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Time to go back to basics

The Annual Survey of Education Report (ASER) highlights the dysfunctional early childhood education (ECE) system. The Draft National Education Policy (DNEP) requires urgent implementation.

Since 2005, Pratham has been publishing an Annual Survey of Education Report. ASER assesses the learning levels of rural school children, both in government and private schools. Successive reports show students poorly equipped.


ASER 2018 revealed only 27.2 per cent of standard III could read at standard II grade-level text and only 28.1 per cent could do subtraction. It also reported that 25 per cent of children leaving standard VIII couldn’t read standard grade II level text.

ASER 2019 focused on ‘early years’ of child development: 0-8 years. This period is important for cognitive, motor, emotional and social development of a child. By age six, 90 per cent of a child’s brain is fully formed; it is critical that the school environment needs to provide for creative learning and other developmental activities.

ASER 2019 supports DNEPs recommendation for strengthening ECE, shifting it to the school level and having trained teachers.

ASER survey was conducted on 36,930 children aged 4-8 in 26 rural districts covering 24 Indian states. The survey had diverse tasks and activities testing the child’s cognitive skills, literacy, as well as numeracy knowledge, social and emotional development.

It is presumed that children entering grade I must be six years. The good thing is, only 12.7 per cent of children aged 4-5 years are not enrolled in any type of school. But on the flip side, 21.9 per cent of children aged 4-5 are in standard I and above, which can lead to learning disadvantages. On the other hand, 36.4 per cent of age seven and above are still in grade I when they should have been in a higher standard.

Compulsory and free education is offered from ages 6-14, but the ground reality is different. Earlier reports also reveal such dismal statistics, but not much improvement has taken place.

About 40.6 per cent in private LKG or UKG; 26.3 in Anganwadis; 23.9 attending standard I or above were administered with five cognitive tasks – sorting, spatial awareness, seriation, pattern recognition and puzzle. The ability to perform tasks improves during ages 4-5, irrespective of schooling status. Most students were unable to perform these simple tasks at age 5.

Identifying emotions: This is a part of the social and emotional development of the child. The child was shown four face cards depicting sadness, happiness, anger and fear. At age 4, only 24 per cent could identify all four emotions and it was slightly better for age 5 at the level of 33.6. Happiness top scored with 62 and 72 per cent for ages 4 and 5, respectively.

ASER analysis has shown that early language and numeracy skills improve if a child can perform cognitive tasks better, suggesting that focusing on play-based activities that build memory, reasoning and problem-solving abilities are far more productive than an early focus on content knowledge.

ASER tried to correlate the mother’s education level with their children in performing cognitive tasks, reading and numeracy skills. In all categories, it was a positive correlation. Higher the mother’s education levels, better the performance of their children. It is good to have educated parents, but children can shine well if they have competent teachers.

Pratham has made a rich contribution by highlighting the problem of dysfunctional ECE. It is not rocket science to improve ECE, as has been clearly discussed in DNEP. And it cannot be done through baby steps. We need transformative reforms. Let us hope that our country will implement DNEP on a war footing.

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