Despite the importance of Early Childhood Education (ECE) for the development and lifelong learning of children, most states in India are yet to define uniform norms and standards for its implementation. This is especially true when governing the provisioning of ECE by non-state actors, as was seen in a recent study by Vidhi on a public-private partnership (PPP) model for ECE in Mumbai. This raises concerns for the quality and equitability of ECE delivered by the State.
Early Childhood Education(ECE) is imperative to the overall socio-emotional and cognitive development of a child. Moreover, children without access to early childhood care and education – including adequate nutrition and health – are found to fall behind in later schooling, with studies citing a strong association of ECE with future learning and earning capabilities of children. Access to high-quality ECE is thus an important precursor to achieving inclusion in education throughout stages of education.
Despite the evident importance of this stage of education, the legislative and policy framework for the implementation of ECE in India fails to provide uniform norms and standards to ensure quality and equitability.
For example, the primary provider of early childhood care and education, the Anganwadi system, has been found to underperform in the provisioning of ECE. Perhaps as a response to this, standalone ECE centres (running as government, private unaided, and private aided pre-schools) have cropped up in the country. However, no there is no policy that appropriately governs the implementation of this large ecosystem of providers. The National Education Policy (NEP), 2020 is the first policy to officially include ECE into the spectrum of formal education.
In a recent study published by the Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy, we examine a public-private partnership (PPP) model for provisioning of ECE in Mumbai, in which we find that the lack of a coherent policy framework governing its implementation and regulating non-state providers of ECE, has given rise to concerns for the rights of the child. In this article we discuss two specific concerns arising from this study – quality and equitability of ECE delivered under this model. The full analysis of the model can be accessed here.
PPP models in education: A mixed bag of opinions
PPPs for education continue to be a highly contested mode of service delivery. PPPs can manifest into complex models of operation, depending on the nature of roles and responsibilities divided between the State and private providers.
While proponents of such partnerships argue that they can improve the quality of education delivered in the country, by compensating for lacking State capacity and expertise, opponents disagree. On normative grounds, they argue that the State bears the obligation of delivering social goods like education, and PPPs can act as a means for the State to shirk such responsibility. This is arguably the case in more complex partnerships that shift the actual burden of education delivery from the State to non-state actors, with the State playing the limited role of the financier. Many further suggest that in the absence of appropriate regulation, PPPs (much like unaided private provisioning), can adversely impact equitable access to schooling. As such, these partnerships necessitate a strong regulatory framework, which requires the State to build capacity in regulatory functions, instead of in delivering education.
Governing PPPs: Policy placement and ensued challenges
The increasing adoption of PPPs for education in India requires a strong regulatory framework to assuage the concerns of opponents. This is especially challenging, as we find in our study, for the stage of ECE – where states are yet to define uniform norms and standards for ECE implementation, and the existing policy framework fails to adequately cover this larger ecosystem of non-state providers.
India currently has neither a central policy governing ECE delivery nor a dedicated policy governing PPP models in ECE. The closest mention to both these issues can be traced in the National Policy on Early Childhood Care and Education(ECCE), 2013. The National ECCE Policy acknowledges PPPs as models of service delivery and the State’s willingness to support these non-state providers by ‘supplementing’ and ‘complementing’ their services.
Our take: The case of PPP balwadis in Mumbai
To elucidate how the lack of regulation might impact equity in education, we study the case of a PPP model for ECE delivery being run in Balwadis (dedicated ECE centres) under the aegis of the Education Department of the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai (MCGM). Under this model the MCGM is currently partnered with over 20 organisations – NGOs, trusts, and CSR organisations- to whom they provide financial aid to cover an honorarium for Balwadi teachers and helpers and maintenance fees, as well as classroom spaces within existing MCGM schools. In turn, partner organisations are tasked with delivering ECE.
Through an analysis of policies and contracts governing this model, as well as interviews with the partner organisations running balwadis, we identify gaps in policy and practice with a bearing of quality and equity of ECE delivered by them.
In a pleasant surprise, we found that the MCGM has a dedicated policy (the MCGM PPP Policy) that governs the implementation of PPPs for education, by pegging standards of education delivery to the Right To Education (RTE) Act. The trouble, however, is that ECE finds little explicit mention within this policy or in the RTE Act.
In fact, the MCGM PPP policy and MoUs (defining terms of service between partner organisations and the MCGM), do not correspond with each other, with the MoU not referring to the MCGM PPP policy, and the MCGM PPP Policymaking no mention of ‘Balwadis’. This lack of clarity leaves room for varied interpretations, and it can be argued that the Balwadi model is not governed by any policy. This, coupled with the absence of standardized rules for ECE implementation in the State raises the following concerns.
Minimum standards for quality of ECE are ill-defined and under-delivered: While the MoU defines standards such as minimum educational qualifications of balwadi teachers and helpers; a classroom-student ratio; and a range of entitlements to be provided to students, there are incidents of non-adherence.
For example, organisations appeared to interpret the defined standard of 1 classroom to every 20 students, as a minimum enrollment ratio rather than a cap on class size, with some having up to 35-40 students in their balwadis at a given time. This is likely to impact the quality of attention and education delivered by teachers.
Organisations also reported not receiving support services from the MCGM, such as uniforms and stationery boxes for their students, while also lacking clarity on who was responsible for providing learning materials. Importantly, the provisioning of mid-day meals – known to encourage attendance to school and provide proper nutrition – finds no mention in the MoU.
Studies have repeatedly emphasized the importance of the State covering such “out-of-pocket expenditures”, which might otherwise act as impediments to education access. Non-provisioning of these entitlements is thus an infringement of the rights of the child to education, nutrition, and care.
Vulnerable categories of students face possible exclusion: In violation of the legislative promise of providing inclusive education, within this model, no specific provisions are made for the inclusion of children with disabilities. Partner organisations revealed that their balwadi teachers are not required to be trained to identify or teach students with disabilities in their classrooms.
Moreover, this model is not future proof in preventing private partners from adopting exclusionary practices in enrollment of students, such as taking assessments of students and parents prior to their admission. This might then lead to the selection of better-performing students with better-educated parents.
Analysis of this model provides a glimpse into how under-regulated providers and ill-defined standards can compromise the quality and equitability of education delivery. As has been documented, increased private provisioning of schooling leads to socio-economic backgrounds of households determining access to schools, with only the most disadvantaged opting for government schools.
To prevent this, and where PPPs for education are resorted to, we re-emphasize the importance of adopting a robust regulatory framework. In the case of ECE delivery, we further emphasize the need to peg such a regulatory framework to a set of uniform norms and standards for equitable and quality delivery of ECE.
Finally, the decision to adopt PPPs as well as frameworks governing its implementation must necessarily place the rights and interests of the child at the center of its design, conforming to key legislation such as the Right to Education (RTE) Act, extended to include ECE under its ambit.
Pooja Pandey is a Research Fellow working in the area of Education. Nisha Vernekar is a Senior Resident Fellow and leads Vidhi’s work in the area of Education. All views in the piece are personal.