The National Education Policy has made many radical departures from how the schooling has come to be perceived in India. One of the major changes that the NEP proposes is to integrate the early childhood schooling into the primary schooling system i.e. preschooling will become a formal part of the school. Presently, the children formally attended schools starting age 4 or 5, with NEP and the restructuring that it proposes, the children will start their formal schooling from age 3 or even 2.
The early start of school is not unheard of in India. There are several players in the education arena that have tried to mainstream preschooling, but the fact remains that such trends are exclusive to the urban areas and they may have penetrated the semi-urban market to some degree, however, rural India remains untouched by these preschools. The only exposure to education or organized activity that is available to toddlers in Indian villages comes via the Anganwadi centers which operate under ICDS. If NEP goals related to early childhood education have to be realized, the AWCs have to be upgraded on a large scale.
The aspects of NEP that are being debated and deliberated upon at length include the introduction of the mother tongue in classroom instruction in the primary classes, granting liberty to foreign universities to open campuses in India, and the threshold of age at which the children should start school.
The restructuring of the 10+2 model of schooling and replacing it with 5+3+3+4 model is arguably the most publicized feature of the NEP. This aspect has direct implications for early childhood schooling as it proposes to integrate the early primary years with preschool. This will lead to the formalization of the preschool curriculum and a clear definition of the learning outcomes. This is indeed a welcome step but for it to have a meaningful impact, the AWCs that cover the majority of the Indian children have to be upgraded and restructured. If we look globally, the average age at which the children start school stands at over 6 years and it varies from 5 to 7 years across countries. For the developed countries the age of starting school is generally lower than the developing countries.
The debate on the question of early childhood schooling is quite broad and covers both conceptual and functional aspects. The central question to the entire discourse is at what age the children should be exposed to schooling, and what should be the state policy regarding that. In fact, the debate is not exclusive to India or NEP for that matter, the point has invited passionate advocates and detractors of early childhood schooling throughout the world. Even the developed world, Europe, North America and Oceania have seen votaries on both sides of the early childhood education and age threshold debate. Australia and New Zealand are among the ones who are trying to formalize schooling by the age of 4, while England seems to be siding with the late start camp. Finland stands as the most peculiar exception among the countries of the developed world and it compels us to register its view by being the host to the world’s best education model. The average age at which the children start school in Finland is as high as 7 years.
While the advocates of early start cite the phases of cognitive and physical development as their main reasons, the late start group suggests that it is best for the parents or the primary caregivers to cater to the needs of the toddlers instead of formalized institutions.
They are of the view that the cognitive development of the children before the age of 5 does not depend on or is best served by a formal curriculum, rather it is bound to the attention of the primary caregivers. There are researches that demonstrate the role of constructive play in early cognitive development.
The early start advocates reason their position by stating that the early start in education enables children to finish schooling early and be economically productive for more years. There are other studies like the one by Cornelissen and Dustmann (2019) that show that the children who have an early start at schooling tend to have superior math and language skills than the children who start school later. The difference in these skills becomes even sharper when the children from the disadvantaged groups are assessed.
If the latter point of view is considered, the early start of schooling seems to be favorable for a developing nation like India. Given that the majority of our population falls into the disadvantaged category and a sizeable section of the population is unable to fulfill the nutritional and developmental needs of the children at home without state support, it seems reasonable to push for early institutional care and early start at schooling seems to be a logical choice.
Let’s look at specific indicators of early childhood education in the Indian context. We have low levels of literacy at hand and therefore a large population of parents without formal schooling. We also have the poor population to contend with, parents who cannot provide sufficient nutrition to their children without external support. We have frequent reports of chronic malnutrition and stunting of children is an area of concern. With poor nutritional outcomes the fact that a majority of the Indian population is engaged in the informal sector of the economy and gender inequality that puts the girl child at an inherent disadvantage, early childhood schooling emerges not as an option but a necessity.
Institutionalization of early childhood education and development will also become instrumental in intergenerational social mobility by leveling the playing field for the children coming from disadvantaged families.
Founder & Consultant - School Serv
Vinod Kakumanu heads a team of school services professionals and is an independent commentator on Indian school education scenario. Vinod has assisted school promoters establish 35+ schools besides providing ancillary services to over 1000 schools across India. He envisions a future where quality education is made available to every child of the country. The focus he places on the quality of the deliverables and customer satisfaction has made him renowned in the field of K-12 school education.