Democratic Politics Should be Concerned With Early Childhood Education

Things in the education sector are clearly changing before our own eyes, and yet, they do not seem to gain much visibility in our democratic politics. Drawing on empirical evidence from classrooms in Anganwadis and private pre-school centres, three arguments are presented here.

In his justly celebrated book Capital in the Twenty-First Century, Thomas Piketty (2014) draws our attention to the rising wealth inequality and proposes a global wealth tax to combat it, since footloose capital travels beyond the confines of nation states, irresistibly towards tax havens, creating a new topography of inequality. Interestingly, juxtaposing against physical or financial capital, a few scholars argue that human capital should also be viewed as a “21st century form of wealth” and that expanding educational opportunities should therefore be perceived as an equalising tool to reduce the widening wealth gap. In particular, the potential benefits to early childhood education, conceived either as human capital or a core human capability, are claimed to be substantial in both scholarly and policy circles. The advantages of an “early start,” in their children’s learning pursuits, are not escaping the attention of the parents either.

And yet, hidden below this surface-level accord, there remain many unaddressed and under-examined critical issues. For example, is the early start at once a “fair” and equitable start for all children, irrespective of their social position? Also of interest are issues of whether it is a “fitting” start, that is, to say a kind of playful preparation for young children to enter school or instead, a dulling drill for an impending educational horse race. And, who will get the children ready for school?

School Readiness and Schools’ Readiness

The political philosopher Amy Gutmann (1982) powerfully argues that the state, the parents, and the education professionals have custodial authority over children’s education, and that the power of these three authorities needs to be balanced. It is well to point out that the market, or business, is not given any direct custodial role in educating children. Indeed, even without taking an “all-or-none” view on the question of public or private provisioning of early-years education, it is possible to argue that public institutions have a first-order social responsibility in providing high-quality early learning support for children. This has been the case in most parts of the world that have secured  vital support for all their children. And, in this era of renewed social distancing and divisions, especially in countries like ours that already reel under a dead weight of entrenched social inequalities, the importance of state-mediated measures of child security and development cannot be overstated.

There is good reason, therefore, to defend, on equity grounds, social policies, such as the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS), to combat a rising trend, that is evident especially in urban India, of “premature privatisation” of preschool education. Defending government-run preschool centres, however, should not detract attention from barefacedly highlighting the need for their large-scale improvement. ICDS centres, therefore, need to be both defended and improved. A recent survey of a number of ICDS centres in two selected Indian cities finds that, quite often, small children learn in the presence of strong kerosene fumes, as cooking takes place in the classroom itself in the absence of a proper kitchen. [1] What is more, in several cases, in the absence of any toilets at the centre (which is often a small, rented, one-room space of a local club) or in the vicinity, children are led to practise “terrace defecation.” In the 21st century cityscape of India, in this new era of urban displacement and dispossession, as we broach the idea of people’s right to the city (Harvey and Wachsmuth 2012) and to a “smart” city, at that such profound neglect of children’s need for a decent institutional space indicates how poor our institutional resources are, especially for poorer children. It seems as though we insist more on children’s school readiness, than on the schools’ readiness for children.

When Preschool is Full School

If, at one end, aligning quality demands with equity goals continues to pose a major challenge for the perennially resource-starved ICDS centres, quality concerns also spring up, perhaps counter-intuitively, in many of the low- and high-end private preschool centres in a different form. A majority of these preschools are already an unexciting replica of an unoriginal school, in terms of their routine rigour, age-inappropriate curriculum, excessive standardisation and their testing culture that hardly enlivens the natural flow of creativity among children, or recognise their cognitive diversity. It seems as though they coach and prepare children rather prematurely for a learning culture that celebrates the “first-boy-syndrome” (Sen 2015), but fails to stoke up children’s curiosity, imagination and critical thinking. This too, is a form of quality crisis that remains rather unnoticed by many of us who take high-quality to be a natural correlate of anything private.

The study mentioned above has observed teaching and learning activities in the classroom that happen in a number of government-run and privately managed preschool centres in urban, suburban and rural settings, collected study materials and teaching aids that are used, and examined the tools of evaluation that these centres draw on in order to gauge children’s progress. It shows that even amidst resource constraints, a number of Anganwadi centres make use of innovative pedagogic methods in the classroom, or in the adjacent angan, to help children attain pre-literacy and pre-numeracy skills in a fairly stress-free and pleasurable manner. In contrast, the ambience of an average private preschool, of a low-fee variety in particular, is quite monotonous, where the tedium of mainstream school education has already commenced, taming bubbly children through dulling drills of memorisation, repetition and rigidity.

One such preschool included in the survey has already introduced the semester system for its young learners, putting up on the wall the prescribed syllabus for each semester. The first two semesters are meant to focus on conversation—mainly in English—that includes themes like “make sound,” “show actions,” and questions such as: “How many hands have you?” “How many legs have you?” “Which fruit is called the ‘king of fruit?’”, and “Which animal jumped tree to tree?” It is perhaps not much of a concern for the authorities of this “budget” school that these sentences are full of errors, which will have damaging consequences for the learners. In the next two semesters, the students are expected, among other things, to “name three colours of National Flag,” “name five kitchen things,” “name five station things,” and “name our national emblame” (italics supplied). In their eagerness to ensure an early exposure to English-language training for their children, parents of modest means appear to choose a low-fee private preschool from within their already constrained “choice set,” with an additional informational disadvantage regarding school quality. In fact, the quality and suitability of early-learning support is not something that is discernible through isolated, individuated exercise of choice. Rather, an understanding about educational quality, necessarily linked with its purpose, develops through a painstaking process of collective discussion, argumentation and judgment, which are revisable. Hence, lending a collective voice towards shaping the idea of quality pre-schooling is a precondition for making a sensible private choice.         

