When four-year-old Fizan Khan from Mumbai found it difficult to identify and write English alphabets despite going to a playschool, nursery and tuition classes in Mumbai for about two years, his family got worried. It was time for him to take admission in a primary school and the stress only mounted.
The playschool, predictably, shrugged all responsibility saying it wasn’t their job to teach the child as playschools are only for ‘fun-filled and creative activities’, despite charging hefty fees in the name of preparing children for admissions to primary schools.
Fizan is an extremely intelligent boy with a sharp mind, immense curiosity and extraordinary skills but he is not able to identify alphabets that well, probably because of the disdain sparked by the senseless scolding at school and back home.
Instead of taking the child to a specialist tutor or being patient with him, the family – swayed by peer pressure and bias – decided to put him through rigorous tuitions and study sessions from ‘untrained’ teachers to ensure he performs well in the ‘good’ school, stressing the child even more.
Now, Fizan is on the brink of a ‘schooling’ process and will, sadly start with a disadvantage. He is already judged for being unable to write certain alphabets even before having started school. Judged by untrained ‘tuition teachers’ and ill-informed ‘well-wishers’ those who have little or no idea about pre-school education.
These formative years of a child’s life before he starts going to primary school are very critical as they begin to absorb everything they see around them. This affects the child’s development – physical, emotional, social and cognitive.
Pressure is counterproductive
The National Council of Education Research and Training (NCERT) in a report on pre-primary / pre-school education recommends avoiding formal education at that age stating: ‘Early focus on developing knowledge, skills and cognitive abilities in children harms their ability to develop a positive attitude, disposition to learn, be reflective, be inquisitive, be inventive, be resourceful, and being a problem solver’.
There are ample studies that indicate brain connections or neuron synapses multiply exponentially in the first three years of a child’s life making it the optimal time for a child’s development.
In September 2019, pre-primary education was slated to become a part of the school system as declared in the Draft National Policy 2019. At a meeting of the Central Advisory Board of Education (CABE), the highest policy-making body on education, the approval came. The draft National Education policy is set to make early childhood care and education (ECCE) i.e. from age zero to six years, part of the Indian school system.
The highly unregulated pre-primary school set their own curriculum and standards. There is a need to bring them under the purview of law to have a universal, formally-designed curriculum. The pressure on young children (and parents) to acquire academic excellence at that age must be questioned. The age is ripe for children to learn freely out of their natural curiosity, eagerness to experiment which must not be spoilt with formal education.
Pre-primary must not be formal
Pre-primary school are centres where generally pre-primary education is imparted before the compulsory ‘formal’ primary education begins. It is supposed to lay foundation of knowledge in children and ensure an overall development of child.
Formal education is a classroom-based training that is provided by trained teachers or instructors. This process of acquiring knowledge is primarily by way of instructions and involves schools or institutions. This type of education is subject oriented and has a hierarchical structure.
In formal learning, children learn basic academic skills in the premises of a school. Generally, formal education begins in elementary or primary school but now, in many instances, basics of formal education begin in pre-primary education itself. It is yet to be ascertained if starting formal education that early is good or bad for the overall development of children.
In India, similar to many Asian countries, there is immense pressure on the child to perform well in academics and on the parents to ensure the child performs well to maintain their reputation among the peers. Formal education is one type of education that has developed hundreds of ways to ‘mark’ children.
There are tests of all kinds during the academic session, at the end of academic session, exams, competitions and activities where children are constantly judged and ranked against each other. In these activities, children understand one thing for sure – that anything they do, they will be either better or worse than their ‘friends’ and peer.
Preparing for the rat-race
When it comes to pre-primary education, the focus of nurseries and playschools has shifted from engaging children in creative activities for healthy growth and development to preparing them for the rat race that lies ahead – admission to a ‘good’ school, performing ‘well’ in academics and getting a well-paying job in the future.
Modern pre-primary schools have forgotten the importance of non-formal education i.e. the purpose of pre-primary education.
The process of admission to a ‘good’ elementary school itself is extremely stressful for parents and the pressure percolates down to the children also. Pre-primary education centres have made the most use of this race to get into a reputed primary school and many now teach the basics of formal education to children in nurseries, even playschool.
So, this means that at the very beginning of their lives, children are judged for their performance or non-performance in tests and activities devised by other individuals. Also, all children are judged on the same parameters and put into boxes, ranked, rewarded and punished. It is no secret that every child is different. Every child is unique and has a natural talent and aptitude for something specific. They just need the time to find their niche.
Someone may be good at learning numbers, other might be good at drawing while someone may be good at sports. So, putting all of them through the same standardised test and then marking them for their performance is not only illogical but also inhuman. It is the chronological grading system in formal education that makes matters worse.
Even if children do not take their performance in these tests seriously, their teachers and parents ensure that the child does not forget how important it is to excel in these tests.
For children going to playschools and nurseries it is not a healthy environment as instead of learning to be kind to each other and share things with everyone around, they learn to be selfish, focus only on themselves and see their friends through the prism of their performance and their ‘ranks’ in the class.
Creativity takes a backseat
Pre-primary schools and centres teach basics of formal education and, in the process, the focus on creative activities, arts, sports is diminished drastically. Worse still, these schools do not take any responsibility in ensuring the child learns the basics. Their convenient response is that formal education starts in primary schools and is not their responsibility.
Fact remains most children at that age are too young to understand and learn certain things. At this stage, they must be engaged in activities that develop their creative skills, thinking abilities and moral values and not focus on how well they ‘learn’ or ‘remember’ alphabets or numbers. Also, every child has a different growth curve. They may learn and understand different things at different pace. This does not mean that one is inferior to the other.
So, if someone understands and identifies alphabets faster does not mean he is smarter, another child may be better in building blocks. So, the pressure of undertaking formal education in pre-primary schools may often be counterproductive.
When children don’t perform well in academic tests, their parents enrol them in tuition classes. The child is burdened unnecessarily and deprived of other outdoor and developmental activities that are quintessential at that age. There are innumerable parents who send their children to tuition classes every day after they come from their playschool or nursery classes. It is not only exerting for the child physically but also mentally as he thinks he is not at par with his friends who do not take tuitions.
Need to nip rigidity
The rigid system of formal education makes it inappropriate and inapplicable for pre-primary school children. “My son liked going to school but he does not like reading alphabets and now it has become very difficult to take him to school every day,” says mother of three-year-old Alisha Shah from Ahmedabad. So, if the child loses interest in an activity as he is not able to score good marks in it, there is a risk of the child losing interest in schooling completely.
And, more often than not, in this race children with disabilities or special needs are completely ignored. Many children who are dyslexic, autistic or have other mental disorders are completely ignored in the rigid formal education system.