The National Education Policy 2020 has rightly highlighted the importance of Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE), which is vital for the early cognitive, social and emotional development of the young child. However, the National Family Health Survey-5 (NFHS-5) finds only 13.6% of children enrolled in pre-primary schools. Therefore, the nearly 1.4 million Anganwadis of Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) across India must provide ECCE to millions of young children in low-income households.
Certainly, with its predominant focus on health and nutrition, ECCE has so far been the weak link in the anganwadi system. Multiple administrative tasks left Anganwadi workers with little time for ECCE.
The existing system best serves the 3-6 age group, ignoring infants and toddlers. Nevertheless, a child’s early learning begins at birth, first through stimulation, play, interaction, non-verbal and verbal communication, and gradually through observation and cues from the immediate environment and increasingly structured activities. Unfortunately, due to a lack of parental awareness compounded by the daily stress of poverty, disadvantaged households are unable to provide an early learning environment.
Many low-income families have started sending their children to low-cost kindergartens. However, these mostly have a developmentally inappropriate pedagogical approach.
Some educators have suggested that due to the high workload of Anganwadi workers, ECCE in Anganwadis will remain a non-starter – and therefore all public primary schools should open preschool sections, with Anganwadis limited to the 0-3 age group. This proposal presents multiple logistical challenges and is financially unsustainable. It would take a massive outlay to build over a million classrooms with a million teachers and kindergarten assistants – even a conservative estimate would put the additional annual outlay at over Rs 30,000 crore. Moreover, with child stunting levels of 35% in India, wouldn’t children enrolled in preschools need additional nutritional and health monitoring? If so, wouldn’t the childcare worker also be overloaded? More importantly, experience suggests that existing public preschools are mostly a downward extension of primary school and do not provide age-appropriate ECCE.
A meaningful ECCE program in anganwadis is not only a smarter and more cost-effective strategy, but it can also be implemented through seven concerted actions.
First, to design and implement a meaningful activity-based ECCE framework that recognizes the realities on the ground with autonomy to reflect the local context and setting.
Second, the routine duties of anganwadi workers can be reduced and non-ICDS duties, such as surveys, eliminated altogether. Many anganwadi assistants have studied until matriculation. With training and additional incentive, assistants can be redesignated as nurses and take on routine work.
Third, anganwadi hours can be extended by at least three hours by giving staff an increase in their current pay, with the extra time spent on ECCE. Karnataka has already taken the lead; its anganwadis operate from 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. This will have the added benefit of serving as a partial day care centre, enabling poor mothers to earn a living.
Fourth, ICDS needs a shift in political mindset, both at central and state levels, in prioritizing and monitoring ECCE. This will further require that all ICDS staff be fully trained in ECCE, including assessment through group activities and observation of children.
Fifth, Anganwadi workers need to be reoriented to engage closely with parents, as they play a crucial role in the cognitive development of young children. Responsive parenting requires both parents to play an active role in ECCE activities at home; therefore, Anganwadi workers should also be encouraged to consciously engage with fathers. Appropriate messages and inexpensive and affordable teaching materials can be designed and made accessible to parents.
Sixth, ICDS should regularly provide age-appropriate activity-based play materials in adequate quantities, and Anganwadi workers should be encouraged to use them liberally.
Finally, states should invest in research and training to support early childhood education and ensure that ECCE is not a downward extension of formal education.
Kaul is a former IAS officer and former Secretary, School Education, Karnataka. Mahadevan-Dasgupta is IAS Officer and former Principal Secretary, Women and Child Development, Karnataka