Awareness of the importance of early childhood care and education (ECCE), including the first years of primary school, has increased in recent decades, and strengthening these early services has long been a policy priority in India. Despite this, India still faces important challenges, including a relatively high number of children without access to pre-school services, out of school or dropping out of school; the existence of large regional differences in access to quality education; weaknesses in delivering consistent quality through the ICDS programme; and the lack of a structured and coordinated educational system, among other things.
This paper explores recent trends for children growing up in the State of Andhra Pradesh. Superficially, the evidence is quite positive, suggesting equitable access to early childhood provision as well as high levels of primary school attendance. However, these overall percentages are misleading, and disguise major differences in children’s early experiences. Many of these differences are shaped by the co-existence of a long established network of government anganwadis (early childhood centres under the ICDS programme), alongside a rapidly growing (relatively unregulated) private sector at both pre-school and primary levels. Family income level and rural or urban location are strongly predictive of whether children attend government or private pre-school/primary school.
Access to these different options is not equitable. It depends on where children live, their families’ circumstances and ability to pay fees, and their priorities for educating their boy and girl children. Parental aspirations for individual children combine with beliefs about relative quality of government and private schools to shape children’s pathways through education, in ways that seem likely to reproduce or even reinforce inequalities related to wealth, location, caste, and gender. As a consequence many children have to cope with multiple and fragmented transitions during their early years, including changing schools in an effort to ‘up-grade’ in perceived quality (e.g. from a government to private school), moving into distant hostels or living with relatives in order to attend better schools or to access grades unavailable locally. Other issues discussed in this report include the impact on children of struggling to learn in a language different to their mother tongue (in the case of tribal children and those in English medium schools); children experiencing premature exposure to academic content by starting school at an age younger than the official age of entry; and children having to cope with everyday violence in the classroom, perpetrated by their peers and teachers.
Our research highlights numerous policy challenges for early education and the transition to primary school in Andhra Pradesh, notably challenges stemming from a weakly governed pre-school sector and a primary sector that risks amplifying educational inequalities. Addressing these issues will require a major reform of early childhood services, specifically strengthening and universalising quality ECCE to smooth children’s transitions to and through primary school. The ICDS programme offers a real opportunity for strengthening ECCE as long as it is carefully reviewed and better resourced, especially through improving the training, skills and remuneration of anganwadi workers. Secondly, there is urgent need for more effective regulation of both government and private pre-school and primary schools in order to build an ethical and effective partnership between different providers of education. The recent Right to Education Act offers some positive steps in this direction, but implementation challenges are considerable and will require strong governance at State and national levels. Thirdly, our findings call for a more comprehensive child-centred vision for early childhood and primary education; a vision that looks beyond the current structural, systemic and resourcing issues that pre-occupy the policy agenda. A holistic approach to ECCE and the early primary years is required – integrating care, health, education and nutrition for children aged 0 to 8 years, and closely linked to improving children’s experience of primary school, and its long-term outcomes.
This report is based on research within the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh and our specific findings cannot be assumed to apply throughout India, or further afield. Nonetheless, we believe many of the issues we have discussed for Andhra Pradesh resonate much more widely, especially within rapidly growing economies and education systems.
Keywords: Early childhood; Early childhood care and education; Pre-school; Primary school; India