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  • Writer's pictureAnuraag Shukla

Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) in India: History, Trends, and the Way Forward

The interest in early childhood care and education (ECCE) has risen sharply in the last decade or so. Several studies have shown that early childhood education and care are crucial for brain development, cognitive growth, and even for the long-term prosperity of individuals. There has also been a realization that without improving early childhood care and education, it would not be possible for countries to achieve sustainable development goals (SDGs). This awareness has led many countries to reform their early childhood care and education programs to make them comprehensive and responsive to the needs of the children. Taking cognizance of the developments across the world, the policymakers in India have included the ECCE in their reform agenda.

The draft national education policy (NEP, 2019) has set its objective to provide ‘every child in the age range of 3–6 years access to free, safe, high quality, developmentally appropriate care and education by 2025’ (pg. 45, draft NEP). The policy-document also promises to reform the curriculum for early childhoods education so that ‘children of ages 3–8 have access to a flexible, multifaced, multilevel, play-based, activity-based, and discovery-based education’ (pg. 47, draft NEP). There has also been a realization that the children who lack a proper, developmentally appropriate early childhood education and care not only lag in the foundational stages of learning but also struggle in the later stages of their lives. To counter the ill-effects stemming from early deprivation, the policy document envisages to view the period starting from pre-school years (ages 3–6) to the end of grade 2 (till age 8) as a foundational stage where the attempts would be made ‘to develop and establish such an integrated foundational curricular and pedagogical framework, and corresponding teacher preparation, for this critical foundational state of a child’s development’ (pg. 51, draft NEP). The draft document uses convergence as a strategy to make provisions for expanding and strengthening existing ECCE infrastructure, professionalize and capacitate ECCE educators and institute a responsive and accountable regulatory system.

The policy also suggests that ECCE should come under the purview of the RTE act so that the commitments made during the 86th amendment of the constitution which directed the “state to provide ECCE to all children until they complete the age of six years” are fulfilled. These proposed reforms also recognize the primacy of demand-side factors in the successful implementation of ECCE policy as ‘all stakeholders, including policymakers, parents, teachers, and community members must be well-informed on how a young child’s needs are so different from what formal education provides, and why fulfilling these needs is so important for a child’s lifelong learning and development’ (pg. 53, draft NEP). While some of the provisions for ECCE in draft NEP policy are new, many of them follow from the previous policies such as National ECCE policy (2013), etc. As these proposed reforms are located within a certain discourse, it would be a valuable exercise to look at the current discourse and practices of ECCE in India, before making any assessment of the draft NEP proposal.

Discourse and practices related to ECCE in India

The study of childhood(s) in India (and elsewhere) has been greatly influenced by the western middle-class idea of ‘childhood’. While this notion has brought out many innovations in the study of childhood, its essentialized notion has limited our understanding of childhood in many ways. For a very long time, the early part of childhood came in the exclusive domain of the head of the family (Tuli, 2012). The child in a family has no will of herself. It is only in the mid-18th century when ideas of philosophers like Locke, Rousseau, etc. came into the mainstream, the notion of childhood being separated from adulthood started getting traction. Even the Piagetian and Montessorian notions of childhoods, which seemed to have brought the focus on childhood, gave children little agency in terms of freedom, individuality, and equality (Kumar, 2016). Similarly, behavioral and Freudian studies presented yet another deterministic notion. The common thread among all these notions was the universality of childhood and how it could be studied and analyzed in a standardized manner, with cultures and diversities making no difference to the interpretation. It is only after both the world-wars were over and there was a realization that these wars affected the children most, the industrialized and developed counties established norms and institutions for child-care and protection.

Historically, the concept of the head-teacher or principal first appeared in the colonial era. The principal or head teacher’s role began to take shape when the British colonial government-appointed school superintendents to monitor the government-aided school. Generally, it was a senior teacher from the school who represented the school in front of the school superintendent, a representative of British colonial power. This role of intermediary between the school and authorities got further cemented when the British government started appointing principals in government-run or aided schools by the end of the 18th century (Saravanabhavan, Pushpanadham, & Saravanabhavan, 2016). By the early 19th century, principals were performing tasks such as maintaining order, improving academic activities, and managing school resources. Even the post-independence, the core characteristics of a principal remained the same where he or she had to play a role of intermediary between the state and the local community. The focus was more on the managerial competencies of head-teachers and principals, and they were expected to “push teachers to work, emphasize production in terms of higher pass-percentage, foster community relationship, prepare appropriate instructional material and aids, help improve instructions by working with teachers, organize pilot studies and action research, help teachers through capacity building, ensure good relationship and staff morale within the school, and assist the organizational development at the school” (Pandya, 1975). Resolving disciplinary problems at schools, advising, and directing teachers were considered as the primary functions of a principal’s responsibilities (Sharma, 1982).

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