One important element of high-quality early childhood education pertains to the quality of assessment tools themselves that are used to evaluate a child’s progress. Such tools need to be sensitive to cognitive diversities and “multiple intelligences” that both experts and commoners find among children. Regrettably, the “one-size-fits-all” kinds of tools used in many full-school versions of preschool do not assess children’s progress in terms of emergent literacy and emergent numeracy; rather, these are the measuring rods of full-fledged literacy and numeracy. The progress report that an elite, in fact, a “brand” preschool uses for the evaluation of its students is quite revealing, as it is intimidating. It shows that mathematical skills that are evaluated include knowledge, among others, of sphere, cube, cone, cuboid, cylinder, place value, bar graphs, and so on. One wonders, a bit derisively, but also with a genuine concern, whether one day, calculus will be included in its ambit. Such downward extensions of school education into the preschool level perhaps explains why we also find in this study that a sizable section of early learners, studying either in private or government-run centres, also go for paid private tuition at a very young age. The early start seems to have taken the form of both pre-schooling and pre-tutoring, suggesting that this nascent educational journey is already a fiercely competitive race.

Things in the education sector are clearly changing before our own eyes, and yet, they do not seem to gain much visibility in our democratic politics.

Bringing Politics Back In

It is difficult to disagree with Nielsen (2017:169) when he asserts that “Early childhood education is an easy policy to support from almost any normative viewpoint.” But, does it mean that children’s well-being and their rights easily find a place at the centre of attention in our democracy? Evidence suggests otherwise. That is to say, child-related issues are simply missing from our ballot-box-centric democracy, since children do not vote. To put it differently, what seems missing is a politics of impatience and outrage with regard to basic capability deprivations that so many children in our country suffer from. 

While discussing how the ICDS has been hit by the recent budget cuts (partly reversed later on), Dreze (2017) pointedly asks why the “axe” falls so heavily and not so infrequently on children, and also gives us a clue by alluding to a senior officer of the Finance Ministry who commented that he had not noticed such a pattern, and that they made the cuts in a hurry, the details of which had not been “thought through.” Such absent-minded budget cuts vis-à-vis child-related schemes indicate not just policy insensitivity, but a far more disconcerting symptom of societal and political indifference in our country towards children’s welfare.

What masks this “democratic deficit” is a propensity to view social policies as disconnected from their intrinsically political nature, and to treat them instead as mere technical interventions. Surely, policies need to generate concrete programmes whose effective implementation requires practical skills of governance. Indeed, it is owing to the commitment and managerial skills of some of the frontline administrative and education workers that some Anganwadi centres in the country provide us with inspiring examples of high-quality support for early-years learning. Yet, the recognition of their contribution as a professional workforce, and consequently of the need for their further development and a decent honorarium is unforthcoming in policy discussions and almost missing in electoral debates. It is this culture to treat child-related programmes as mere schemes immune to the heat and dust of democratic pressures that makes it urgent to bring politics—even contentious politics—back in. 

Again, to turn to the recent proliferation of “budget” private preschools that are claimed to fulfil the unmet needs of the so-called “have-little” parents, it is arguable that in the urge to celebrate “parentocracy,” that is, the power of parental choice, what has fallen off our democratic radar are the myriad ways in which business has come to school. Some of these privately-run preschools are stand-alone micro-enterprises operating as informal outfits, while others are part of a for-profit, transnational business network catering to the elite. This commercial turn in preschool education; this stratified nature of the preschool market, do not feature in our public debates. Neither is there much collective engagement with the rising demand—perhaps supply-induced demand—for supplementary private tutoring for preschool children, who are still developmentally at a pre-literacy and pre-numeracy stage that is distinct from literacy and numeracy, and hence are not up for remedial coaching. It therefore warrants public discussion on whether paid additional tutoring at this stage is remedial or proactive. Speaking more generally, such silent processes of “marketisation by stealth” render what should be a collective choice about goals of preschooling an isolated, atomised individual choice. In standard political-economy discussions, voice and choice are contrasted as a weapon of a citizen and a strategy of a consumer respectively. But, when a polity has to arrive at a social choice, with respect to its educational purpose, collective voice expressed through democratic channels has to lend itself towards shaping that collective choice, and hence, the need for democratic politics to swirl around the idea and practice of child empowerment.

Early childhood education, like many other social programmes, is embedded within a social topography of unequal power emanating from caste, class and religious disparities and hence, is a politically challenging problem. Simplifying such a complex political problem driven by unequal power will not guarantee a fair and fitting start for all. To give a quick example, finding a decent institutional space to house the Anganwadi centre in a city is not merely a matter of a technical fix, but linked to political-economy forces of urbanisation, including gentrification, the power of real estate lobbies, and the counter-demands for “spatial justice.” The vision of preschool education and the surrounding debate, therefore, needs to get closer to the structural dynamics of inequality that Piketty, in a different context, draws our attention to.

This also entails the need to examine the role of the state in the lives of India’s children through a critical lens. On the one hand, the state seems to roll back, and not roll out, many of its child-related social policies and programmes. On the other, by offering private preschool outfits a regulation-free zone, the state seems to reward private interests at the cost of child welfare. It is, however, important and inspiring to point out that India is differently developed and differently democratic, and that small children in some parts of the same national universe get an opportunity for an early start, a fair start and a fitting start. The rest of India can draw lessons from that school of democracy.        


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