the country where ECE continues to suffer from low attendance and instructional time amid prioritisation of other early childhood development services in the anganwadi system.
Where ECE has continued during COVID-19 pre-school closures, access has reduced and the priority for ECE is low within households. In a recent study by the Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy , 45% of the 650+ households surveyed in urban Maharashtra reported that they prioritise their older child’s education over ECE.
A crucial factor for households to be able to prioritise ECE is active parental engagement in their child’s education, especially for children in the age group of three to six years who spend a majority of their time within the household and rely greatly on parental assistance in the learning process. The overall development of a child in the early stages edicts a conducive home environment and parental involvement in addition to equitable access to the schooling system. As such, the home environment and stimulation children receive within the household can contribute to their overall development. For example, studies have found that the act of making conversation with your child in the early years has significant gains on language skills they develop.
Role of parental engagement
Enabling parental engagement in ECE requires an understanding of barriers that usually prevent parents from meaningfully engaging in their child’s education.
The socio-economic background of households determines access to preschools and the ability to invest in ECE. Worryingly, the lack of priority for ECE often means that households choose to forgo investing in ECE altogether. The pandemic has highlighted the glaring digital divide in the country, even in an urban context. Unless the state vows to provide devices and Internet access to all children, it is clear that complete reliance on technology is not an option.
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Even for those who are able to overcome the initial barrier of access, the ability to engage in ECE at home remains dependent on time and ability. Households that have limited means have little time to invest in educational activities in the home. In the study mentioned above, with low-income households engaged in ECE in urban Maharashtra during COVID-19, we find that job and income losses led to further de-prioritisation of education, and the need to invest in educational and digital resources for its continuance during school closures.
Even among households that are able to create the time for education, many parents lack the self-efficacy to support their child’s learning. Most parents lack knowledge of effective methods to facilitate learning within the home, and appropriate means of using technology for education. Parents in low-income households are additionally less likely to be able to access support to learn such methods. COVID-19 school closures made engagement of parents in their child’s education a further necessity.
Crossing these barriers will become crucial as we move towards achieving universal and equitable ECE, as envisioned in the National Education Policy (NEP) 2020. Some of these are harder to address, such as internalising the importance of ECE among parents. This shift of mindset requires prolonged and committed state action, which at present does not reflect any such urgency.
Other barriers, however, are easier to address if we operationalise support of the state, schools and teachers towards the goal of enabling parental engagement at home. The pandemic has created an opportunity where parents and teachers have increasingly recognised the crucial role of parents as partners in their child’s education. As we slowly move towards the reopening of schools for younger grades, we should not lose sight of this.
In the same study we conducted in urban Maharashtra, we studied two ECE programmes — the E-paatshala programme in Balwadis run by Rocket Learning, and Akanksha schools in Mumbai and Pune. For those who were able to access the programmes, we found that those participating in these programmes showed higher engagement levels associated with the alleviation of some of the barriers discussed above. What might have worked for E-paatshala was its design to use only materials available at home for educational activities. This minimised the need for parents to purchase any additional resources and ensured that it was relevant to the child’s environment and experiences. We found that programmes that were supporting parents’ financially — through provision of rations and devices for education — resulted in higher parental engagement in ECE.
The study also highlighted that a more decentralised approach of identifying and alleviating these barriers to ECE, through teachers and school systems as the forerunners, goes a long way. Being the first point of contact with both the child and the parents, teachers are the most equipped to effectively engage with parents, address their challenges, and design adaptable and innovative modes of teaching and learning.
We must leverage the present opportunity of heightened parental engagement in children’s education. Efforts must be taken to empower households with time and resources so that they have the ability to prioritise ECE and are not forced to choose between their children’s education. The provision of non-educational support to low-income households to alleviate income and food insecurities might be just as crucial in aiding parents to invest in education.
Second, we must collect information about teachers’ experiences (on suitable modes of engagement with parents and children, delivery logistics, constraints of parents, etc.) and on innovations they have developed to increase parental engagement during school closures. We need to ask what has been done to alleviate constraints, and how can these be operationalised to reach more households?
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While teachers should remain at the centre of this effort we must also make sure they are not further overburdened, by providing adequate resources and institutional support.
Nisha Vernekar and Pooja Pandey work on education at the Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy. Karan Singhal is a researcher at the Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad. The views expressed are personal