Except the makers of the policy, everyone else acknowledges that a baby’s brain development starts from the moment it is born and not between three and six years of age
The towering edifice of education in a resurgent India is impressively outlined in the National Education Policy (NEP) 2020. But its foundation is not at all on strong pillars.
Unfortunately, it equates building knowledgeable skilled human resource of the largest democracy in the world to mere formal schooling or college education. It has a faulty assumption that all learning starts with formal schooling.
The drafters of this policy are famous academicians, vice-chancellors and professors of educational institutions. There is not even a single specialist in child development, paediatric neurologist or child psychologist.
No wonder, the NEP glaringly displays its ignorance on when and how the human brain grows structurally and what needs to be done to strategically intervene during the critical window period of neuronal multiplication and networking.
Learning starts from the womb, when the human brain structure is laid down and reaches its acceleration before two years of age, much before the three-six years of pre-school education.
The draft version of NEP 2019 that was shared in the public domain, had a much better understanding of early childhood care and stimulation for development. But the final document omitted many revolutionary concepts of the draft and suggestions from civil society. It was hurriedly approved by the Cabinet, without any vetting by Parliamentarians or state legislators.
The very first sentence in the draft version was a lesser-known fact that “the learning process for a child commences immediately at birth”, as opposed to the popular belief that child starts learning only when admitted in formal school.
The actual learning of language, numerical and arithmetic proficiency and analytical skills are attained during school days. But the foundations for these are laid much earlier and it happens without us knowing about it.
Intellectual development and attaining the maximum potential of senses take place before three years of age. Higher cognitive functions attain their maximum peak of growth between one and three years of age, before children meet any teacher at school. The opening statement reinforced this modern concept.
The first chapter of the current NEP starts with lip service to early childhood education:
“The Policy emphasises the criticality of the early years and aims to ensure quality early childhood care and education for all children between three and six years by 2025, with significantly increased investment and new initiatives. A curricular and pedagogical framework will be developed with guidelines for appropriate cognitive stimulation of zero-three year olds”.
That means the Policy envisages only age above three years for early childhood care and education. Is the age below three then merely for issuing guidelines? And for whom? Parents or caregivers in crèches or Balwadis?
Current global thinking is to focus on the first 1,000 days of life, including the intrauterine period of 280 days, for optimal brain development. Three to six years is too late for intervention to boost the human development potential of a country.
The Lancet issue on child development in developing countries, eloquently emphasises this. Scientific research shows that a child’s peak of potential growth of intelligence and cognitive development has already been achieved between the age of one and three.
After rapid multiplication of brain cells in the areas of the visual and auditory cortex, the formation of experience-dependent synapses (connections) peaks as early as the fourth postnatal month and is followed by a gradual retraction, if not adequately stimulated until the end of the pre-school period.
Similarly, the centres for language and speech proficiency develop maximally between the sixth and tenth months of age, even before their speech and language makes any sense to you. When the child is a toddler, her spoken vocabulary significantly increases.
Genetic determinants and environmental determinants play an equally critical role in shaping the neural configuration. The post-natal synapses incorporate ongoing experiences into the synaptic architecture of the brain through a process of ‘blooming and pruning’. Some of these environmental determinants act as modifying gene expression through epigenetic mechanisms.
So what is there in the NEP to contribute to the growth and development of our country’s future brains up to three years? The earlier draft had rightly differentiated early childhood education into two parts: One prior to three years and the other three-six years of age.
The latter is what is going on currently as pre-school education in Anganwadi centres under the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS), the world’s largest programme for child development.
Policy directions and strategies for care and early stimulation of child development, known as the ‘care concept’, have been already lacking in ICDS since its inception in 1975. The entire responsibility of early child care and stimulation for the development of under-three children is left to the discretion and imagination of parents and the rest of the family members, even in National Policy on Education.
Stimulation for the brain and mind is done by inputs or signals through the five sensory organs of the body, namely, eyes, skin, ears, nose and tongue. The intensity and frequency of the flow of these signals during early childhood determines the attainment of intelligence levels and mental development.
It also strengthens synaptic connectivity. The baby’s explorative learning and storage of such acquired information and knowledge or inputs to the brain takes place every moment and hour of its early life, without any teacher or school.
Parents, care givers and society at large are ignorant about the criticality of this period for learning. Even if they are somewhat knowledgeable, they do not have sufficient time exclusively earmarked for the ‘care’ of the child in their daily routine.
More than money, exclusive ‘time’ is the capital to invest for the development of their child. Working mothers and busy parents offload this responsibility to grandparents or domestic workers. If that is not possible, they leave them in child care centres or crèches in the private sector. But they too do not have qualified or trained staff.
The only way out for ‘universalization’ of a standardised care is appointment of an additional worker trained in early stimulation for child development in every Anganwadi for under three children.
Let the Anganwadi teacher take care of pre-school education of three-six years old. That requires a salary component for about 8-9 lakh workers in India, which is a worthwhile investment considering the impact on learning outcome and human resource development.
By the 86th Amendment of the Constitution 2002, the state is required to provide Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) to all children till six years of age. Section 11 of the Right to Education Act also mandates public provision of the ECCE. The finance ministry and Niti Ayog should not have any hesitation for allocating the required funds for this cause.
“Early childhood care and stimulation for education and development is perhaps the greatest and most powerful equaliser in brain development, school preparedness, improved learning outcomes, equality and justice, employability and economic growth of the country.” This was the text in the draft that disappeared in the NEP.
The author, former Health & Nutrition Specialist for UNICEF and former Director, State Health Resource Centre, Chhattisgarh can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
Views expressed are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of Down To Earth
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