Dr.Usha Abrol has a doctorate in psychology. She was the regional director of national institute of Public Cooperation and Child Development and has over 20 years of research experience with integrated Child Development Services. She is currently a consultant for the Centre of early Childhood education and Development, Shri Ratan Tata trust, Save the Children Foundation, UNICEF and Akshara Foundation.
Early childhood is the most critical period in a human life, having life- long implications. Despite a well- intentioned policy for ‘early childhood care and education’ (ECCE), the gap between policy and implementation is a matter of grave concern. The quality dimensions of services need to be raised if the situation of children in the country is to be positively impacted.
Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) is the largest child development programme in the country providing an integrated package of services to meet the developmental needs of children below six years. While accessibility to these services has improved dramatically with the programme expanding from 33 projects in 1975 to 7,075 projects in 2015–16, the quality of the programme has remained stagnant.
Within the ICDS programme, informal pre-school education (PSE) remains weak. The Anganwadis continue to be seen as centres for food distribution with little educational input. With education of children rising to the top of the people’s agenda, Anganwadis are falling short of people’s aspirations. This has resulted in private schools mushrooming in rural and tribal areas.
Challenges facing the programme and strategies to meet them are as follows:
Work overload of the Anganwadi Workers (AWWs) The ICDS proposal to give PSE for three hours every day is falling short in most Anganwadis as AWWs are being overburdened with responsibilities relating to nutrition, immunization, monitoring the growth of children, caring for pregnant and nursing mothers and the formation of Self Help Groups. The logistics of providing an additional worker, exclusively for PSE, must be explored.
Capacity Building of AWWs and Helpers Formulating strategies towards transforming Anganwadis into “vibrant learning centres” from mere “food distribution centres” has been outlined in the new ECCE policy. One of the goals of PSE is to teach children a set of skills especially in the domain of cognitive development so as to prepare them for later schooling. A well planned curriculum, adequate guidance, together with teaching and learning material (TLM) given to AWWs, results in better learning achievements in children. (Akshara Foundation, 2009–10). In addition, the existing system of one-time institutional training and occasional refresher courses for grassroots-level workers is not enough. A decentralized training strategy provided
in small doses in a concurrent manner is required to upgrade the skills of the AWWs in providing quality PSE.
Need for guidance in using Teaching- Learning Material Most AWWs have sufficient TLM with small story- books and workbooks instrumental in improving the attendance of children and the satisfaction of parents (UNICEF, Gujarat). However, there is a need to ensure such TLM are relevant and that AWWs are receiving guidance in using the TLM. Familiarity with print material is an important component of school-readiness.
Supervision and Monitoring At present the Anganwadis are monitored by one supervisor for every 25 Anganwadi Centres (AWCs). The lack of transportation, scattered AWCs and overburdened supervisors hampers the monitoring process. Supportive supervision and mentoring raises the quality of ECCE in Anganwadis. On-site guidance, demonstration and support provided by external resource agencies have a positive impact on the performance of Anganwadi workers. Such support can only be provided through an agency exclusively designated to provide academic guidance to AWWs through effective curriculum transactions, proper use of TLM, organizing developmentally appropriate activities and creating a joyful learning environment. Establishment of a ‘Resource Hub’ that is accessible and provides guidance will go a long way in upgrading the knowledge and skills of the AWWs.
Involvement of Community A necessary prerequisite of PSE is the regular attendance of enrolled children. In a study only 22.8 percent of the children were found to be attending pre-school education in Anganwadis regularly (Saxena et al, 2009). In another study it was noted that in Anganwadis which have 25 children enrolled, on an average only about 14 to 18 percent were attending pre- school classes. In remote rural and tribal areas, active parental involvement and participation of the community in ECCE programmes is an effective strategy in maintaining regularity of the programme and ensuring functionaries are accountable. The ICDS encourages community involvement through organisations such as Balvikas Samiti, Betterment Committee etc. The experience of community- managed programmes has shown that these community groups need to be empowered to take important decisions in running the programme. Recruitment of a local woman as AWW also helps in bringing the Anganwadis closer to the community.
Infrastructure Making AWCs attractive to children and parents will also go a long way in increasing its acceptance. The AWC should look nice, be a child-friendly environment where children can play, enjoy, learn and be safe. It should have storage space for TLM and a separate place for cooking. Equally important is the availability of sitting mats, play material and activity corners. Toilets with running water are necessary. Personal hygiene like washing hands needs to be reinforced.
Conclusion The ICDS programme has tremendous potential with its outreach. No other ECCE programme can claim to reach out to children in remote areas as effectively as this programme is doing. Though the programme faces challenges on several fronts, these challenges can be met by involving the corporate sector, academic institutes and experts in the field.