NGOs A Catalyst In Furthering Early Childhood Education

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Vikas Puthran

According to Census of India 2011 data, there are 164.48 million children in the age group 0-6 years. This is a sensitive and formative age. It is also an age of curiosity, exploration and mental development when the children’s brains need to be stimulated by visual, sound and touch to explore and provoke their thoughts and expressions. The age group of three to six years is a crucial phase for the overall development of children. Studies find that 90 percent of a child’s brain development occurs before the age of five (cognitive, gross motor, fine motor, language and social skills).

The Right to Education (RTE) guarantees the right to free and compulsory education for 6-14 year old children. The Government of India approved the National Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) Policy in 2013 where States have to provide ECCE for all children until they complete the age of six years. To the Government’s credit, the policy is in the right direction and like always, implementation on the ground is a challenge. The Ministry of Women and Child Development (MWCD) is the nodal department for ECCE. MWCD is responsible for the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) programme (a centrally-sponsored and state-administered ECCE programme),covering around 38 million children through a network of almost 1.4 million anganwadi (village courtyard) centres. ICDS includes delivery of an integrated package of services such as supplementary nutrition, immunisation, health check-up, preschool education, referral services and nutrition & health education. ECCE is one of the components and aims at psycho-social development of children and developing school readiness. These anganwadis do exist but the delivery of ECCE still has a lot to be desired. In most cases, the infrastructure available is inadequate or lacking. Some angandwadis are conducted in small houses in slums, community centres, sheds, or literally, courtyards. Lack of toilet facilities is a big deterrent for kids and teachers alike. The angandwadis are a critical link which serves as pre-primary education system that will graduate kids to the primary school. Unfortunately, anganwadis are serving more as a crèche than a learning centre for kids. Parents find it convenient to send their kids to the anganwadis in the mornings while they work and earn their living. Parents do not focus too much on learning and which is where the gap is created of children who are not school ready. When kids are enrolled in Grade I, they are expected to identify alphabets, recognise colors, objects, etc. As a result of this handicap, kids find it difficult to cope up in primary school thus resulting in dropping out of school. Similarly, these anganwadis also serve as the medium to control the health of the child. Malnourished children are identified and tracked in these anganwadis.

This is where NGOs have to step in tobridge some of these gaps. Thankfully, the Government is quite encouraging and collaborative in accepting the NGOs to supplement the efforts of the government. Apart from education, the anganwadis also have to deal with the issue of health, and in quite a few cases, malnutrition. With the CSR law coming into place, thankfully a lot of funding is also available to the NGOs to work in the area of early childhood. NGOs in these anganwadis are categorised according to these specifics: those that work only in the area of (i) health, (ii) education and (iii) education and health. There are NGOs like Sneha and FMCH that work in the area of malnutrition. When the issue of malnutrition in children is being addressed, the mother has to also be brought into the loop, right from pregnancy till the child attains six years of age. Many malnutrition issues are related to local social issues like preference for male child, not enough gap between pregnancy, etc. The success of these programmes is achieved by involving the community of mothers and children together in groups and doing interventions and monitoring them over two-three year time frames.

“With the CSR law coming in to place, thankfully a lot of funding is also available to the NGOs to work in the area of early childhood. NGOs in these anganwadis are categorised  according to these specifics: those that work only in the area of (i) health, (ii) education and (iii) education and health”

NGOs like Akshara Foundation and Pratham that are working in education, are focusing on improving the educational aspect of the anganwadis. This is done through teacher training, introducing new concept methodologies and teaching aids. Then there are NGOs like United Way which follows an integrated intervention in healthcare and education. At the ground level, it is important to have a holistic approach to the intervention. For example, at ground zero, when an NGO goes in to provide intervention in education, it will find that the basic infrastructure needs to be first upgraded/maintained to deliver the education intervention. In cases like this, connect with the local community becomes critical in gaining credibility to deliver the intervention into the community. Thankfully, in most cases, the community has been supportive of NGOs and government partnership in these interventions. Its helps that there are large organisations like United Way who are able to bring together all the key stakeholders together to make the highest impact in these communities. The idea is make the children ready for school as in the current system, these kids end up in the first grade of school without knowing the basics of language and cognitive development. Most of the anganwadis teachers would acknowledge that they get good food for the kids, paid by the government but prepared by the local self-help groups or professional NGOs like the AkshayaPatra or Annamrita. Anganwadi teacher usually feel that they do not have the right educational kits like teaching aids to show and experience, enough toys that would provoke the child’s curiosity and develop their motor skills. This is where most of the NGOs make their intervention in providing these teaching aids, toys and providing teacher’s aids to help the teacher deliver quality education while getting help in managing the kids, preparatory work for each day, and reporting. These interventions by the various NGOs have driven up enrollments, improved attendance, and reduced drop outs. This also has a cascading positive impact at the primary school enrollments.

Getting the kids and community together at the anganwadis is also a way to promote diversity and sensitise the kids at a young age of equality, diversity and sharing. The kids are the future communities and to be imbibed the right social skills at a tender age is like sowing the seeds of the future of the country. Providing the opportunity for the kid to be curious and provoke their creative thoughts, the experience of learning new things and acquiring knowledge, propels them to seek lifelong learning.

The challenge of plugging the gaps in the government’s implementation is to some extent addressed by NGOs; but from a scale perspective, there is still a long way to go. Also, NGOs, through the partnership, have still not been able to transfer or impart their methodologies to the government; not that the NGOs are incompetent, but the political and social issues hamper this process and make it very difficult. Till then, NGOs will have to take their respective models and scale as much as possible. This can only be done with partnership from communities and civil society; government as the enabler, NGOs with their expertise; corporates and individuals as funders so these NGOs can sustain their work. Quoting Albert Einstein– “Education is not the learning of facts, but the learning of the mind to think”.

Vikas Puthran is Head ResourceMobilization, United Way India. He can be reached atvikas@unitedwayofindia.org