Early childhood programmes have long been shown to create improvements that last a lifetime. Whether by instilling good habits or by encouraging a passion for learning, early exposure to learning cuts dropout rates in later schooling, and generates measurable improvements in the productivity and income of adults.
The Integrated Child Development Scheme, initiated in 1975 on a pilot basis, has now grown to include 1.3 million Anganwadi centres across the country – one of the largest initiatives of its kind in the world for children under the age of
six. But the big challenge for India is to expand preschool education access to even more children, and – crucially – to lift the quality of education offered.
Most Anganwadis operate primarily as nutrition or daycare centres with no staff formally trained in child development. Only half have basic tools for learning, like appropriate books, drawing materials, and puzzles, the government found in 2011. More than three-fifths of staff receive no help from supervisors to plan or execute educational activities, according to one recent study.
New research examines how to change this picture. Commissioned by Tata Trusts and Copenhagen Consensus for the India Consensus project, Abusaleh Shariff and Amit Sharma conclude that there would be significant benefits from focussed investment in early childhood education.
First, they analyse the effectiveness of cash incentives to expand access further. Cash vouchers have lifted preschool attendance in rural China. Using a similar incentive structure, and taking the state of Andhra Pradesh as an example, they find this would be equivalent to offering about Rs 6,000 to the family of a fouryear-old to attend preschool education programmes at Anganwadis in the state, regardless of the parents’ income. The total cost for Andhra Pradesh would run to about Rs 333 crore.
Such an incentive will likely result in a 35% increase in preschool enrolment, taking it to 66%. This will lead to an addition of 1.4 lakh new four-year-olds to the state’s Anganwadi preschool education programme.
Early learning can help increase later academic achievement, build a desire to learn and aid better social and emotional development. Perhaps the most wellestablished result is that access to preschool education translates into an increase in future wages. Even using a conservative approach of only identifying how much more children will earn given a year of preschool education than those who remain illiterate means an average wage increase of 23% when children grow up. For each child helped, that means more than Rs 2 lakh over a lifetime, or Rs 3,146 crore for all of Andhra Pradesh. In all, every rupee spent would generate benefits worth Rs 10 to society.
This approach would expand access. But how can India lift the quality of preschool education in Anganwadis? The authors look at a model already being used successfully in Karnataka. This would see spending of about Rs 7,000 per year on each child aged three-six years enrolled in Anganwadis, on improving the quality of preschool education.
They suggest partnering with accredited localised organisations that focus on early childhood education and development, such as the Hippocampus Learning Centres in Karnataka. This amount would be enough to hire one teacher per centre, improve the curriculum, train existing Anganwadi staff, and provide uniforms and books for students.
The effect of this intervention is based on demonstrated effectiveness from private school preschool programmes. While private preschools are not perfect, they are generally regarded as providing a more appropriate environment and curriculum for children than Anganwadis. Bringing the quality of preschool education provided through Anganwadis to a level with private preschools would cost about Rs 1,183 crore per year for all the three-six year olds currently enrolled at Anganwadis in our example state of Andhra Pradesh.
The researchers’ analysis concludes that this would lead to a 13% increase in average wages for the children when they grow up, a present value of Rs 1.3 lakh per child. With a cost of 7,000, that means each rupee spent on higher quality education generates a very generous return of Rs 18.
Every state has different conditions, so the costs and benefits will differ elsewhere. But the researchers’ analysis for Andhra Pradesh, and for Rajasthan, shows that investment in expanding early childhood education access and improving quality would transform lives in India for many years to come.
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