NEP 2020: Quality of Anganwadi Centres to determine success of policy paving way for inclusive education
While many AWCs have fared well with respect to healthcare for mothers and infants, helped support parents and build communities, providing critical nutrition and health awareness, but their success is not quite impressive when it comes to the educational aspects of early childhood care and education.
सर्वद्रव्येषु विद्यैव द्रव्यमाहुरनुत्तमम् ।
अहार्यत्वादनर्ध्यत्वादक्षयत्वाच्च सर्वदा ॥
The rough translation of the above Sanskrit saying goes thus: Among all the things that an individual possesses, education is supreme because education cannot be lost to anyone, no price can be put on it and it can never be destroyed.
Perhaps the adage better late than never fits the nod the Union Cabinet gave to the National Education Policy 2020 on Wednesday which seeks to transform the country's academic scenario from all the way from a toddler to the level of a research scholar.
The magnitude of the process is evident from the number of suggestions made (over 2 lakh), the involvement of 2.5 lakh Gram Panchayats, 6,600 blocks, 6,000 urban local bodies and 676 districts across the country which came to the panel chaired by former cabinet secretary TSR Subramaniam who headed the Committee for Evolution of the New Education Policy.
Following that, a nine-member Committee for the Draft National Education Policy was formed in June 2017 under the chairmanship of former ISRO chief K Kasturirangan and it submitted the Draft National Education Policy, 2019 to the government last May.
'Severe learning crisis in India'
"Studies tracking student learning outcomes clearly demonstrate that children who start out behind tend to stay behind throughout their school years. At the current time, there is a severe learning crisis in India, where children are enrolled in primary school but are failing to attain even basic skills such as foundational literacy and numeracy," the Kasturigan committee said in the NEP 2020.
Apart from the problems of access, quality-related deficiencies such as inappropriate curriculum, lack of qualified and trained educators and less-than-optimal pedagogy have only compounded the problem. The deficiency in grade school-preparedness is particularly distinct between advantaged and disadvantaged groups.
According to the IMD World Talent Ranking, India stands at a poor 62 out of 63 surveyed when it comes to the total public expenditure on education per student across the spectrum. It spends 4.4 percent of its GDP on education which the Kasturirangan committee wants to be hiked to 6 percent of GDP at the earliest.
The country also does poorly in the overall performance, securing the rank 59 among 63 countries.
Although the Constitution (86th Amendment) Act, 2002 inserted Article 21-A to make free and compulsory education for all children in the age group of six to 14 years as a fundamental right on the basis of which the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009 (RTE Act) came into force in April 2010, the country's attempt to universal elementary education is nowhere near its goal despite the constitutional and legal underpinnings.
Mincing no words to drive the seriousness of the issue, the NEP 2020 said: "If action is not taken soon, over the next few years the country could lose 10 crore or more students — the size of a large country — from the learning system and to illiteracy... Attaining foundational literacy and numeracy for all children must become an immediate national mission."
What is worrisome is that far too many six-year-olds are entering Class 1 with very limited Early Childhood Care and Education due to lack of any suitable preprimary options.
"Schooling in the early years also lays too little curricular emphasis on foundational literacy and numeracy and, in general, on the reading, writing, and speaking of languages and on mathematical ideas and thinking," the NEP 2020 said.
Despite painting a grim picture of the state of affairs, the policy prepared a roadmap for the way ahead with an increased focus on foundational literacy and numeracy recommending a redesign of school and classroom curriculum and schedules for Classes 1 to 5 to build a love for reading and mathematics among students.
The policy also called for a large-scale community and volunteer involvement for the process to be a success.
"Qualified volunteers (such as retired teachers and army officers, excellent students from neighbouring schools, and passionate socially-conscious college graduates from across the country) will also be drawn on a large scale to join the NTP and the RIAP on an unpaid basis, during the academic year as well as in the summer, as a service to their communities and to the country," the NEP 2020 said.
The institution of National Tutors Programme (NTP) has been incorporated in the policy where the best performers in each school will be drawn for up to five hours a week as tutors during the school for fellow (generally younger) students who need help. "Being selected as a peer tutor will be considered a prestigious position, earning a certificate from the State each year that indicates the hours of service," the NEP 2020 said to encourage such participation.
The formulation of Remedial Instructional Aides Programme (RIAP) is another recommendation as a temporary 10-year project to draw instructors especially women from local communities to formally help students who have fallen behind and bring them back into the fold.
Revamping Anganwadi system
The Kasturirangan committee rightly realised unless imparting of education is methodically approached right from the toddler level it is near impossible to fix the curve as an individual advance in age.
It is here the Anganwadi, which means "courtyard shelter", a system that was started by the Central government way back in 1975 as part of the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) programme to combat child hunger and malnutrition, becomes critical.
