What Is the Point of Pre-Schooling? Certainly Not to Ready Children for a Race.

In the name of ensuring children’s school readiness, the ‘learning crisis-anxious’ ethos of education will further straightjacket pre-schooling in the model of a full school.

The recently brought National Education Policy (NEP) 2020 appears to have paid a lot of attention to the role of early childhood education in the subsequent educational development of our children.

In particular, it proposes to introduce a foundational stage of learning at the base of the educational pyramid, integrating three years of pre-schooling with two years of primary education. One may have two opposing reactions – of glee or gloom – to this proposition, depending on whether, through this scheme, the fully formal school will prematurely intrude into early years education to prepare small children for an impending ‘educational horse race’, or alternatively whether early years of primary education will keep up the spirit and form of a playful fostering of the freedom of the mind of the child that a decent early childhood education programme must aim for.

Given what is happening before our own eyes in the sector of preschool education, especially in the market-driven, for-profit regime of early years learning, there are lingering concerns that, in the name of ensuring children’s school readiness, and with the policy stamp that is now available, the ‘learning crisis-anxious’ ethos of education will further straightjacket pre-schooling in the model of a full school.

Chances are that the existing system catering to pre-primary students that is already over-reliant on formal instruction will firm up further its focus not on emergent literacy and emergent numeracy but on full-fledged skills of literacy and numeracy.  A recent collaborative study on Anganwadis and preschool education in Karnataka and West Bengal shows how instruction-confined and counting-and letter-recognition-centred the teaching learning practices are in a majority of pre-primary learning centres.

In a number of sampled private preschools in even semi-urban settings the study finds that a semester system has already been introduced for the tiny tots, with a schedule of classes displayed on the school wall on various subjects such as Mathematics, English, Bangla, Hindi, and even ‘Computer’.

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

The progress report of an elite preschool is found to include knowledge of sphere, cube, cone, cuboid, cylinder, place value, bar graphs, and so on. Many parents, from widely divergent social classes, as well as teachers from public and private preschools also consider such training as a ‘necessary preparation’ for a learning culture that celebrates fierce competition leading to the infamous ‘first-boy syndrome’.

It is no surprise therefore to find out that both parents and teachers accept and expect pre-tutoring to be a correlate of pre-schooling, even though at this stage, children’s cognitive abilities are not to be tested through restrictive standard tools and therefore are not up for remedial coaching.

The silence of the NEP 2020 vis-a-vis these emergent concerns, not to speak of its lack of attention to the myriad ways in which business has come to preschool, is troubling. Several such pre-school centres, ranging from low-fee informal micro-enterprises to branded schools that are part of a for-profit, transnational business network, work in a regulation-free zone. How such a commercial turn to preschool education can be kept in check within the ambit of a regime of ‘light but tight’ regulatory framework remains under-specified in the policy.

The new child labour law allows children's involvement in 'family-run enterprises'. It is worth asking how strongly the HRD ministry expressed its discomfort with this. Credit: Reuters/Rupak De Chowdhuri

Schoolchildren study inside their classroom at a government-run school in Kolkata. Photo: Reuters/Rupak De Chowdhuri

Again, educating children at their foundational stage needs to focus, ideally, on their pre-literacy and pre-numeracy aptitudes that are distinct from literacy and numeracy skills. With its repeated thrust on the development of basic numeracy and literacy skills at this stage, the policy document tends to project a restrictive view of children’s cognitive development, to the relative disregard of their cognitive diversities and ‘multiple intelligences’.

In its preliminary attempt to examine whether children do or do not pick up pre-literacy and pre-numeracy and other critical aptitudes in their early years, the study mentioned above got a glimpse of a broad canvas of children’s cognitive abilities.  In a group-based game that they played to identify colours and shapes, even though quite a few were unable to use the words ‘triangle’ and ‘circle’, they identified the shapes as ‘samosas’ (in an elite preschool a child said ‘nachos’) and ‘rosogollas’, amply suggesting that they have a sense of shapes.

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

Similarly, in a game of cards containing images of different numbers of toffees, those who got cards with a greater number of them were visibly excited; clearly they had a sense of numbers. A young boy demonstrated a great sense of direction and navigation in taking the researchers back from an Anganwadi centre to his home through the busy lanes of a Kolkata neighbourhood and upon reaching his destination voiced his concern about too many mosquitoes in their locality.

Pre-schooling is about cultivating and valuing many such precious capabilities among children over and above developing their literacy and numeracy skills. This is by no means to devalue the importance of literacy and numeracy but to resist the growing tendency to outline a very restrictive map of learning that in turn tends to give rise to a global discourse about a ‘learning crisis’, disregarding the prior deficit of teachers’ professional development and autonomy, and enabling classroom conditions.

Disconcertingly, the NEP 2020 does not pay much attention to the need for professional empowerment and intellectual autonomy of the teaching cadre at the preschool level. Indeed, their contribution remains ‘unsung’ in both public and private sectors, although on the ground one comes across a number of conscientious and decently skilled teachers who run a good preschool or an Anganwadi with low-cost teaching learning materials but with a high level of energy, empathy and engagement.

As far as the Anganwadi-run pre-school education programme is concerned, the NEP 2020 continues to treat it as a mere project – the format in which it was conceived and started about fifty years ago. The Anganwadi trainers are still called workers and helpers, and get an honorarium (which is a pittance in most parts of the country), as they are still considered honorary workers or volunteers.

It is not clear from a reading of the policy document whether there is a serious plan to increase the honorarium of the Anganwadi teaching staff, commensurate with their responsibilities. There is a proposal in the NEP for the introduction of a training and certification programme for Anganwadi workers, for six months or one year, depending on their educational qualifications.

Also read: The NEP Goes Against the Existing Constitutional Mandate of the RTE

When research and practice in early childhood education across the globe underline time and again the singular importance of a professional cadre of teachers and of their continual development in making the programme of early childhood education effective, one wonders whether a training of six months would be adequate to empower a preschool teacher who would be put in charge of cultivating young minds with care and sophistication.

The expectation of course would be entirely different if they are meant to be treated not as part of the intellectually autonomous teaching cadre but as mere cogs in the policy wheel. In the end we, therefore, come back to raise the first-order question about the purpose of pre-schooling- it is not about readying children for a race.

Manabi Majumdar teaches at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta (within the fold of the ICSSR, New Delhi).