ECE fever sweeping Asia


In neighbouring Asian countries with successful records of socio-economic development — Republic of Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia and China — high-quality ECE is receiving urgent attention from planners and educators who have become increasingly aware of the critical importance of providing infants a sound foundation for cognitive growth and development.

Even as the grandiosely nomenclatured union ministry of human resource development and Indian academia in general seem blissfully ignorant, a feverish new awareness about the vital importance of early childhood education (ECE) aka preschool education, is sweeping the world and the fast-track nations of Asia in particular. Suddenly there is blinding realisation in the world’s most populous continent that ECE — hitherto a blindspot of education pundits and planners — may well be the magic acronym which will enable laggard third world nations to catch up with the industrially advanced nations of the northern hemisphere.

In neighbouring Asian countries with successful records of socio-economic development — Republic of Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia and China — high-quality ECE is receiving urgent attention from planners and educators who have become increasingly aware of the critical importance of providing infants a sound foundation for cognitive growth and development. On the other hand, it is eminently arguable that ECE is at best a distant dot on the radars of the HRD ministry and several other education supervisory and development agencies such as CABE (Central Advisory Board of Education) and NCERT (National Council for Educational Research and Training), let alone the alphabet soup of education agencies at the state and local government levels stewed in corruption, nepotism and red tape.

This harsh indictment of official neglect of ECCE is prompted by the horrifying statistic provided by UNDP’s Human Development Report 2011, that 46 percent of all children under age five in contemporary India, whose number is estimated at 140 million, are experiencing severe malnutrition with the possibility of stunted growth and severe brain damage which may render them incapable of academic learning. Yet pious homilies apart, the official response to this devastating indictment of post-independence India’s Soviet-style centrally planned national development effort (which places contemporary India below the low-development nations of Sub-Sahara Africa on several social development indices) has been a thunderous silence. Indeed except for the ICDS (Integrated Child Development Services) scheme administered by the Union ministry of women and child welfare, which provides a measly Rs.10,330 crore annually for 1.2 million anganwadis or early childhood and post-maternal nutrition and care centres countrywide, Central and state government programmes for early education for children in the age group 0-6 are conspicuously absent.

On the other hand in the developed OECD countries, a rich nations’ club, ECE is given great although not adequate importance. For instance, in the US, 62 percent of children in the age group of 0-4 are enroled in a fast-growing ECE network of public and private preschools.

In the state of California for example, 49 percent of 3-4-year-olds are enroled in state-funded preschools with per capita spending by the state government aggregating $5,571 (Rs.2.9 lakh) per year. Moreover despite the US economy experiencing severe recessionary conditions, last summer the Obama administration announced a $500 million (Rs.26 crore) Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge (RTT-ELC) progra-mme under which nine states will receive grants for providing “well-rounded programs offering (children) multiple opportunities to learn”.

The RTT-ELC initiative and ECE programmes in general have the enthusiastic support of Dr. James Heckman, professor of economics at the University of Chicago and a Nobel Prize winner for his work on the economics of education. Speaking at a White House conference on December 16, Heckman lauded the Obama administration’s efforts to promote preschool education. “Well designed implementation of early childhood programmes pass stringent cost-benefit tests and have high economic and social rates of return,” he said, reiterating his familiar advocacy of increased government and private spending on early childhood care and education.

Inevitably the ECE systems of  European and particularly Scandinavian countries, are even more advanced with state-funded child care centres providing nutrition and health-care, and universalised preschool education, a factor which accounts for their pre-eminent positions in the UNDP’s Human Development Index (see table). Taking a cue from the OECD countries, which have developed their human resources to the maximum to reap the benefits of high individual productivity and enviable standards of living, the newly emergent nations of South-east Asia and the Pacific rim and China are beginning to focus on ECE in a big way, and are already experi-encing the socio-economic benefits of more mean years of schooling, higher adult literacy and greater farm and shop-floor productivity.

Against this background of resurgent interest and investment in early childhood care and education around the world and in the Asia Pacific region, EducationWorld (estb.1999), which has been fighting a lonely war to “build the pressure of public opinion to make education the No. 1 item on the national agenda”, staged its first Early Childhood Education Global Conference in July last year to discuss ‘Challenges and Opportunities’ in this area of darkness of Indian education.

