Catch them young!

At a recently held conference at TISS, experts discussed the need to focus on the early years of childhood, both at the policy and individual levels.

At a recently held conference at TISS, experts discussed the need to focus on the early years of childhood, both at the policy and individual levels.

The Right to Education (RTE) Act mandates free and compulsory education for all children between 6-14 years of age. However, the Act does not include any compulsory provisions for children below six years. To bridge this void, the government and various civil society groups have been collaborating on a National Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) Policy to ensure the holistic development of a child right since birth. To deliberate upon this burning issue, a conference on ‘Concerted Action for Enhancing Childhood’ was recently held at Tata Institute for Social Sciences, where panelists stressed on addressing early childhood problems both at the policy and society level.

“Investing in early childhood is terms of health, nutrition and education is an effective way to break the inter-generational transfer of poverty,” said Renu Singh, country director, Young Lives India who was one of the speakers.

The Indian Constitution, which earlier espoused free and compulsory education to all children up to 14 years of age, now states that ‘The State shall endeavour to provide early childhood care and education for all children until they complete the age of six years’. This has been done in order to accommodate the RTE Act. “The word ‘endeavour’ is not explained clearly and thus children up to six years of age often don’t get the required attention,” observed Singh.

While there is obviously a need for an ECCE policy, experts questioned even the execution of the existing RTE Act. According to Singh, there must be a minimum level of accountability and standard levels that must be expected at the Centre, state and district level in terms of quality of education and healthcare. “I recently went to an anganwadi where children were all seated on the floor because the mat had been eaten by rats. Such standards are unacceptable,” said Singh. Similarly, though the RTE strictly prevents interviews of parents or students before school admissions, a number of schools continue the practice. “The only way out is to increase inspections and awareness among parents to report any breach of the law,” explained Singh.

In addition to the policy talk, the conference also laid emphasis on the value of responsive interaction during the first few years of childhood. According to Vibha Krishnamurthy, founder, Ummeed Child Development Center, the first three years of childhood are crucial since the brain grows up to 80 per cent of its weight during this time. It is essential for a caregiver to respond to a child’s cues at this stage. “The process is similar to a tennis game, serve and return. It can be something as simple as mimicking the faces the child makes but it is still interaction,” said Krishnamurthy. Although such interaction must come primarily from parents, teachers can also play a key role. “Talking to and talking at someone are two different things. Unfortunately, the latter happens at most schools,” she added.

A number of educationists shared their respective projects at the conference. While Iqbal Sama, head, Gujarat educational office, Aga Khan Education Service, spoke about the child care programmes in rural areas of the state, K Vaijayanti, head resources, R & E Akshara Foundation, focused on the working of the Integrated Child Development Services in anganwadis. One common thread between the projects was the difficult yet varied challenges in implementing the programmes. “Now-a-days most of our teachers are class XII graduates. But with proper training and a healthy mix of child initiated activities, they form an environment where the children are happy to learn,” says Sama. Vaijayanti agrees, “It takes time and there is no quick fix. People are too loyal to their earlier mindset. But you have to keep following up.”

According to Freny Trapore, director Mobile Crèches, Pune, irrespective of how difficult the project is, it all boils down to intent. “All of us need to get out of our comfort zone. We have good intentions but to convince people, organisations and governments, a relentless, almost stubborn will to negotiate comes handy,” she said.

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