Keywords: Early Childhood Education, Human Development, Child Development, Health Outcomes, Sustainable Development Goal 4, Quality Education, Inequality and Social Factors
The importance of knowledge and learning has been recognised since the beginning of time. Plato aptly wrote: “If a man neglects education, he walks lame to the end of his life”. It is an indisputable fact that early childhood is a period where brain development is at its peak. According to Almond and Currie (2011), what happens to a child in the early years has important long-run consequences within the socio-economic environment.
With important long-run links to economic earnings and opportunities later in life, Early Childhood interventions provide an important foundation for Human Capital Development . However, challenges presented by poverty, malnutrition and the lack of adequate resources can lead to deficiencies in stimulation at this age, which can impede the child’s development, resulting in persistent and exacerbated challenges later in life. Today, a major challenge lies in implementation gaps that arise out of inadequate resource investment, inadequate funding, lack of convergence of development programs, lack of accountability of those managing and implementing early childhood educational programs, especially for the low-income people.
To achieve the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG-4) pertaining to Quality Education, it is crucial to consider policies that promote human capital development from very early on. Lev Vygotsky, Soviet psychologist responsible for the ‘social development theory of learning’, contributed a wealth of ideas to Early Childhood Education (ECE) and proposed that social interaction profoundly influenced cognitive development. The phenomenon of ‘Zone of Proximal Development’ postulated that social learning actually led to cognitive development since it was dependent on social interaction. Vygotsky described it as "the distance between the actual development level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers" .
Moreover, ‘social structures’ are extremely important for the implementation of any policy and this becomes significant in the context of a country like India. Therefore, there arises a need to optimise the positive impact of community variables on the performance of childhood education policies. Gragnaloti, in his paper on India’s undernourished children, identified the rigidities inherent in a top-down system like the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) as responsible for leakages and inactivity and also found that the caste of the ICDS worker positively influenced the attendance of children from the same caste .
Caste discrimination is one of the major factors that affects utilisation of childhood intervention programs like ICDS and it sometimes manifests towards the children who belong to lower castes in the social hierarchy, who are often dissuaded from participation. Thus, it is not only the demographic characteristics of the household and economic cost of accessing these development programs, social factors also affect the access and ability to participate and this is referred to as ‘social access cost’.
Indeed, how research on ECE can grapple with caste-class inequalities and minority-group marginalisation has been a recurrent theme in academic literature. Minati Panda expressed grave concern about the state’s disregard for diverse childhoods. She argued that much of the ECE research reflected a “Hindu worldview, that of the literacy-oriented high-caste, instead of generating dialogue with differing communities to equalise the space” . Therefore, this re-establishes the ‘caste-class- capital’ framework in Early Childhood Education.
Apart from serving the basic nutritional requirements for children, Anganwadi centres play an indispensable role in providing children pre-schooling to prepare them for the primary phase of education. The contribution of games and organised activities in the overall development of these children cannot be underestimated. The anganwadis remain the backbone of an Early Childhood Care system but have suffered on multiple grounds, including lack of facilities and proper training .
Treating Education as a Public Good?
Amy Gutmann, political philosopher, powerfully argues that the state, parents and educational professionals had custodial authority over children’s education and it is necessary to strike a balance of power among these three authorities . This should make us ponder upon the ‘political economy’ lens of looking at Early Childhood Education since it is embedded with a social topography of unequal power emanating from caste, class and religious disparities. With this politically challenging problem staring directly at our faces, the urgent need of examining the ‘role of the state’ in the lives of India’s children through a critical lens becomes even more important in order to guarantee a fair and fitting start for all.
Delving deeper into the intrinsic connection between democratic politics and Early Childhood Education, it is imperative to gauge whether children’s well-being and rights have found a core place and adequate attention in our country. With regard to inculcating basic education and capability in children, are the politics of civic engagement missing even when social deprivation in early childhood education is at an all-time high?
Education policy in India illustrates the gap between aspiration and means. The end was willed (that is, universal education) but not the resources to make this ambitious goal a reality. This uneven picture reflects what Amartya Sen terms as the ‘Indian scepticism about basic education’ . Furthermore, there is a great dissociation between the curriculum and a child’s socio-cultural and other related surroundings. It is imperative to delve deeper into whether early education programs consist of reading mechanically or meaningfully. Learning has a social character and that remains true for both the teacher and students.
