Early childhood is defined as the period from conception through eight years of age.
The earliest years of a child’s life are critical. These years determine child’s survival and thriving in life, and lay the foundations for her/ his learning and holistic development. It is during the early years that children develop the cognitive, physical, social and emotional skills that they need to succeed in life.
These early experiences are largely determined by supportive family and community care practices, proper nutrition and health care, learning opportunities, which in turn are dependent on enabling policies and investments for young children and families. ECE positively impacts attendance, retention, and learning of children in elementary and higher education.
Need and challenges in India
In India, according to Census 2011 data there are 164.48 million children of 0-6 years of age. Recognizing the need to provide quality pre-primary programmes, a number of constitutional and policy provisions have been made such as the 86th Constitutional Amendment which introduced Article 21A on the right to free and compulsory education for 6-14 years old children and Article 45 to urge states to provide ECCE for all children until they complete the age of six years.
The Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education (RTE) Act 2010 guarantees children their right to quality elementary education. ECE is not recognized as a compulsory provision by RTE, but RTE urges states to provide free pre-school education for children above three years. The 12th Five Year Plan acknowledges the importance of ECE and improving school preparedness.
The Government of India approved the National Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) Policy in 2013. The Policy framework also includes the National Curriculum Framework and Quality Standards for ECCE.
The Policy caters to all children under 6 years of age and commits to universal access to quality early childhood education. 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, which is a centrally sponsored and state administered ECCE programme, covering around 38 million children through a network of almost 1.4 million anganwadi centres (a village courtyard). ICDS includes delivery of an integrated package of services such as supplementary nutrition, immunization, 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.
Despite the recognition of the importance of ECE by the Government of India, the challenges in implementation still remain. There are still substantial numbers of children not enrolled in preschools. Even in elementary education, while there is a significant rise in enrolments, the dropout rate continues to be a matter of concern, with drop outs being highest in the first two grades of elementary schooling. Learning assessments also show that literacy skills are poor in early primary grades. This points to the urgency of helping children, particularly from first generation families, develop adequate school readiness through a good quality ECE programme, to enable them to make a smooth transition.
UNICEF In Action
Interventions in early childhood are proven to have long-term effects on future social adjustment and economic success, and may even be passed on to subsequent generations.
Evidence indicates that Early Childhood Education (ECE) programmes can “change the development trajectory of children by the time of entering school”. Research in the South Asian region, particularly in India, has documented the effects of Early Child Development programmes on the academic and social preparedness of children for formal schooling.
Keeping in mind the evidence and the context, the key activities supported by UNICEF India are:
UNICEF has been supporting the unique ECE Longitudinal study (2011-2016). While there is ample international evidence available on the impact of ECE, this study aims to generate Indian evidence and explores the sustained impact of quality preschool programme in early primary grades. The study is being conducted by by Centre for Early Childhood Education and Development (CECED), Ambedkar University and ASER/ Pratham. Download the findings from the first phase of the study.
Support for implementation of National ECCE Policy
As part of support to National ECCE policy, a pictorial handbook on ‘Quality in ECCE’ was developed by MWCD and UNICEF, to unpack Quality Standards. This handbook for practitioners is a bilingual document (in English and Hindi), which illustrates different aspects of quality, through pictures of real examples from the field. Download Handbook
UNICEF states offices have been involved in developing state ECE curriculum and are currently engaged in supporting training and rollout of state ECE curriculum. This includes orientation and capacity building workshops, development of learning materials and of quality benchmarks. UNICEF also provided technical support for capacity building in early grades reading in several states.
Capacity building initiatives
In 2014, UNICEF staff and government counterparts participated in Forum on Investing in Young Children and panel discussion on neuroscience and early childhood development (ECD). These were excellent capacity enhancement opportunities and advocacy platform for increasing investments in ECCE. India Country Office hosted South Asia ECD Meeting bringing together 6 countries in South Asia to discuss ECD priorities and programming. The events provided a major boost to growing momentum on ECD in South Asia region.