In the last few years, several factors have altered the education landscape for young children. Those under lens belong to the pre-school cohort (roughly aged between three and five years). Some of the changes are due to the closure of pre-schools and schools for about two years because of Covid-19. In addition, recent changes to education policy have also influenced the organisation of pre-school education in India.
An important change in how the Government of India envisaged early childhood education took place in 2018 — a process that had already begun several years earlier, with the release of the National Policy on Early Childhood Care and Education in 2013. Launched in 2018, the Samagra Shiksha Abhiyan’s Integrated Scheme on School Education aimed to address school education “holistically without segmentation from pre-nursery to Class 12”. This new scheme encouraged states to co-locate anganwadi centres (AWCs) in government primary schools or else provide up to two years of pre-primary classes prior to Class I, thus taking a first step towards coordination between the institutions providing educational services to children in the earliest stages of their educational journeys.
The impetus for integrating pre-school and school education took another giant step forward with the release of the National Education Policy (NEP) in 2020. NEP integrates early childhood education into the continuum of educational opportunities offered to children by envisioning ages three to eight as a single integrated “foundational” stage in the child’s education. It comprises three years of pre-primary education and the first two years of primary school.
How did these forces — major policy changes as well as a pandemic — alter young children’s participation in pre-school?
Because the information available on pre-primary institutions, facilities, staff, and enrolments is still fragmented and incomplete, it may be years before we have clear picture of how this four-year period altered the landscape of educational provisioning, participation, and outcomes for young children. However, comparing data from the recently released Annual Status of Education Report (ASER), 2022, with that from the previous round in 2018, it is possible to identify some initial trends.
Enrolment of 3- and 4-year-olds increased, mainly in AWCs
Many observers expected that after such an extended closure, children and their families would find it difficult to return to school. The ASER-2022 data shows that this is far from the case. For the youngest learners, results from ASER-2022 show that parents’ commitment to children’s education is stronger than ever: In 2022 in rural India, 75.8 per cent of three-year-olds and 82 per cent of four-year-olds are enrolled in some form of pre-school, and the fraction of children in this age group not attending any institution at all has fallen sharply. What’s more heartening — this trend is not limited to young children — it is visible across all age groups and in all states in the country. Not just evidence of a remarkable recovery from a devastating pandemic, it reflects clear progress towards the NEP objective of universal early childhood development, care and education by 2030.
Now, as with all national estimates, these averages hide considerable and, sometimes surprising, variations across states. For example, states where almost all three-year-olds were enrolled in 2018, such as Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh, were not always able to regain these remarkable coverage levels post school reopening in 2022. These figures show big drops in 2022. In contrast, many states where moderate or high proportions of young children had remained outside the coverage of pre-school programmes in 2018, such as Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan, did much better at reaching and enrolling these children in 2022.
The changes in young children’s enrolment patterns also show a shift towards government institutions (in this case, anganwadis) between 2018 and 2022, once again echoed by the results gathered for older age groups. This is unsurprising given the loss of livelihoods and financial distress experienced by households during the pandemic as well as the reported closure of many low-cost private schools. As a result, in 2022, more than two-thirds of all four-year-olds (67.8 per cent) in rural India remained enrolled in government institutions, the vast majority in anganwadis.
5-year-olds continue in primary school
Major national policy documents — the Right to Education Act (2009), the Early Childhood Care and Education policy (2013), and the National Education Policy (2020) — all reiterate that children should enter Class I of primary school at age six. Despite these national policy prescriptions, in 2022 approximately one in every three five-year-old children was enrolled in primary school — albeit in somewhat smaller numbers than was the case four years ago. Five-year-olds in rural India continue to avail of a diverse range of options. About a third are in anganwadis, a quarter are in private pre-schools (LKG or UKG classes) and another quarter are in government schools (most likely in Class I).
The shifts in enrolment patterns described above have major implications for the early years’ ecosystem, going forward.
A first, major, challenge confronts the ICDS anganwadi network. In 2022, on average, four in every 10 children in the three-six years age group in rural India was enrolled in an AWC. With a single anganwadi worker responsible for the delivery of six different services to mothers and young children, the delivery of quality pre-school education was a difficult task even prior to 2022, but this recent expansion in enrolments imposes significant extra strain on the system.
Ways to leverage additional human, material and financial resources to support the work of these centres have been implemented in different states. Similar initiatives need to be designed, tested and scaled up to enable these centres to successfully deliver quality pre-school education.
Currently, the other possible pathway to increasing institutional capacity for pre-school education is the establishment of pre-primary classes in schools. This year, as part of ASER-2022, survey teams visited over 17,000 schools with primary sections across the country. The data shows that 28.7 per cent of the primary schools and 22.7 per cent of the upper primary schools visited had a separate pre-school class. However, just ten per cent schools or less had received separate funds or had a separate teacher for the pre-primary level classes.
It suggests that unless good intentions are supported with adequate resource allocations, the NEP’s ambitious goal of achieving universal quality early childhood development, care and education will be remain on paper only....