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LAHORE, July 20: While universal Early Childhood Education (ECE) is a distant dream in Pakistan, India is running ECE as part of its Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) scheme for the last four decades and has engaged maximum children aged 3 to 6.

In Pakistan, traditionally katchi class was considered as ECE, but it faded during the last two decades in the absence of government’s support through policy framework for children’s admission, retention and promotion. Non-conducive environment in schools and teachers’ lack of competence towards receiving and retaining children in their tender age dampened all hopes, say educationists.

Some five years ago, the federal ministry of education rose to the challenge and developed proper curriculum for the ECE and the Punjab government set up 30 ECE centres in public schools with proper infrastructure and human resources. The experiment came out to be successful and since then efforts are being made to expand this programme. The Punjab school education department has set up Kids Rooms in public schools for formalising ECE – a positive development in the right direction. Still, the ECE enrolment in private schools is higher than in public schools.

However, during a visit to New Delhi on a study tour organised by ASER Pakistan last week, this correspondent found Indian model of ECE different, as it served as a part of six objectives of ICDS scheme being run by ministry of women and child development and considered one of the world’s largest and unique programmes for early childhood development.

Besides looking after adolescent girls, pregnant women, lactating mothers and infants, ICDS looks after 3 to 6-year old children’s nutrition and health matters through mid-day meals and immunisation as well as laying foundation for their proper psychological, physical and social development through School Readiness Programme commonly known as ECE.

The scheme’s ECE programme is being run for pre-school age group children in Anganwadi Centres (AWCs – a room or a courtyard in house), which have been set up for every 250 households across India and are considered backbone of the ICDS scheme. In Delhi alone, there are around 9,000 Anganwadis -- some 100 centres in each of 90 projects.

Still, the School Readiness Programme is under criticism in India as it is failing to perform at its optimum level simply because of teachers’ engagement in many duties other than teaching and training of children.

The teacher, technically called Anganwadi Worker (AWW), is supposed to fill 26 registers, conduct outdoor visits, hold women community meetings and perform other responsibilities that demand more from her than training children.

ICDS officials say that at the concept level the school readiness part of the AWCs is the joyful play-way daily activity of children aged 3 to 6 aimed at their total development in a natural, joyful and stimulating environment so that they may develop a sound foundation for cumulative lifelong learning and development.

During a visit to various AWCs in urban settings in New Delhi, it was found that in most cases there were not more than a dozen children out of almost 30 registered at any given time. Many children reach at 10am (snacks time) and return after getting their due meal.

Various Anganwadi workers say they were overworked and less paid despite the fact that their salaries were increased to Rs4,000 per month early last year.

Pointing towards a swollen bag lying on a trunk, an Anganwadi worker (AWW) in Pandit Mohalla, Kondli village told Dawn that there were 26 registers that she was supposed to fill including more than half-a-dozen for documentation on a daily basis. “Besides, there are so many outdoor activities that practically hinder teachers’ focus on children’s learning activities,” the worker said.

The teacher, who is commonly called Didi, said she registered about 30 children, but there were never more than a dozen children at a given time. “If all 30 registered children will attend the centre, there will be no space to breath even,” she said dejectedly.

While ICDS Delhi Director Rajiv Kale did not comment on the subject despite several attempts, Child Development Project Officer Saroj Chopra said girls were making issue out of nothing. She said Unicef recently reduced the volume of prescribed records. But, she said: “Some records are essential to be documented.”

Ms Chopra said people had yet to understand the importance of Anganwadis for Early Childhood Education. She said many parents did get their children registered with AWCs, but do not send them for full two hours. “The parents do not consider Anganwadis as pre-schools because they are not under any pressure of getting their wards’ names struck off,” she said. For this reason, she said, workers and helpers continued efforts to bring children to AWCs.

About shortage of space, she said limited funds approved for accommodation on rent restricted scheme managers to engage one room or a veranda in a house in the locality.

Overall, the ICDS scheme is aimed at improving six indictors -- nutritional and health status of children in the age-group 0-6 years through midday meals and immunisation; laying the foundation for their proper psychological, physical and social development; reducing the incidence of mortality, morbidity, malnutrition and school dropout; achieving effective coordination of policy and implementation amongst various departments to promote child development and enhancing the capability of the mother to look after the normal health and nutritional needs of the child through proper nutrition and health education.

Commenting on the duties, an AWW official said she was working with commitment, but the large number of duties, most of the time, marred the quality of work. “We are supposed to impart training to children to help them take on the challenge of joining formal schooling at the age of five or six years; provide supplementary nutrition to children and adolescent girls, conduct immunisation of children, health check-ups, referral services, and nutrition and health services,” she added.

AWWs stressed the need of relieving them from the documentation about children as well as pregnant and lactating mothers and provide them space to perform their duties independently.