ECE Global Conference 2010, convened in Mumbai, aroused considerable enthusiasm within the growing community of private sector preschools, mushrooming across the country in response to the rising demand from the globally-connected middle class, which has been quick to discern the head start derived from early childhood education. Earlier in May, EducationWorld prepared the ground for the conference by commissioning and publishing the country’s first-ever league tables ranking the most preferred preschools in six major cities — Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore, Chennai, Kolkata and Hyderabad — which also elicited great public enthusiasm.

Encouraged by the unexpectedly excellent response to preschools league tables and ECE 2010, your editors repeated both exercises — a national survey of India’s most admired preschools (EW October) followed by the 2nd Early Childhood Education Global Conference 2011 convened at the ITC Maratha Hotel, Mumbai on December 15. The focus of the latter conference last month was furious activity in the ECE sector in the neighbouring countries of South-east and Asia Pacific.

According to Sally May Tan, an alumna of the National University of Singapore who has 23 years of business development and marketing experience in the Asia Pacific, and is currently chief executive (South-east Asia) of Knowledge Universe — the world’s largest preschool education corpor-ation with 1,740 private preschools in the US, 123 in the UK and 40 in Singapore and South-east Asia — the governments of Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and China have launched major ECE programmes which are being supplemented by officially encouraged private sector initiatives. “Right across Asia there is growing realisation of the huge benefits of building human capital on the strong foundations of early childhood education,” says Tan.

Although the official and majority viewpoint in India is that early childhood education is not important and infants should be spared the rigour of preschool and enjoy their early years in spontaneous and unstructured play, the case for age-appropriate, professi-onally administered preschool education was brilliantly presented at the ECE Global Conference 2011 by Dr. Jeremy Williams, the chief academic officer of Knowledge Universe and the Asian International College, and business management academic.

Starting with an observation made by black American author, abolitionist, statesman and reformer Alfred Douglas (1818-95) that “it is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men”, Williams cited several latest research studies relating to the brain develop-ment of homo sapiens indicating that “most of the brain’s cells are formed before birth and that most of the connections among cells are made during infancy and early childhood”.

Back home in India there is widespread apathy and ignorance about the value of early childhood education within government — the Union govern-ment’s 1.2 million anganwadis or mother and early child care centres were provided a budgetary allocation of a mere Rs.10,330 crore in the Union budget 2011-12 (equivalent to an average of Rs.86,000 per year per centre), most of which is spent on nutrition, wages and salaries — with the ICDS programme making no provision for early childhood education.

Quite obviously the collective opinion of heads of households within the country’s expanding middle class is not in sync with official thinking on this issue because over the past few decades and since the start of the new millennium in particular, the number of privately promoted preschools countrywide has risen to an estimated 50,000. Their aggregate annual revenue is growing at 35 percent per annum and is set to cross the $1 billion (Rs.5, 000 crore) threshold in 2012, according to Hong Kong-based market research and analysis firm CLSA.

This explains the enthusiastic response to the EducationWorld ECE Global Conferences of the past two years. Last year the Mumbai confe-rence attracted 220 fee-paying delegates and this year it drew 260, apart from a galaxy of speakers and early childhood experts from abroad. And the feedback from delegates across the country is encouraging.

“The ECE Global Conference 2011 was well organised. The assembly of educationists from all metros under one roof paved the way for exchanges of innovative, perhaps even revolutionary ideas about how best to prepare preschoolers for education and indeed, life. I came away convinced that it is easier to build stronger children than to mend broken men,” says Charu Eshwar, centre head of Vaels Billabong High-Kangaroo Kids, Neelankarai, Chennai.

Swati Popat Vats, the Mumbai-based president of the Poddar Education Network who attended the conference with eight team members, also believes that the ECE Global Conference 2011 served as a useful platform for “quality networking and interaction”.  “It was a huge step towards bringing together all stake-holders in ECE. The conference covered a wide range of topics that impact early childhood education and also attracted a uniquely diverse represent-ation from private preschools, preschools in high schools, the franchised sector, NGOs and even special education. My team members and I went back to our schools rejuvenated with the feeling that ECE in India is poised for qualitative growth,” says Popat Vats.

With the Union and state governments exhibiting little interest in early childhood education, India is the odd country out in Asia in this respect. But with ECCE (early childhood care and education) fever sweeping neighb-ouring nations and societies, and the country’s pace-setting urban middle class aware of the life-long advantages that professionally administered ECE confers upon children, it’s only a matter of time before the Union government is compelled to upgrade its 1.2 million anganwadis into ECCE centres preparing infants for school through age-appropriate joyful learning. It’s a consummation devoutly to be wished for the greater good of the greatest number.