The NEP’s Focus on Early Childhood Education Can Help Children Live up to Their Potential 

New research, which shows early childhood education programs are most impactful and cost-effective, should be incorporated to ensure effectiveness.

I was in kindergarten the last time a National Education Policy (NEP) was launched, while my daughter will begin her schooling journey under the auspices of the one recently approved by the cabinet.

While ideally we shouldn’t have to wait this long for an education policy that is aligned to the needs of the 21st century, we should celebrate the fact that this policy is a product of extensive consultations and proposes initiatives that, if implemented well, can have far-reaching consequences for our children.

What excites me as both a researcher and a mother of a four-year-old is the focus on early childhood education.

Early childhood, defined as the years from birth to age eight, is a critical period that sets the stage for a child’s growth and learning trajectory. Research from neurobiology and cognitive development suggests that 90% of brain development occurs in the first six years of life.

During these years, vital development in emotional control, motor, cognitive, language, and number skills occur systematically, with acquisition of simpler abilities paving the way for more complex ones. Therefore, when it comes to improving educational, socio-emotional and economic outcomes, early childhood offers a unique window of opportunity for policymakers to implement programs that can be more cost-effective and impactful than those targeting older age groups.

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The potential of intervening during early childhood has not escaped the notice of policymakers in India. The Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) scheme, established over forty years ago to improve children’s health, nutrition, and education, boasts an enrolment of roughly 32 million children for preschool education. Though private schools have offered pre-primary education for decades, many state governments, recognising the need to formalise early childhood education, have proactively initiated pre-primary grades in their schools in the past 3-4 years, broadening the access to formal preschooling, especially in underserved areas.

However, it is unclear how successful the ICDS education programs or preschools are in ensuring that children are school-ready. The ASER Early Years Report (2020) indicates that while 91% of four-year-olds are enrolled in some form of pre-primary education, a much smaller proportion exhibit age-appropriate foundational skills to be able to engage effectively with schooling. Many attribute this to the fact that the ICDS program tends to focus on health and nutrition to the detriment of education and socio-emotional development, while schools, both private and government, tend to focus almost exclusively on education but employ a developmentally inappropriate curriculum.

A schoolgirl reads from a textbook at an open-air school in New Delhi, India, November 2014. Photo: Reuters/Anindito Mukherjee

The most important change brought about by the NEP, therefore, is the inclusion of preschooling under the purview of the Ministry of Education. Such integration will formalise preschooling and enable better alignment of preschool and school curriculum to support all children in acquiring the required cognitive, pre-literacy and numeracy, physical, socio-emotional skills to make the most of their schooling.

While the NEP formalises early childhood education, it says very little about how this will be operationalised. Evidence from ongoing research can help identify impactful and cost-effective programs and inform the design and implementation of early childhood education programs. As NCERT develops the curricular and pedagogical framework and state governments debate on implementation, they should look to existing research conducted by J-PAL affiliates and other researchers to inform such decisions.

For example, one of the most exciting interdisciplinary studies evaluates the impact of a suite of games on children’s early math outcomes in India. These games, developed by psychologists based at Harvard University, leverage insights from decades of research on how number sensitivity and skills emerge in childhood. The researchers find that exposure to the games during preschool improved children’s innate math skills which sustained a year after the program ended.

Also read: The National Education Policy Has a Grand Vision but Can’t See Its Own Feet

Another recent study in South Africa found that a preschool program promoting discovery-based learning methods, which allowed children to learn through engaging in activities rather than by rote, led to improvements in school readiness. Such studies can inform curriculum content as well as how to operationalise NEP’s recommendation for play and activity-based instruction.

Similarly, studies conducted in India examining the impact of providing an additional worker to conduct educational activities at Anganwadis, introducing formal preschool classes in government schools, and offering scholarships for low cost but high quality preschool can inform decisions on the ideal delivery model. While research on the optimal length of early childhood programs can inform decisions regarding the target age and duration of early childhood education programs.

There is no doubt that investing in early childhood education ensures that children live better lives. The frenzy for admission into quality preschool programs by India’s middle-class and elite is a testament to that. The NEP promises such opportunities are also available to millions of underprivileged children in India. Using evidence to inform content and implementation of early childhood education programs can ensure that the promise turns into reality.

Harini Kannan is a research scientist at J-PAL South Asia who has worked extensively in evaluating education policies and children’s learning outcomes in India.