The Covid-19 pandemic not only hampered the education of students. It also hurt India’s teachers as sudden school closures left many without salaries. Especially vulnerable were pre-primary teachers – or early childhood educators, as they are known in education circles – who even before the pandemic lacked job security.

On Teacher’s Day on September 5, it is important to pay attention to this group who have the responsibility of teaching young Indians aged three to six years and preparing them to move on to the school system.

Neither the Centre nor any of the states provide for a comprehensive legal framework for the sector or those who work it in, jeopardising teacher’s rights, security and stability of service.

A vital stage in a child’s life

Preschool attendance, as experts note, is a vital stage in a child’s life. It “is positively associated with both cognitive and non-cognitive skills development in developing and developed countries,” notes a paper in the International Journal of Child Care and Education Policy. “Further, children who attend early childhood programmes are less likely to drop out of school than other children.”

Yes, despite the critical role the teachers play in nurturing young Indian citizens, there is a paucity of qualified pre-primary school teachers in India, Unesco’s State of the Education report 2021 notes .

There are many challenges in recruiting and retaining high-quality teachers for early childhood education, which is demonstrated by the fact that 10% of pre-primary teachers in private unaided schools are underqualified, the Unesco report says.

The report says that pre-primary teachers have low salaries and that their jobs are often contractual: only 49% of government school early childhood educators have contracts of three-year durations or more and that 58% of private-sector teachers work without any contract.

Early childhood educators, especially in private unaided schools, are also not entitled to health or maternity benefits, making their professional standing precarious. This is especially unjust, considering the fact that female teachers constitute as much as 85% of the workforce.

It is no wonder that many pre-primary teachers complain of their poor social status.

Fragmented sector

One of the challenges for this sector is the varying models of pre-primary education delivery in India, since early childhood education is provided by both private schools and the government.

In the private sector, the rapid proliferation of loosely-regulated preschools has resulted in a cadre of pre-primary teachers who have varying levels of training.

In the case of the government sector, early childhood education is mainly provided by Anganwadi centres run under the Integrated Child Development Scheme and Anganwadi workers doubling up as teachers or through government schools.

Early childhood education falls under the purview of the Women and Child Development Department, which oversees Anganwadi centres. But all other levels of school education fall under the Education Department. This makes it difficult to fix a clear demarcation of the roles, responsibilities and accountability of each department.

The National Early Childhood Care and Education Policy, 2013, lays down standards for the sector to follow – but these still remain aspirations. The policy states that the nodal agency for the sector is the Ministry of Women and Child Development and requires the sector to be professionalised at all levels. It suggests qualifications, development pathways, clear role definitions, and training for personnel in the sector.

Representative image. Credit: Anil Sharma via Pixabay.

Training for pre-primary teachers is to be provided under various schemes, including Integrated Child Development Scheme and more recently under NISHTHA 3.0 (National Initiative for School Heads’ and Teachers’ Holistic Advancement). However, there are no clear rules governing the conduct and service of early childhood educators.

A similar gap exists in laws and rules governing overall teacher education and training in India, as specified by the National Council for Teacher Education.

Even though early childhood education finds no mention in the Right to Education Act, it is included in the mandate of the National Council of Teacher Education with reference to the Act. While the National Council for Teacher Education has the mandate to cover teacher education at the level of early childhood education, teacher education has not been standardised.

Many such teacher education programmes are being run without adhering to the National Curriculum Framework and the National Curricular Framework for Teacher Education, undermining the quality of teachers and the delivery of early childhood education.

What follows

The success of early childhood education in India depends greatly on the well-being, status and recognition accorded to the pre-primary teachers. The presence of formalised and professionally trained educators would go a long way in ensuring greater retention of students at the pre-primary level and could ensure a seamless and age-appropriate transition to the primary levels of schooling.

The National Education Policy 2020 has distinctly articulated this vision by suggesting the formalisation of early childhood education delivery, training Anganwadi workers/teachers as well as preparing cadres of professionally trained pre-primary teachers with a long-term approach.

However, it would help the sector if specific rules and regulations were enacted to govern and regulate teachers.

Finally, there should be clarity on the specific roles of the Ministry of Education and the Minister for Women and Child Development, which share responsibilities for early childhood education. This is specially necessary since the National Education Policy 2020 envisages all early childhood education centres as being part of the regular school education system.

Pooja Pandey is a Senior Resident Fellow, Education, and Avinash Reddy is a Project Fellow, Education, at Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy, New Delhi.

September 5 is celebrated as Teachers’ Day.