The second panel discussion of the EW ECE Global Conference 2014 on the subject ‘Best practices in ECCE – What Indian preschools need to learn and adapt’ was lively and engaging. The panel chaired by Summiya Yasmeen (SY), managing editor of EducationWorld, included Sapna Chauhan (SC), founder of Amiown preschools, Delhi; Prriety Gosalia (PG), co-founder and CEO of Leapbridge International preschools in Mumbai and Pune; Soniya Donison (SD), founder of Petals Montessori, Bangalore; Dr. Asha Singh (AS), assistant professor of child development at Lady Irwin College, Delhi and Komala Pannirselvam (KP), director customised programmes, Asian International College, Singapore. Excerpts from the 90-minute panel discussion:
SY: India lags way behind in early childhood care and education. According to the Starting Well index of the Economist Intelligence Unit which surveyed ECCE systems in 45 countries, India ranks last, behind Ghana and Philippines. Asha, what are the best international ECCE practices we urgently need in India?
AS: In India there are wide differences in the quality of ECCE provision. Some Indian preschools will score 3 on 10 while some may score 8 on 10, on a par with top preschools in OECD countries. The important thing is that with the formulation of the National Early Childhood Care and Education (NECCE) policy we have become conscious of the critical importance of ECCE. If India is low ranked in the Economist index, it’s because of the size of our population. We are not able to provide for all children.
But though there are many excellent international practices in ECCE, we need to evolve our own syllabi and curriculums. As Gandhiji said, even as we keep our windows open to let in ideas from the world, we must not let our roots be shaken. If we adhere to the fundamental principles of ECCE — ensuring that teachers reach out to all children, provide space and facilities — we can adapt international practices to our local and cultural contexts.
SY: Komala, Singapore has among the most evolved ECCE systems worldwide. What can Indian preschools learn from Singapore?
KP: Singapore has invested heavily in ECCE. The ministry of education has launched several initiatives including preparation of a curriculum framework for kindergartens which is reviewed every five years, mandating stringent professional qualifications for ECCE educators and promoting an Early Childhood Development Agency to oversee child care and preschool education. Every preschool in Singapore needs to adhere to the Child Care Act and cannot operate without a licence. Moreover all preschools in Singapore must follow the i-teach system which prescribes six best teaching and learning practices in ECCE. There’s much that government administrators and ECCE providers in India can learn from the Singapore model.
SY: Prriety, can you share some of the international best practices you have successfully implemented in your Leapbridge preschools?
PG: There are certain universally accepted benchmarks for high quality ECCE. However all best practices need to be localised and contextualised before implementation in our schools. Particularly, foreign curriculums must be modified to suit local and cultural contexts. Unfortunately, Indian academia lacks a research culture in education. Therefore in too many preschools, curriculums are unsuitable and misleading for children. In our schools we take special care to contextualise and adapt international curriculums and best practices. And because there’s no worthwhile training for early childhood care givers and teachers, we insist upon continuous in-service teacher training.
There’s a lot we need to learn from the West and Singapore in building a strong education research culture and training and certifying ECCE teachers.
SY: The Amity Centre for Educational Research and Training (ACERT) in Delhi is obviously a response to the ECCE teacher training blindspot. Sapna what are the main features of ACERT promoted by you?
SC: Delivery of meaningful ECCE is impossible without well-trained teachers. That’s non-negotiable. That’s why we felt the need to promote ACERT in 2005. Right from the start we carefully researched international best practices and ways and means to adapt them in our schools. Within ACERT, there’s equal emphasis on teacher training to enable our teachers to learn about international best practices and their adaptation to classroom practice. ACERT’s training programmes are also open to ECCE teachers from other preschools.
There’s an urgent need to create a national culture which promotes and encourages intensive pre-service as well as in-service teacher training, especially for early years education.
SY: A common criticism of ECCE in India is that preschools initiate children into formal learning too early. Soniya, what’s your comment?
SD: This was a common criticism of ECCE in the West three decades ago. But since then, it’s universally accepted that preschool administrators and teachers should resist parental pressure to force infants into structured formal learning to acquire precocious linguistic and numeracy skills. This can severely damage and put children off from learning. Parents must be educated about the dangers of age inappropriate ECCE. In Petals, we strongly believe in teaching children through the Montessori system which is very child-friendly, allowing children to develop and learn at their own pace.
I entirely agree with Sapna that duly qualified, well-trained teachers are critical to delivering high-quality early childhood education. In the UK, the government has mandated rigorous qualifications and minimum wages for teachers. In India too, we need to prescribe minimum wages and build a strong accreditation system for teacher training institutions.
SY: The ministry of women and child development has drafted a National Early Childhood Care and Education policy. Is this a positive development or a licence for harassment of private preschools?
PG: Setting national benchmarks and minimal standards is a positive development because preschool promoters need to know what they are getting into. The NECCE policy prescribes minimum standards which is a good start. But how the policy will be implemented remains to be seen.
KP: Prescribing standards, accrediting preschools and mandating teacher qualifications is very important. Singapore has been able to develop a high quality ECCE system because it has created a framework within which preschools must operate.
SC: Government regulation apart, we need an industry representative body to set standards and ensure they are implemented in member schools. Especially in teacher training, we need to work together to design contemporary training programmes. For instance in the area of special needs education, teacher training programmes are unavailable.
SD: Yes, there’s an urgent need for designing curriculums and teacher training programmes for special needs children. Currently very few preschool teachers know the difference between delayed learning and learning disability. Parent education and counseling programmes also need to be imported and adapted.
AS: It’s not true that teacher training for special needs children is an area of darkness. All certified teachers are obliged to obtain nursery training qualifications. It’s a different matter that few preschools insist upon them.
SY: Clearly, there’s a broad consensus within the panel that given belated awareness of the critical importance of professionally administered ECCE, Indian preschools need to carefully study, import and adapt international best practices, particularly in the areas of curriculum development and teacher training. However, all panelists warn that international best practices need to be sensitively adapted and culturally contextualised. Panelists have also called for collaboration between preschools, and promotion of industry representative organisations — such as the Early Childhood Association — to temper government regulation, prescribe minimum standards and offer accreditation services. This is an excellent prescription for the accelerated growth and development of India’s late-start ECCE sector.