How does one of the largest and longest running publicly funded preschool programmes in the world work?

Economists and experts in education from Azim Premji University study anganwadis in Sangareddy, Telengana to find out.

DSC02950 1

In 1975, the Government of India launched a welfare scheme called the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS). The ICDS offers health and education services to children between the ages of 3 and 6 through anganwadis. 

Now, three decades later, there are 13 lakh anganwadi centres that provide supplementary nutrition, immunisation, health check-ups, referral service, pre-school education, nutrition and health education to children across the country. 

In 2012, the Azim Premji Foundation initiated an intervention to understand and strengthen the Early Childhood Education (ECE) component of the ICDS, in which children between ages 3 to 6 have a chance at holistic development. Starting with 40 Anganwadi teachers in 4 sectors in Sangareddy district of Telengana, the APF began to build the capacity of teachers in the Anganwadis through trainings and workshops in pedagogical concepts and curricula, low-cost and low-technology learning materials, and support to make the learning experience of a child a meaningful one. 

After ten years of experience in the field, this work has expanded to teachers across the entire district and a specific intensive engagement with 200 teachers. This low-technology, low-key work has had a profound lateral impact at the district level.

In August 2018, Kade Finnoff, professor of Economics at the undergraduate programme in Azim Premji University, went to Sangareddy to witness the work done by the Azim Premji Foundation office in collaboration with the anganwadis. The idea was to create a longitudinal research study of this intervention. 

It is an excellent model for underprivileged communities…This is the largest publicly funded early childhood education program in the world, yet we don’t know whether it is having any positive impact on children and which children are able to access the program”.
- Kade Finoff

This planned longitudinal study will assess children between the ages of 3 to 5 years over a course of 10 years. Using quantitative and qualitative research methods, this study will build on the survey instruments and tools developed in Sangareddy to assess developmental progress of preschool aged children, especially in the five domains of development – physical, social, cognitive, communicative and adaptive skills. The project will also evolve survey instruments for the longitudinal survey.

Assessing the nature of learning 

Prenatal and postnatal health care and nutrition for mothers and children was a large part of the delivery of service in anganwadis since 1976. But while the historical focus of post-Independence work in anganwadis was on literacy, there was no dedicated development for curricula or methods for young children. Contemporary research in the fields of neuroscience, psychology and education have revealed that early childhood education is foundational to long term outcomes and growth of the child. With over 90 per cent of the brain growing in the first six years of a child’s life, the quality of learning during this time is critical for long-term outcomes across many registers of development. This is one major motivational force for preschool interventions, especially to ensure equity and inclusion.

Literacy and learning deficit

Early intervention can narrow the goalposts for development indices and can allow for successful school transitions from primary school to secondary school. Latest research conducted by Pratham in the ASER study indicates that children do not learn very much at school, and that children arrive at primary levels without having mastered pre-grade levels. Equity issues have been most observed within this transition between ages of 3 to 11 years, with girls and socioeconomically disadvantaged children learning even less than their peers. 

This begs the question why: where is the learning deficit arising and in what areas? Is it because students do not have preliteracy skills (like fine motor skills and introduction to phonetics)? Is it because mixed-skill classrooms impede learning? The question also remains whether early childhood education can act as a buffer to enable this movement forward. Anganwadi learning needs to evolve into more than time pass, providing a learning environment that is age appropriate and addressing preliteracy and pre-numeracy concerns. 

Assessing the domains of development in children of 3 – 10

Over the next few years, this study plans to get more children involved in schools and studies of this nature, plugging in the gap between access to education and the quality of the education accessed. It will assess across five domains of development, to include social and emotional registers, motor skills, language and mathematics and English, starting with children of ages 3 to 10 years. 

There will also be a household level survey to capture the diversity of backgrounds of children, observing how parental and household influences can come to influence growth. Gendered attitudes towards education can have as much of an impact as socioeconomic disadvantages, and it has been observed that boys are often given a leg up to private schools with girls left to carry on. This change in expectations across time is key to ensure inclusion and equity. 

As of now, there are two years of data from 2017 to 2019 batches of 3 year olds. The study will continue to collate data for these children. This study will not only capture the incredible work of teachers whose dedication brings about change at the ground level, but also help us understand how the largest publicly funded educational programme really works and can improve.