Sashwati Banerjee, Managing Director, Sesame Workshop in India
What we learn in the early years remains with us for the rest of our lives. Several studies demonstrate that high-quality preschool learning makes a child school-ready, with greater chances of academic success, faster adjustment to school, and reduced behavioural problems. However, government funding for programmes across the world, aimed at early childhood remains wholly inadequate. There is a substantial gap for high-quality, developmentally appropriate early childhood care and education (ECCE) programmes that provide short and long-term benefits for children’s cognitive and social development.
As per a study released by the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, the brain forms as many as 700 neural connections per second before the age of five. These are the connections that build the brain’s architecture – the foundation upon which all later learning, behavior, and health depend. In this critical window, high-quality education is the key to unlocking the potential of young children, whether it’s practiced in a formal school setting or at home with parents or caregivers.
The influence of these early experiences can be felt for decades. The HighScope Perry Preschool study suggests that by the age of 40, adults who attended high-quality preschool as 3 or 4-year-olds were more likely to have graduated from high school, held a job, earned a higher income and committed fewer crimes. Many global studies show that spending on early childhood interventions produces significant economic gains. Three of the most rigorous long-term studies conducted by Harvard University found a range of returns between $4 and $9 (INR 240 and INR 540 approx.) for every dollar (INR 60 approx.) invested in early learning programmes for low-income children. High-quality early childhood interventions like Sesame Street have the potential to positively impact children’s school performance. A recent study by Wellesley College economist Phillip B. Levine and University of Maryland economist Melissa Kearney finds that greater access to Sesame Street (America’s long-running educational television series for children) led to improved early educational outcomes for children and had a positive impact on children’s performance all through elementary school. Closer home, progammes such as Galli Galli Sim Sim (the Indian adaptation of Sesame Street) reaches more than 100 million kids on TV in Hindi, Gujarati and Marathi languages and through various outreach programmes, encouraging them to learn not just alphabet and numbers, but also imparting important 21st century skills such as conflict resolution, critical thinking and problem solving strategies and language. Such findings raise the exciting potential of electronic and emerging media to impact children’s school readiness.
As per the Census 2011, there are 164.48 million children in India between 0-6 years of age. Recognizing the need to provide quality pre-primary programmes, a number of constitutional and policy provisions were made by the Government such as the 86th Constitutional Amendment which introduced Article 21 A on the Right to Free and Compulsory Education (RTE) for 6-14 years-old children, guaranteeing children the right to quality elementary education. ECCE is not recognized as a compulsory provision by RTE, but it urges states to provide free preschool education for children above three years. The Government of India also approved the National ECCE Policy in 2013 which caters to all children under 6 years of age and commits to universal access to quality early childhood education. The Ministry of Women and Child Development (MWCD) is the nodal department for ECCE, responsible for the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) programme on the ground, covering around 38 million children through a network of almost 1.4 million anganwadi centres. However, the anganwadi “workers” as they are called, function under several constraints – they are poorly paid, have extremely limited resources to run a centre and are not skilled or equipped to be preschool educators. In addition, there are still substantial numbers of children not enrolled in preschools, or those who show poor learning skills in early grades.
On the whole, existing programmes have taken a fragmented piecemeal approach to the complex issues facing children and families in India. Unlike the K-12 system covering the primary, secondary and senior school education, ECCE is not regulated or standardized. There is a considerable discrepancy in the way ECCE providers deal with admission criteria, curricula, education quality, and teachers’ qualifications. Learning abilities of young children are assessed unfairly and parents see ECCE more as a ticket out of poverty, presenting new opportunities they themselves could not access during their school years. Barring a few good preschool chains and educational bodies, the majority of programmes provided by private educational institutions are unofficial, without the Government’s endorsement, supervision or regulations.
It is essential that the Government looks at developing an integrated, standardized system of early childhood care and education that involves families, communities, civil society, academia and other key stakeholders in programme design, implementation and evaluation. Most preschool education centres, whether government or private, have restricted their role to a mere downward extension of primary education, with teaching methods largely dependent on rote learning, memorizing the alphabet, narrating few standard nursery rhymes and counting numbers. The focus should be on engaging children beyond rote learning towards acquiring 21st century skills of effective communication, collaboration, creativity, innovation, adaptation and technology literacy to thrive and survive in a global economy.
An active public-private partnership must be initiated to reformulate policies for providing universal access to high-quality, educational content for young learners. The power of emerging media and advanced communication can be used effectively to help children, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds, reach their highest potential.
Early childhood development is an imperative to meet the Sustainable Development Goals of eradicating poverty, reducing child mortality, achieving universal primary education, combating diseases. We must as a nation invest in improving the quality of our children’s early education, so that kids can grow up smarter, stronger and kinder.
Turner-KPMG Report (2006-11) & TAM (2012-15)