Dismal state of early education

Dismal state of early education

A high degree of skewness, as among sections of the people, in accessing essential goods and services, is a most disturbing feature in India today.

A high degree of skewness, as among sections of the people, in accessing essential goods and services, is a most disturbing feature in India today. The extant system is also blamed for being influenced by undesirable considerations, such as those pertaining to class distinctions, linguistic backgrounds, gender ethnicity and place of birth. While this is certainly true of important areas, such as health and medical services, availability of, and accessibility to, basic human requirements such as drinking water, nutritious food, clothing and housing, it is most strikingly evident when you look at the education sector – and more particularly so, in respect of the all-important pre-school segment of that sector.

The early years of childhood are usually the most critical for the growth, development and learning of children, especially those with conditions of disability needing special attention. Universal pre-primary education helps make the education system more effective and efficient. It not only sets a solid foundation for future learning, but also helps in the holistic development of the personality of the child, in aspects such as the emotional, social and personal. Exposure to other children's company, and interaction with them, which go with going to school, greatly aid the enhancement of the child's communication skills. By providing a supportive environment compatible with the culture of the region, and by focusing on the child, it makes early education a stimulating experience.

It is in recognition of these facts that the National Council of Educational Research and Training of the government of India, has framed a pre-school curriculum. Against this background it is indeed regrettable, and unfortunate, that more than 175 million children, or nearly half of all such children worldwide, do not usually get enrolled for pre-primary education in India. And, in the low-income groups, only one child in five children is enrolled. India and some of the sub-Saharan African countries have the dubious distinction of belonging to the category of nations in which less than 25% of children enrol for pre-primary education. India is also among the top five nations for out of school children of primary school age. Over half of the low- and lower-middle-income countries will almost certainly fail to ensure at least one year's quality pre-primary education for a child by 2030, one of the Sustainable Development Goals of the United Nations.

The most distressing feature of the situation is that, while many children lack access to early schooling, those who do, go to schools with the most unstimulating environments which are overcrowded, with teachers being inadequately qualified and the curricula most unsuitable, to say the least. Shortage of drinking water, and sanitation facilities, is also a very common feature. Long hours, the absence of the facility to take days off for sickness, inadequate emoluments and lack of resources only serve to make the situation worse. Mark Twain must have gone to a school with similar conditions when he said that he never let school interfere with his education!

The Covid-19 pandemic, and the consequent emphasis on online teaching, have not helped either. Child labour, a statutory offence, is another worrying factor that contributes substantially to worsening the situation. It is, therefore, hardly surprising that 29% of children drop out before completing five years of primary school, and 43% before reaching upper primary school. Only 42% complete high school education. All these factors have contributed to the majority of children in standard III and standard V being unable to read even standard II text-books. Less than a fourth of students in standard V are able to do a division problem. Little wonder, then, that, Albert Einstein felt that "education is what remains after one has forgotten what one has learned in school!"

In the process, the country is denied the advantage of the valuable human capital needed to address the issues of injustice in the process of growth and development. Experts have also blamed the absence of a national education system in the country for the state of affairs.

It is, not, however, as though progress, if not significant progress, has not been made in the direction of providing access to schooling and enrolment rates, especially in the past few decades. Many forward-looking programmes have been introduced by the Government of India, such as the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, the Mid-day Meal Scheme, an infrastructure development fund for minority institutions, and schemes to encourage the girl-child such as Beti Bachao Beti Padhao, and the National Programme for the Education of Girls at Elementary-level. The Kasturba Gandhi Balika Vidyalayas, which are residential schools for girl children, are also playing a salutary role in promoting the education of girls. The Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act 2009, while providing free education for children from ages 6 to 14 years, or up to class VIII, has, however, left some issues unaddressed. The provision for allowing children to be promoted automatically from one class to the next has denied children valuable preparation required for facing real examinations at the Board-level. Those who come from low-income families tend to stop at that stage, because education is not free anymore. Another persisting issue has been the inability of the system to focus adequately on less endowed children, causing them to lose motivation.

It has been suggested that most of these issues can be successfully addressed with a combination of a scientific pedagogical approach and improved focus on cognitive development. Some states have taken the welcome step of promoting skill development side-by-side with formal education. They have also shown, through awareness campaigns, conducted in villages, and emphasising upon the need for girls to pursue higher education, that early marriages may also get prevented.

India will do well to emulate the example of Australia where every child is entitled to free or subsidised preschool for a fixed number of hours every week. The need of the hour is a commitment to robust quality standards, an effort that needs to be led from the front, by the Ministries of Education and Finance. A commonly shared vision, as between, and amongst, the central and the state governments on the one hand, and donors and partners on the other, in the direction of making funding and technical assistance available, must be pursued with vigour, and a sense of urgency.

Surely, any country that calls itself a democracy, with a civilised and caring paradigm of governance, needs to realise that providing children with a wholesome environment, in which quality instruction can be imparted at the most tender stage of their life, is an overriding priority.

(The writer is former Chief Secretary, Government of Andhra Pradesh) (The opinions expressed in this column are that of the writer. The facts and opinions expressed here do not reflect the views of The Hans India)

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