Commitment to early education in India

Last month, Galli Galli Sim Sim, the Hindi language adaptation of Sesame Street (known as Sesame Street Workshop in India, of which I am a board member) invited me to share my aspirations for early education reform. They asked what I would like to see prioritised, in response to which I identified an urgency to ‘make early education a justiciable right’.

It is time we recognised the immense importance of early years education as the foundation for all future learning. In India, change must be made in line with recommendations from the 2015 Law Commission Report, which states that the Right to Education Act should be made mandatory ‘with a view to prepare children above the age of three years for elementary education and to provide early childhood care and education for all children until they complete the age of six years, the appropriate Government shall make necessary arrangement for providing free pre-school education for such children.’

But there are barriers to meeting this ask. While the State clearly outlines an ‘endeavour to provide early childhood care and education for all children until they complete the age of six years’ (Article 22), the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act (RTE), which came into effect in April 2010 failed to make education for children between three and six years of age a legal right.

I share this call for change in line with my role as Country Director of the Young Lives Study in India. Young Lives is a longitudinal study of childhood poverty that has conducted five survey rounds in India since 2002, gathering important evidence to add to the body of knowledge demonstrating that early years investment has long-term benefits, particularly for the most disadvantaged children. 

Analysis of our data shows that pre-school variables (type of school, age of entry, and caregivers’ perception of schooling) have strong associations with the cognitive outcomes and subjective well-being of children even in middle school or at the age of 12. A recent paper highlighted that children who attended private pre-schools are more than twice as likely to finish secondary school than those children who did not attend pre-school.

When comparing the four study countries of Young Lives (Ethiopia, Peru, Vietnam, and Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, India), we see that children across both cohorts (an Older Cohort born in  1994 and a Younger Cohort born in 2001) who engaged in pre-school education performed better in numeracy tests at all ages regardless of the type of pre-school attended. Those who had attended pre-school also had higher levels of pride at eight years of age than those who did not. This is further corroborated by this year’s World Development Report which highlights that children who attend pre-school have higher attendance and better achievement in primary school.

The National Early Childhood Care and Education Policy recognises early childhood care and education as the foundation for all future learning and as a sorely neglected area. Given the importance of standardising quality across institutions catering to children between the ages of three and six years, it is time that the national policy was effectively implemented through a decentralised mechanism to ensure high standards across both the private and public sector.

The Global Education Monitoring Report stated that despite a global focus on early education thanks, in part, to Sustainable Development Goal target 4.2, only 69% of children globally participated in organised learning at the pre-primary level, ranging from 95% in Latin America, the Caribbean, Europe and North America, to 42% in sub-Saharan Africa.

Given that a large number of children in India are growing up in disadvantaged contexts, which may inhibit them from developing to their full potential, early childhood education should be viewed as a key intervention to compensate for environmental deficits, by supporting and strengthening child development. The importance of early years education must be recognised in light of its long-term benefits, in line with recommendations made this January by the Central Advisory Board of Education Committee to extend the Right to Free and Compulsory Education (RTE, 2009) to the under-six population.

To find out more about Young Lives’ education research, please follow @yloxford on Twitter with #YLEducation. You may also be interested in our involvement this week in the 62nd Annual Meeting of the Comparative and International Education Society titled ‘Re-Mapping Global Education South-North Dialogue’. More details are available here.