Last month, Ahmad Ali, a sales officer in a consumer goods company, got a chance to visit a primary school in a congested slum area of Lahore, situated behind the Shezan beverages factory on Bund Road. He was on his way out after meeting the headmistress when a very familiar noise overflowing a classroom pulled him towards it with a magnetic force. The inside scene was even more mesmerising for him: several children sitting in four uneven rows, with their bags open and books and lunch boxes bulging out, some standing aimlessly, perhaps waiting for the “chhutti” (closing) time, and one chasing two others from one wall to the other. Of course, there was no teacher in the classroom, as it was Katchi (pre-one) class.
The scenes transported Ahmad Ali almost 47 years down memory lane, in the blink of an eye. He saw more than a dozen children sitting on sacks and plastic bags, under the shade of a big Sheesham tree, his classmates, all in the age group of five to eight years. Those were real leisure days, he recalled. Throughout the school hours, he and his classmates would spend time playing with each other, writing “Takhti” (wooden slate), revising their Urdu Qaida lessons — Alif Anaar, Bay Bakri – and Baba Anar Laya, with the help of each other. Sometimes they would “fight” with one another when a naughty boy dipped his qalm (pen) in the inkpot of the other for writing his takhti or tore a page from his Qaida for no reason. Then Master Sahib would come to the place from some other class to decide the matter and punish the “culprit”. Otherwise, any of the total four teachers of his government middle school would never show up even for the whole day, as it was a Katchi class.
And that day, standing at the classroom door, Ahmad Ali realised that nothing had changed in the last almost five decades, as far as the Katchi class teaching in a government school was concerned.
Dr. M. Ilyas Wali, an educationist, agrees with Mr. Ahmad Ali that Katchi class, globally known as early childhood education (ECE), had never been a priority area for various education policies in the past decades. Successive governments failed to give it due importance, though almost all research studies proved that the early years of a child’s life significantly impact their development and future academic capabilities. A research study in the field of neuroscience disclosed that brain development is faster and more extensive in the early years of life than previously thought. Longitudinal studies – such as the HighScope Perry Preschool Study, which followed the lives of 123 lower socio-economic African Americans –identified that participation in high-quality preschool education programmes significantly contributes to a reduction in crime rates and improvement in educational and economic status, potential earnings and commitment to marriage in later life. Studies estimate that ECE is a sound investment: each dollar invested in quality ECE provides a return ranging anywhere from 2 to 13 dollars.
Pakistan is signatory to the Education for All (EFA) movement. However, it has not practically agreed to implement a systematic scheme of early childhood education so far. That’s why the country is considered far behind in its progress towards meeting the goal of early childhood education.
According to the 2017 population census, almost 13% of Pakistan’s total population (27.01 million) fall in the three-to-six years age group. However, this large group of very young population has failed to get special attention from the government authorities so far.
It is generally considered that ECE is the last priority of the governments in Pakistan. The assertion could be well judged from the fact that the country took almost 70 years to enact laws on early childhood education and declare education for all compulsory.
With the 18th Constitutional Amendment, the education sector was devolved to the federating units, as a move towards provincial autonomy. The year 2015 was important in the context that it marked the deadline for the participants in the Dakar Declaration (Education for All) commitment including Pakistan. Education-related statistics, coupled with Pakistan’s progress regarding education targets, set in Vision 2030, and Pakistan’s lagging behind in achieving the EFA targets and its Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) for education, put a big question mark on the commitment of the provincial authorities towards achieving the education goals.
All federating units have made laws in the past three years, declaring free and compulsory education for children from five to 16 years of age a government responsibility. The Punjab provincial government approved the Early Childhood Education (ECE) policy in 2017, declaring it a major initiative for bringing about reforms in the education system. The education authorities termed the ECE policy a key milestone for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030. Under SDG-4 i.e. “Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all”, the Punjab government committed to implementing the ECE policy and achieving its objectives by providing affordable quality education to all children in their formative years. The government announced setting up 12,000 ECE rooms throughout the province, and adding more rooms to every primary school in the coming years.
However, the on-ground situation is contrary to the claims. The laws, enacted by the federating units, are yet to be implemented in letter and spirit, especially the ECE part of the legislation. There are still various hindrances to the implementation of the law, and one major hurdle is small budgetary allocations for the sector. The funds allocated for ECE under the education sector reforms are too meagre and inadequate to cater to the needs of approximately 27.01 million children in the respective age group.
In almost all provinces, neither separate classrooms nor teachers have been provided and there is a bare minimum of other essential facilities. Provinces, districts, communities and schools lack the capacity to plan, implement and monitor the ECE programmes, according to those attached with the field. Also, training facilities for teachers and managers/administrators are rarely available.
A research study, conducted on the issue by an educationist, Dr. Mumtaz Ahmad, suggested the following recommendation to meet the challenges of early childhood education.
The ECE should be separated from primary/elementary education in terms of funding. Adequate funds should be allocated, released and optimally utilised for the implementation of the ECE programmes, plans and projects at all levels: i.e. national, provincial and district. The ECE budget should be non-lapsable and non-transferable. Resources should also be mobilised through donors, non-governmental organisations and communities.
In order to improve access and increase enrolment, an adequate infrastructure, facilities and services should be provided in the first instance. ECE/ Katchi classes should be started in all public sector primary and middle schools. ECE classes could also be started in informal basic education schools and adult literacy centres. In addition, the private sector should be facilitated and encouraged to open ECE classes. ECE classes should be provided in a separate room with a full time teacher and assistant teacher/aaya (if possible). They should have a playground with necessary facilities to play games and sports and have recreational time. They should be supported by a motivational campaign and enrolment drive every year.
Our educational institutions should offer quality ECE programmes. ECE curricula and teacher guidelines, which have already been developed by the Ministry of Education, should be tested in the field and, if needed, revised (as a continuous process), followed by the development of teaching, learning and instructional materials such as games, toys, pictures, jingles, cartoons, films and movies. School environments should be made attractive, recreational, interesting and child-friendly.
A special provision should be made for the training (both pre-service and in-service) of ECE teachers. All teacher training colleges/institutions in the country should initiate ECE teacher training programmes.