National Education Policy (NEP)-2020 has replaced 1986 policy on 29th July 2020. NEP-2020 has not erupted from somewhere all of a sudden. The revolutionary document is the result of an evolution of so many years. The nation has almost fully accepted the policy because it is very ambitious and devised in an inclusive, holistic, multidisciplinary and participatory impend so that new challenges confronted by India in the 21st century are responded effectively.
We all know that the first 05 years of life are extremely vital. A child's brain remains the most flexible and more receptive to learning during these five years. Physiologists and psychologists suggest that the more we exercise different areas of the brain in the early years, the more lasting an impact it will have on our learning abilities. Therefore, these first five years form the central building blocks of prospect health, happiness, learning, and achievement. Keeping these vital things in view, NEP-2020 has focused on ECCE and included it in its pedagogical structure in the form of the foundation stage.
Although, Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) in India was always a priority. The earlier commissions and policies have also envisaged the importance of ECCE. NPE-1986 viewed ECCE as an imperative input for holistic human resource development. Realizing the significance of swift cognitive, affective and psychomotor development during early childhood, India has Declared National Policy for Children in 1974 and started a good number of programmes and schemes like Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS), Scheme of Assistance for establishing Early Childhood Education Centres (ECE), establishing Pre-primary Schools run by State Governments & Municipal Corporations and Maternal and Child Health Services etc.
NEP-2020 is the first policy of its kind to initiate ECCE and has operationalised it in its pedagogical structure as Foundation Stage. The policy has introduced it with a good number of opportunities with Positive intent.
NEP-2020 ensures universal access to ECCE and has made provisioning of quality early childhood care and education to be achieved within 10 years. The main purpose of the programme is to catch and attract children when they are very young and shall also attract parents to send their children from the age of 03 years to the available centers or schools. Besides Aganwadi Centres, Balwatikas and Ashramshalas, it has also designated alternative schooling system for its accomplishment. The aim is not only to cover the children belonging to the general population but children from socio-economic disadvantaged sections and minorities as well. The foundation stage surely will prepare children to be school ready and to get adjusted to school ethos which will have a definite impact on the reduction of dropout rate at the primary, elementary and secondary education levels. ECCE will ensure elastic, playful, and curiosity-based learning, comprising of semantic and creative temper development. It will also focus on developing social capabilities, compassion, and cooperation. Thus, the policy aims to get the best outcomes in the physical, cognitive, and emotional domains of a child.
However, after analysing and reviewing the policy, some significant gapes and serious challenges are quite visible to be faced during its implementation that needs a focused and effective way forward to ensure the transformation as envisaged in the policy.
Gapes and Challenges:
Putting a child in formal education system at the age of 03 may rob his childhood and schoolifying his early childhood may push him for school readiness as well as unwillingness to explore and enjoy his individual self. The foundation stage of the pedagogical structure is not an extension of the Right to Education Act-2009 (RTE). Without extending it to RTE, I don't think it will attract sufficient budgetary allocation. The preparation and execution of the ECCE curriculum will be carried out jointly by different ministries and the role for states in this regard have been minimized. I believe that we should not focus much on devising a curriculum for ECCE rather we should focus only to frame the guidelines for caregivers and teachers because if we frame the curriculum for small children, the challenge at the pedagogic and curricular level would be that instead of understanding and designing the curriculum keeping in view the sensitivities of children and their unique developmental stage we may ignore his peculiarities and may value early education based on later outcomes either in schools or in the job market. The assurance of the policy for Foundational Literacy and Numeracy is over-ambitious. I think foundational learning should not be treated the same as foundational literacy. The risk is that for Foundational Literacy and Numeracy reading and writing become the default methodology for teachers.
It is a fact that this period of life is very crucial for the fame and fortune of the country. The future prosperous human resource is dependent on how they are educated and skilled and for that specialized teachers, trainers, and caregivers are needed. As the policy itself has admitted that teachers or caregivers here are not enough qualified and trained to handle this age group. When NEP says that besides others, ECCE will be delivered through Aganwadi centers who are the teachers there is a very big question. Most of the Aganwadi centers are being run by Aganwadi workers who are either 10th pass, or 12th pass. Besides one month contact class, the policy has stipulated that 06 months or one-year training will be given to these teachers/workers. But to my limited understating it will not suffice their education and training requirements. All though, they will be supervised and mentored by Cluster Resource Centres of the Department of School Education for continuous assessment. Another gap is about infrastructure deficiencies. As we know a significant percentage of Aganwadi centers and primary schools are running in rented rooms. Without owning buildings, it will be a herculean task to develop modern and sophisticated infrastructure.
In every city and town, there are marginalized and disadvantaged pockets like migrant labours, patheraas working in brick kilns & chimneys, children on roads. Due to various known reasons, they do not want to send their kids to day-care centers or schools and it will be a big challenge to convince them.
When gaps and challenges are identified, then opportunities are created to respond effectively. Now, what is the way forward?
For universal access, awareness and sensitization programmes should be organized. Our Pre-primary schools be made attractive where small children should enjoy coming and for that modern infrastructure and well-educated and trained teachers/caregivers are needed. Each Aganwadi Centre or primary school be made operational in its own building and appointment of qualified and trained teachers and caregivers should be made in record time. Candidates with specialization in ECCE be given preference in their appointment. Teacher educators need to be roped in to educate and train those teachers/workers especially of those who are already in the system. We have to reach to the marginalized sections in each area and a possibility be explored to open ECCE centers in these pockets and now establishing mobile ECCE centers is also a need of the hour. For accreditation and regulation of ECCE, a robust regulatory mechanism is needed. We also need to rope psychologists and special educators/teachers to bring more inclusivity in ECCE.
NEP-2020 brings in motivated changes that could renovate the education system, but the key here is better implementation and execution.
DR. MOHAMMAD SAYID BHAT is Sr. Assistant Professor in Department of Education at Central University of Kashmir.