Human Development

Ensuring learning at the elementary stage: Are children school-ready?

  • Blog Post Date 19 November, 2015
  • Perspectives
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In this article, Venita Kaul and Aparajita Bhargarh Chaudhary from the Centre for Early Childhood Education and Development, Ambedkar University, present evidence from their research to emphasise the importance of good preschool education to prepare children to learn well in elementary school, and recommend adding a preschool class to all existing schools.

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The Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) has recently shared discussion notes on 13 themes with a view to generate discussion and elicit suggestions for the proposed New Education Policy (NEP). This article pertains specifically to the theme “Ensuring Learning levels at Elementary Stage”. To quote from the MHRD note “….quality issues and determinants thereof such as ensuring availability of trained teachers, good curriculum and innovative pedagogy that impact upon learning outcomes of the children need to be addressed on priority basis.” It identifies grades 1 and 2 as requiring special attention to ensure basic learning levels, as is also envisaged in MHRD’s new scheme “Padhe Bharat Badhe Bharat”.

The challenge of learning as acknowledged in the note begins right from grades 1 and 2 when the children are evidently not able to master the basics of reading, writing and mathematics, and these deficits continue to cumulatively and adversely influence their later learning. While the areas of priority mentioned in the above quote are well justified and their importance cannot be overstated, confining the discourse to just these factors reflects a limited diagnosis of low learning levels, seen to be primarily caused by inadequate or poor teaching, teacher absenteeism and/or poor classroom environment. Despite the prevailing policy thrust on constructivist child-centered education, the note does not at all bring the ‘child’, that is the learner, into the discourse.

We argue for a shift in perspective from examining just the quality and quantity of teaching as the root of the problem to also examining children’s own school readiness to meet the challenges of the early grades’ curriculum. It presents research evidence, primarily from an ongoing longitudinal study called the Indian Early Childhood Education Impact Study (IECEI, 2011-2016) conducted by the Centre for Early Childhood Education and Development (CECED), Ambedkar University, Delhi in collaboration with the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) Centre, to support this argument.

School readiness and the significance of preschool

Our multi-strand study is being conducted across three states in India - Assam, Telangana and Rajasthan - and has a sample size of about 2,500 six year olds. This has provided robust evidence that a major factor for low learning levels in early grades is inadequate school readiness in terms of some cognitive and language competencies, which are prerequisites for the primary school curriculum (IECEICECED, 2014).

Since the introduction of the Right to Education (RTE), 2009, a significant number of children have started going to school as first- generation learners. As the parents of these children have never been to school, there is little exposure to print materials such as books or newspapers at home. The lack of role models within the home to inspire children to read and write leaves them with limited opportunities to develop their vocabulary in the language that is the medium of instruction at school. Home factors, especially mother’s education and a conducive learning environment, have emerged as significant in influencing school readiness and if not present can have a sustained impact on children’s learning in school (IECEI-CECED, 2014).

In this context it is imperative to understand the significance of the early childhood years prior to school which determine the school readiness levels of children and which can influence school-level outcomes. Recent research from Neuroscience has established that 90% of brain growth is already complete by the time the child is five years old, and the quality of the environment the child gets in these early years has a significant impact on the potential of the brain in terms of fostering neural connections. Critical periods for development of some language, cognitive and socio-emotional competencies specifically take place within these first six years, which have direct implications for school learning (Doharty 1997). This indicates the importance of the early years for children’s learning and development and which, if neglected, would be difficult to compensate for in later years.

The IECEI study findings demonstrate that for children from disadvantaged backgrounds, even one year of good quality preschool education offered when children are 4 and 5 years old can lead to a significant increase in their school readiness levels— at the time of entry to grade 1 (IECEI-CECED, 2014). This in turn has been found to contribute to enhanced levels of learning in primary grades even at ages 7 and 8 (IECEI-CECED, ongoing). A meta-analysis of evaluation data from 84 preschool programmes also confirms that on an average, children gain about a third of a year of additional learning across language, reading and mathematics skills through a good quality preschool education and these gains are higher for children from disadvantaged backgrounds (Yoshikawa 2015). A review of specific evaluations of programmes designed to enhance cognitive ability in mathematics at ages 4-5 years (Case, Griffin and Kelly 1999, Fuchs and Reklis 1994, Kaul et al. 1991) has also confirmed that good quality preschool programmes are required to improve the mathematics performance of students at the school level (Mustard 2002).

