Locating key debates in Early Childhood Care and Education: insights from Indian scholarship

As part of our ongoing research to generate contextually-relevant understandings of Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) in India we interviewed 11 specialists with extensive research experience in the country.[1]  Broadly, their expertise is situated in childhood studies, early years education and development, psychology, sociology, special educational needs, and language and literacy. Our conversations reflected on their research experience across India (including Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Karnataka, New Delhi, Orissa, Punjab, Rajasthan and Tamil Nadu) and within diverse social contexts (e.g. resettlement colonies, slums, tribal and rural communities, lower- and middle-income classes). This blog-post takes the opportunity to showcase the scholarship of those we interviewed, and highlight key areas of debate in the field of early childhood, care and development in India.

A key issue facing ECCE research is how it can be sensitive to the immense diversity of the country. As Asha Singh explained, “images of childhood are very different in different parts of India”. The nature of elder-sibling care was an area of interest among those we interviewed. Their research suggested that children as young as four in disadvantaged communities were often responsible for younger siblings.  Many scholars suggested that children in India are socialised early on for familial responsibility; they “naturally absorb  parents’ professional skills ” as Neerja Sharma explained of research conducted in weaving, jeans and bindi-making communities, resettlement colonies and migrant populations (see  citations below). At the same time, many raised the issue of children’s agency alongside this responsibility. A number of those we spoke to explained that while children assumed responsibilities in the family, they were in fact “marginalised”, “infantilised” with “little or no voice” in homes, communities, schools and ECCE institutions.

The shifting and contextually dependent role of parents has also been a key theme in Indian scholarship on childhood and ECCE. Asha Singh’s research with women from low income families with a 30-year history of migration, living in resettlement colonies of New Delhi, finds parenting practices to be “less rigid”. She explained, “In India, the lower the socioeconomic status the more intermingled is the parental, personal, social, and professional life”. Minati Panda, describing her experience of researching tribal practices in Orissa, also reflected that child-care would be “arranged organically” within extended families. Responsibility for early childhood care was largely assigned to women even as they increasingly participate in the labour market. Those interviewed contemplated that such gendered familialism reproduced gendered patterns of socialisation  early on.

The nature of pedagogic and social interactions in ECCE institutions was another key area of interest within the scholarship. Dhir Jhingran, reflecting on his language and literacy research in Chhattisgarh, Assam and Rajasthan, remarked that a defining feature of childhood within these contexts was that there were “absolutely no restrictions on children; they play and ‘do’ what they want to do”, while at ECCE centres children are expected to sit quietly for hours “in environments [that are] not child friendly or stimulating”. Maya Gaitonde also reflected, “children bring a lot of understanding from their homes”, but early years centres are often “mismatched with cultural tools for learning”. Working with migrant families of Karnataka, Vijitha Rajan noted further how “many ‘Indian’ childhoods are side-lined” within dominant thinking, particularly in relation to consideration of needs during early years. This includes marginalisation of children belonging to Dalit and migrant communities, as of children with disabilities.

Indeed, how research on ECCE can grapple with caste-class inequalities and minority-group marginalisation was a recurrent theme discussed by the experts. Minati Panda expressed concern about the state’s “disregard for diverse childhoods”. She argued that much ECCE research reflected a “Hindu worldview– that of the literacy-oriented high-caste – instead of generating dialogue with differing communities to equalise the space”. This, she went on to suggest, reinscribes “caste-class capital in ECCE”. These are crucial points for reflecting on how ECCE research can challenge the normative assumptions contained within its very concepts and methodologies.

The role of the state in ECCE provision was debated by those we interviewed. Many highlighted the state’s “failure to deliver”, particularly as unregulated private centres of ECCE proliferate the educational market to meet growing parental aspirations. Usha Ramakrishnan explained, for example, an urgent need for the state to invest in evidence-based policies, challenging the tendency of current research to be informed by western models and “not by parents at the ground level”. This, as Neerja Sharma suggested, has “distanced ECCE from the ground”. But what does it mean for researchers and policy makers to engage parents in ECCE processes? Aruna Rathnam, critical of “public funding [that] is concerned only with results and measurements”, expressed concern about the prominence of development actors and “helicoptering researchers” with Euro-Anglo traditions in the Indian ECCE field. S. Anadalakshmy also reflected, “the problem occurs when we [researchers, governments or development agents] come with pre-determined ideas…when in reality there are no unilinear constructions of childhood or care”.

As the state and its agencies continues to rely on ‘expert’ knowledge on ECCE, there is an urgent need to recognise more fully the family itself as a rich site for learning. Foregrounding the historical, geopolitical and the socioeconomic conditions of families, we suggest, can help build a contextualised and responsive understanding of early childhood care and education.

Further reading drawn from the scholarship of interviewees:

Anandalakshmy, S., Chaudhary, N., & Sharma, N. (Eds.) (2008). Researching Families and Children: Culturally Appropriate Methods. Los Angeles, London, New Delhi, Singapore: Sage India.

Jha, J. & Jhingran, D. (2006). Elementary Education for the Poorest and Other Deprived Groups: The real challenge of universalization. New Delhi: Manohar Publishers

Krishnaswamy, J. (2015). The ‘Upanayan’ early intervention programme: The Indian Journal of Paediatrics. 59(6), 701-5

Panda, M. (2013). Madhyam Marg: How It Constitutes Indian Mind? Psychology and Developing Societies. 25 (1), 77 – 107. https://doi.org/10.1177/0971333613477317

Rajan, V. (expected date 2020). The interlacing constructs of migration, childhood and education: An ethnographic inquiry into everyday lives of migrant children. PhD Thesis. Delhi: University of Delhi.

Sharma, N. & Sharma, B. (1999). Children in difficult circumstances: Familial correlates of advantage while at risk. In T. S. Saraswathi (ed.), Culture, socialisation and human development. pp. 298–448. New Delhi: Sage.

Singh, A. & Gupta, D. (2012). Contexts of Childhood and Play: Exploring Parental Perceptions. Childhood: Journal of Global Child Research. 19 (2), 235 – 250.

Swaminanthan, M. & Saraswathi, L. S. (2003). As the Salt in the Sea: The Story of Project ACCESS. Chennai: M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation

[1] Our research titled, Examining the contexts, practices and costs of early childhood care and education in India: responsive models for child development, is funded by the British Academy and the Department of International Development, UK and involves an ethnographic study of concepts and practices of ECCE in  the Nilgiris, Tamil Nadu and Katihar, Bihar. As part of the scoping for this research, we interviewed the following scholars: Aruna Rathnam, ex-Education Specialist UNICEF, Chennai; Asha Singh, Lady Irwin College, New Delhi; Dhir Jhingran, Language and Learning Foundation, New Delhi; Jaya Krishnaswamy, Madhuram Narayanan Centre for Exceptional Children, Chennai; Maya Gaitonde, Bala Mandir Vihar, Chennai; Mina Swaminanthan (retired), M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation, Chennai; Minati Panda, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi; Neerja Sharma, Pratham and Lady Irwin College, New Delhi; S. Anandalakshmy (retired), Childhood Studies, Lady Irwin College, New Delhi; Usha Ramakrishnan, Vidya Sagar, Chennai; Vijitha Rajan, Research Scholar, University of Delhi and Commonwealth Scholar, University of Leeds.

Pallawi Sinha
University of Cambridge

[Disclaimer: Views presented above are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of CBPS]

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