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  • Writer's pictureSushmita Roy

Five Key Takeaways from India's First-of-its-kind Early Childhood Education Conference - Udaan’23

Updated: Sep 8

This March, Rocket Learning brought together over 200 government officials, non-profit leaders, social workers, national and international funders, researchers, economists and child pedagogy and behavioral experts under one roof, for the first time, to engage, empower, and educate on Early Childhood Education and Care (ECCE) in India. In addition, Anganwadi workers, supervisors, helpers and parents of young children in Rocket Learning's cohort were also in attendance to share their lived experiences and shed light on the reality of the current educational outcomes and experiences.

The event featured 7 in-person panels and 1 virtual session, all focusing on aligning states with the National Curriculum Framework, training Anganwadi workers to become better educators, and mobilizing parents to develop an early childhood development (ECD) solution that is truly community-driven, leading to energizing discourses reiterating the urgency to act now.

All experts spoke to these five hard-and-fast truths :

1) Investing in ECCE Gives a Country the Highest Return

"One of the biggest policy fund misallocations we do… is how much we allocate to the last year of life, compared to how shockingly little we spend in the first 3 years of life," said Prof. Karthik Muralidharan, University of California and J-PAL. During his panel, "The State of ECCE and Big Ideas for India," he spoke about why investing in young children's education is critical for economic growth. Economists, developmental psychologists, and neuroscientists agree.

The National Forum on Early Childhood Policy and Programs found that high-quality early childhood programs can yield a $4 – 9 return per $1 invested. Other studies have also shown that early childhood education has at least a 4X-9X return on investment per dollar. The benefits of investing in ECCE go beyond the health, education, and development of young children, as it also leads to increased earnings, employment, and more public safety in the future.

Watch his address by clicking here.

2) ECCE Is Backed by Science

More than 1 million new neural connections are formed every second in the brain in the first few years. After this rapid growth, the brain circuit becomes more efficient by reducing the connections through pruning. In other words, if the brain architecture doesn't develop well in the first few years, children risk never reaching their full development potential.

"The foundation of a fully productive and enabled human being occurs in the earliest days and weeks and months of life- that's biology," Dr. V.K Paul, Member, NITI Aayog, the apex public policy think tank of the Government of India, and a keynote speaker at Udaan 2023, said.

"The brain growth in terms of the size reaches about 80% -85% of what it should be by two years, and after that, in the next 4-5 years, it reaches the adult size," Dr. Paul added. Therefore, if children receive proper care and nutrition during these years, their foundation is well-built, leading to better mental and physical health later.

“Now, we have realized that for mental development, this (0-6 age group) is the most critical period, and if we miss out on that we’ll have problems later,” Shri Indevar Pandey, Secretary to the Government of India, Women and Child Development, and keynote speaker at Udaan 2023, said. “Government cannot see this scientific evidence and be oblivious to it,” he added.

3) The Indian Government Has an Action Plan for Providing High Quality Early Childhood Education & Care to All

Earlier in 2020, the Ministry of Education released the new National Education Policy (NEP), where schooling begins with the inclusion of ECCE from age 3. According to the NEP, the country must provide universal quality early childhood development, care, and education by 2030. Implementing this crucial idea will require bringing quality ECCE to Anganwadi centres in communities, Anganwadi centres located within school premises, pre-primary school sections, and standalone preschools. But this goal can only be reached with support from all ECCE stakeholders.

"Our civil society partners must provide urgent and sustained capacity-building support," Shri Indevar Pandey, said.he added while describing Prime Minister Narendra Modi's goal of upgrading Anganwadis nationwide.

He also praised the effectiveness and creativity of the E-aakar (digital) activities that Rocket Learning brought to Anganwadis in Maharashtra and spoke about a newsletter he came across in Tamil Nadu. The bi-monthly newsletter, called Chittu Kuruvi, recognizes the best practices in every Anganwadi.

Mr. Pandey also emphasized the importance of learning in the new digital age through social media channels like WhatsApp and Youtube, the two most popular media in the demographic that attend Anganwadis.

4) Smartphones and Technology Can Enable Community-wide Change

Around 80% of people in India now have access to smartphones. In many communities, even before Rocket Learning's intervention, Anganwadi workers had created WhatsApp groups to communicate with children's parents. Now, with the artificial intelligence mechanism Rocket Learning has built, children receive more relevant and gamified coursework, leading to improved overall grades.

Speaking of the transformational change Anganwadis in Jodphur has seen, Abhishek Surana, CEO of Zila Prashad, Rajasthan, said: "We have been working with Rocket Learning for the past six months to bring digital content to Anganwadis." Rocket Learning has supported Mr. Surana and his team to create over 4,500 groups and connected more than 25,000 parents in the district.

"Anganwadi workers are now more oriented towards ensuring that the children coming to the Anganwadis are engaged in some task which results in early childhood development. The parents also feel more involved now," he added.

“I want my daughter to learn on a technology-based platform,” Alka, mother of a 5-year-old student in Rocket Learning’s cohort, said during the panel with voices from the ground. “I also want teachers to support this digitization and be part of the digital revolution,” she added.

“For example, Rocket Learning sends several activities every week that kids are super interested in given its audio-visual format” she added.

Another parent also excitedly spoke about the poem his daughter taught him after learning it as part of one of the assignments Rocket Learning sends on WhatsApp groups: “I was only teaching her colors until one day she taught me something she learnt by herself on the platform!” Naveen, parent of a four-year-old in Rocket Learning’s cohort.

5) It's Critical to Train Anganwadi Workers to Become Better Educators

Anganwadi workers in India perform an exhaustive list of duties, including leading health efforts for mothers and children in their communities, surveying, making home visits, and managing the nutritional needs of children. Creating new and interactive play-based educational content often takes a toll on these already overburdened workers who may have not received any formal education.

"As director of NIPCCD, I want to reach out to as many Anganwadi workers as possible to ensure the children and their parents get the benefit of education," Tripti Gurha, Joint Secretary, Women and Child Development and Director of NIPCCD, said during the panel that brought together local, state, and central government officials. But as with any ambitious goal, this must also be a combined effort.

"Every Anganwadi worker and helper will be trained so we can ensure quality education," Mr Pandey said. "There, your role is very important," he added while pointing out that educational organizations and non-profits must lend their capacity. He said that the training program can be in a "phygital" format combining in-person training days and online learning.

We hope that ECCE stakeholders consider these critical takeaways and input to support millions of Anganwadi workers and parents of young children. Rocket Learning currently impacts 1.5 Mn+ children across 7+ states through 70,000+ parent communities and is building capacity to reach 50 Mn by 2028. Join us in the movement to build an #equalfoundationearly and stay tuned for Udaan2024.

To watch the entire conference, click here.


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