Private provisioning of preschool education

Although preschool education, as discussed, is a critical input for ensuring learning outcomes in elementary stage, it does not find a mention in the MHRD notes other than the following question: “How do we factor in preprimary/ play school industry in our country that seems to be mushrooming?

In India, the education and development of children below six years is the nodal responsibility of the Ministry of Women and Child Development. The delivery of education at this stage is envisaged as one of the six services for children and is delivered primarily through the 1.3 million Anganwadi centres1 which are dispersed across the country. The education departments do not provide any preschool classes in the government schools, except in the case of some municipal corporations.

This study (IECEI-CECED, 2012) confirms the phenomenal expansion of private provisions across the three states of Assam, Telangana and Rajasthan, even in rural areas. While the study found about 95% of four year olds attending preschools in rural Assam and Telangana and about 75% in Rajasthan, a majority were found attending private preschools, particularly in Telangana and Rajasthan. On an average, only children of the poorest households were found attending Anganwadi centres. An intriguing trend identified while tracking children’s pathways was that on the one hand, children as young as two years were found attending Anganwadi centres which are meant for 3-6 year olds; on the other hand, at around the age of four years, children were seen moving out of Anganwadi centres into either private preschools, if the parents could afford, or to government primary schools as underage children (IECEI-CECED, 2014) - a finding corroborated by Sood (2008) who found another about 20% children attending primary school as underage enrolment.

While participation in preschool education is increasing across all provisions including private, the quality of preschool education available to children was found to be very poor with inappropriate curriculum based on rote and repetitive learning. Thus, although a large number of children are availing preschool education, in the absence of any regulatory framework, the poor quality is preventing them from developing required skills and competencies for school readiness (IECEI-CECED, 2014). In response to the MHRD question therefore, an emerging hypothesis is that the reason for the mushrooming of private preschools is the absence of appropriate government provision for which there is a demand in the society.

Add preschool class to existing primary schools

In view of the proven benefits of investment in preschool education especially for 4-5 year olds, it is strongly recommended that a preschool class may be added to existing primary schools across the country and the curriculum for the preprimary and first three years of primary schooling be developed in a bottom-up manner to ensure continuity in learning and developmental appropriateness. This recommendation is also in aligned with the RTE (2009) Section 12 which encourages all state governments to endeavour to establish preschool classes for children from 3-6 years to help them develop school readiness which would contribute significantly to not only providing them with a sound foundation but also ensuring appropriate learning levels at the elementary stage.


  1. Anganwadi is hindi for courtyard shelter. Anganwadi centres provide basic healthcare services in Indian villages.

Further Reading

  • Case, RS, S Griffin and WM Kelly (1999), ‘Socioeconomic Gradients in Mathematical Ability and their Responsiveness to Intervention during Early Childhood’, in Keating, D and C Hertzman (eds.), Developmental Health and Wealth of Nations, New York: Guildford Press.
  • Doherty, RW (1997), “The Emotional Contagion Scale: A Measure of Individual Differences”, Journal of Nonverbal Behavior, 21, pp. 131-154.
  • Fuchs, V and D Reklis (1994), ‘Mathematical Achievement in Eighth Grade: Interstate and Racial Differences’, National Bureau of Economic Research, Working Paper No. 4784.
  • Kaul et al (1991)
  • Kaul, V, AB Chaudhary, and S Sharma (2014), ‘Quality and Diversity in Early Childhood Education: A view from Andhra Pradesh, Assam and Rajasthan’, Centre for Early Childhood Education and Development, Ambedkar University, Delhi.
  • Kaul, V and AB Chaudhary (2014), ‘Sustainability of ECE Impact: A Study of Learning Levels of Children at Age 6’, Centre for Early Childhood Education and Development, Ambedkar University, Delhi.
  • Kaul, V, AB Chaudhary, D Chawla and S Sharma (2014), ‘Readiness for School Impact of ECE Quality’, Centre for Early Childhood Education and Development, Ambedkar University, Delhi.
  • Mustard, J.F., 2002
  • Sood, 2008
  • Yoshikawa, H (2015), ‘Universal Preschool Education at 4 should be adopted as a Cost Effective way to improve Outcomes for all and to reduce Childhood Inequalities
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