India is at a critical crossroads as far as young children are concerned. Action plans have to be finalised quickly to deal with immediate challenges, and strategies have to be formulated for longer-run changes to kickstart and translate the vision of the New Education Policy (NEP) into practice.

The task at hand

In most states, the new school year will start in April. Schools and anganwadis have been closed since March 2020. A new cohort of children is going to move into school for the first time in 2021. Children who will enter Std II in April have actually never been to school. And even if they had some school readiness exposure via anganwadis or pre-schools, that experience is from more than a year ago.

Children going into first grade in April also have had no preparation. Now more than ever before, expecting these children, along with their teachers and families, to deal with the usual Std I and II curricula will be both unfair and undesirable.

Getting ready to go to school does not only mean acquiring the necessary pre-math and language skills. Social, behavioural, and emotional skills are also required for a smooth transition into formal schooling. What we do with young children this year will set the foundations of the future.

Anganwadis matter

NEP 2020 outlines the first building block of the education system or “foundational” stage as the age group 3 to 8. This phase has been visualised as a continuum — three years of pre-school exposure followed by two years in primary school. The belief is that this will lay the solid foundation that is essential if children of India are to succeed in later life.

In planning how to construct the foundational stage continuum, it is useful to understand where children of this age group have been enrolled in past years. The Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) is famous for its estimates of basic reading and arithmetic. What is less known is that this household survey also collects enrolment data of sampled children from age 3 onwards.

The last nationwide ASER survey was done in 2018, reaching 596 districts and over 350,000 households. The table shows all-India rural enrolment patterns for the age group 3 to 8 across a variety of institutional settings. There is a great deal of state-wise variation in these patterns. For example, in states like Odisha and Chhattisgarh, most 3- and 4-year-olds attend anganwadis; very few are not enrolled anywhere. In contrast, in states like UP and Rajasthan, a much smaller proportion of children of age 3 or 4 are enrolled in anganwadis, and many are not enrolled anywhere.

Apart from important socialisation experiences for children and for families, good anganwadi coverage brings with it health, immunisation and nutrition benefits — all of which contribute to the overall development of a child in the early years. Thus, universalising anganwadi outreach for the age group 3 to 4 in the near future should be a national priority, and be seen as an essential piece for building a strong base for children’s growth.

‘One size fits all’ cannot be the approach taken to plan ahead.

Currently, states have different patterns of provision. There are resource constraints as well. The Education and Women and Child Development Ministries have to develop effective ways of working together, all the way from Centre to state to district to community. Where anganwadis are strong, their strength should be leveraged and not replaced. Even with a common goal of preparing children well for later life, there must be, as Vrinda Sarup, as one of India’s most experienced education administrators, said in a recent webinar, a “rolling” plan for how current early years provisions will transition into school — each year building on the achievements of the previous year.

Age 5 is an interesting age in India. The table indicates that in 2018, a third of all rural children were still in anganwadis, close to another third were enrolled in pre-primary grades in the private sector, and about a fourth were attending Std I in government schools. Each of these institutional provisions had different priorities, different availability of financial, human resources, and preparedness for dealing with children who would be going to formal school soon.

The data point to a critical question that needs to be answered as states begin to implement NEP2020, and as the FLN (Foundational Literacy and Numeracy) Mission gets launched: At what age should children begin Std I — the first year in formal school?

The RTE Act of 2009 refers to free and compulsory education for the age group 6 to 14 with the assumption that 6-year-olds are in Std I. Official norms for school entry vary across states, and actual practice varies even more. Even in the same state, in Std I, government school children are often younger than their private school counterparts. For example, in UP, in Std I in 2018, 50% of all children were enrolled in government schools and the other half in private schools. 35.7% of Std I children in government schools were age 5 or younger whereas among Std I children in private schools, the fraction of “under-age” children was below 20%.

Similarly, among Std I children in government schools, 12.8% were aged 8 or older while in private schools, this number was almost three times more (32.2%).

If you are a parent with high aspiration for your child’s education, but with inadequate financial resources to send your child to a private pre-school, you have no option but to enrol your child in a government school. Until now, most government primary schools also have no option but to take your child into Std I. Seeing this situation, states like Punjab and Himachal Pradesh took decisions several years before NEP 2020 to introduce pre-primary sections into their primary schools. Learnings from these states will be very useful as other states begin to plan for their foundational stage.

Re-imagining kindergarten

The NEP recommends “bal vatika” (bal or kinder meaning young child; vatika or garten referring to garden) for the year before first grade. The use of the term bal vatika should be understood in the right spirit. “Pre-school” or “pre-primary” are not terminologies that NEP uses. Perhaps, like Venita Kaul, one of India’s most experienced early childhood experts, those who framed the policy saw the imminent danger of “schoolification” of the foundational stage and early years.

Research and experience point to the fact that a breadth of skills and exposures including social, emotional, and cognitive experiences are needed through the early years to build a broad-based foundation from which a child can leap forward.

This brings us back to the immediate task on hand. How will the school system deal with the cohort of children entering Std I and II in the next few months? More than literacy and numeracy instruction and beyond assessments, children must be led happily into the “garden” of experiences. These must include a great deal of talk and discussion, hearing stories read aloud, exploring the world around them, asking questions, freely expressing their thoughts in words and pictures. After a year of being at home with family and with movement restricted to the immediate neighbourhood, children will enjoy learning to be together with new friends, and productively engaging with other adults like teachers. The usual Std I and II curriculum expectations must not only be put aside, but also reworked in light of the demands of today’s context and in line with tomorrow and the future. What we do today, which turn we take at the crossroads, will determine the direction of our children’s future.

(This is a slightly modified version of an article originally published in The Indian Express. The original article can be found at https://indianexpress.com/article/explained/schools-reopening-covid-pandemic-new-education-policy-7208942/)