Education, in its broad context, is an essential feature of the ‘ethical state’. According to Antonio Francesco Gramsci, an Italian Marxist writer and politician, “The separation between the state and civil society, as well as the separation between civil and political society is done for purely heuristic purposes” . Against this scenario, the struggle for education as entitlement and as a ‘public good’ becomes an important one for those clinging to a socialist perspective.
Gramsci’s insights of more than eighty years ago have been gaining greater resonance in recent times. As he maintained, “class consciousness cannot be completely modified until the mode of life of the class itself is modified, which entails that the proletariat has become the ruling class”. . Education, for most of us, is a necessary public good central to the task of nation building and, like fresh air, it is necessary to make our communities come alive. Thus, we need to make sure that it is not driven solely by market demand for certain skills.
Commoditization of Education?
“Education is a social process; education is growth; education is not preparation for life but is life itself” ― John Dewey 
Education, indeed, has the ability to end the ‘social isolation’ of lower classes in the society. Such a path is also desirable for the goals of ‘social efficiency’. Dewey and other social reformers were of the staunch belief that unless primary education was made obligatory and strictly enforced, educational progress of the backward classes would not see the light of day. Thus, education needs to be considered as the most ‘powerful agent’ for bringing desired changes in the society and a prerequisite for organised efforts to launch any social movement.
It is postulated how the picture is not completely rosy and there are a plethora of challenges that we need to overcome. However, what is really missing is the sheer commitment to increase the intensity of engagement of both students and teachers in the social process of learning. After all, it is a two-way street, for which we would also require the recruitment of talented as well as committed people in the teaching roles, especially when it comes to nurturing young minds.
Indubitably the main problem, pertaining to modern education, is that it has abandoned the incorporation and guidance of traditional wisdom, which previously helped us answer questions (to a much greater extent) like “What is our purpose in life?” and “What are our ethical obligations?”. Therefore, if we want to break the age-old caste based structure of divisions of labour deeply ingrained in our society, education needs to be viewed as an instrument that would liberate the Dalits from illiteracy and ignorance. In doing so, they would be equipped to fight against all forms of injustice, oppression and exploitation.
According to a report by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), despite the recognition of Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) by the Government of India, there is still a burgeoning gap between the number of actual preschoolers and those enrolled in pre-schools . Considering the research backed theoretical framework that early childhood education significantly affects the academic performance of a child at primary and secondary levels, it is imperative that an urgent approach is applied to make quality pre-school learning available to children especially from disadvantaged sections. Although we are currently in the midst of a long struggle in India, yet we could witness a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel only when primary education is viewed as an instrument of social change!
 Almond, D. and J Currie (2011), Human capital development before age five, in D Card and O Handbook of Labor Economics
 Vygotsky, L. (1978), Cultural-Historical Theory.
 Gragnolati, M., Shekar, M., Das Gupta, M., Bredenkamp, C., & Lee, Y. K. (2005). India's undernourished children: A call for reform and action, World Bank Document.
 Panda, M. (2013). Madhyam Marg: How it Constitutes Indian Mind? Psychology and Developing Societies. 25 (1), 77-107
 Das Gupta, M., Lokshin, M., Gragnolati, M., & Ivaschenko, O. (2005). Improving Child Nutrition Outcomes in India: Can the Integrated Child Development Services Program Be More Effective?, World Bank Policy Research Paper, (3647).
 Gutmann, A. (1982) – ‘What’s the Use of Going to School?’, in Amartya Sen & Bernard Arthur Owen Williams (eds.), Utilitarianism and Beyond. Cambridge University Press.
 Dreze, J. & Sen, A. (2013). An Uncertain Glory India and its Contradictions. Penguin Books India Pvt. Ltd.
 Gramsci, A. (1977). Antonio Gramsci, Selections from Political writings (1910–1920), New York, International Publishers
 Dewey, J. (1939), Freedom and Culture, Putnam.
 UNICEF report, Available at http://unicef.in/Whatwedo/40/Early-Childhood-Education