There are 13.42 lakh Anganwadi Centres (AWCs) functioning across the country today. The AWCs are the focal point for the implementation of all health, nutrition and early learning initiatives under ICDS.
The observation of the committee on the present condition of AWCs is not very enthusiastic.
"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. Meanwhile, private and other pre-schools have largely functioned as downward extensions of primary school," the committee said in the National Education Policy 2020.
The high focus on strengthening the AWCs in terms of infrastructure and human resources is not unfounded as it is the first layer of foundation on which a strong education system will rest and consequently determine the quality of the future product.
"The learning process for a child commences immediately at birth. Evidence from neuroscience shows that over 85% of a child’s cumulative brain development occurs prior to the age of 6, indicating the critical importance of developmentally appropriate care and stimulation of the brain in a child’s early years to promote sustained and healthy brain development and growth," the committee said in NEP 2020.
Without proper care in the early years, deficiencies in the development of critical areas of the brain and corresponding adverse effects on cognitive and emotional processing ultimately stand as an obstacle in shaping up a quality human asset.
"Excellent care, nurture, nutrition, physical activity, psycho-social environment, and cognitive and emotional stimulation during a child’s first six years are thus considered extremely critical for ensuring proper brain development and, consequently, desired learning curves over a person’s lifetime," the NEP 2020 said.
While many AWCs have fared well with respect to healthcare for mothers and infants, helped support parents and build communities, providing critical nutrition and health awareness, immunisation, basic health check-ups, and referrals and connections to local public health systems, their success is not impressive when it comes to the educational aspects of ECCE.
The number of beneficiaries of supplementary nutrition for children (6 months - 6 years) in AWCs across India have been huge. In the year 2011-12, it was 7,90,05,328; in 2012-13 it was 7,74,04,279; in 2013-14 it was 8,49,40,601; in 2014-15 it was 8,28,99,424; in 2015-16 it was 8,28,78,916 and in 2016-17 it was 8,00,73,473. However, in 2017-18it fell sharply to 7,19,41,717.
In February 2016, the government issued guidelines to construct 4 lakh AWCs across the country in convergence with Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme. Under the 14th Finance Commission period, drinking water and sanitation facilities at AWCs were provided from funds available with the Panchayti Raj Institutions.
The number of AWCs having toilets increased from 8.68 lakh to 9.46 lakh during 2016-17 to 2018-19 and those having drinking water facilities increased from 10.16 lakh to 11.76 lakh.
In no uncertain terms, the NEP 2020 made it clear that the strengthening of the Anganwadi system is non-negotiable.
"Anganwadi Centres will be heavily built up to deal with the educational needs of children up to the age of 6. In particular, Anganwadi workers trained in techniques of cognitive stimulation for infants and of play-based and multilevel education for 3-6 year olds will be stationed across the country," the policy said.
The policy stressed the colocation of AWCs and primary schools as a primary requirement during location planning for new AWCs and primary schools or to ensure high-quality stand-alone pre-schools in areas where existing AWCs and primary schools are not able to take on the educational requirements.
Talking about the administrative side, the policy said that the responsibility for planning and implementation of all ECCE curriculum and pedagogy in AWCs and all pre-schools will lie with the human resource development ministry.
Catch 'em tiny
The NEP 2020 highly emphasises on the right approach to early childhood care and education.
"During the ages prior to 3 years, quality ECCE includes the health and nutrition of both the mother and the child, but also crucially includes cognitive and emotional stimulation of the infant through talking, playing, moving, listening to music and sounds, and stimulating all the other senses particularly sight and touch," the NEP 2020 said.
There is also thrust on exposure to languages, numbers, and simple problem-solving during this period.
Going forward from the age of 3 to 6, the policy emphasised on developing "self-help skills (such as “getting ready on one’s own”), motor skills, cleanliness, the handling of separation anxiety, being comfortable around one’s peers, moral development (such as knowing the difference between “right” and “wrong”), physical development through movement and exercise."
Communication with parents and others to express thoughts and feelings, gaining patience to finish a task and acquiring good habits are also key focus during this period of an ideal ECCE. During all this, continuous healthcare and nutrition should go on unhindered.
"... it is important that children of ages 3-8 have access to a flexible, multifaceted, multilevel, play-based, activity-based, and discovery-based education. It also becomes natural then to view this period, from up to three years of pre-school (ages 3-6) to the end of Grade 2 (age 8), as a single pedagogical unit called the “Foundational Stage”," the NEP 2020 said.
The committee also recommended that to ensure ECCE to all children before the age of six, ECCE should be included as an integral part of the RTE Act.
Fitting into global education development agenda
The global education development agenda, which is part of the sustainable development goal 4 (SDG4) of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, seeks to “ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all” by 2030.
However, if India fails to achieve universal foundational literacy and numeracy in primary school and beyond by 2025, any National Educational Policy, no matter how grand, will translate only into a mere vacuum that will push the nation into a permanent abyss.
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