The period of elementary school (from Class I to Class VIII) is now also recognised as the period of compulsory schooling vide the constitutional amendment making education a fundamental right. The beginning of this period marks the formal introduction of the child to reading, writing and arithmetic, culminating in the introduction of the formal disciplines such as the sciences and the social sciences towards the end of elementary school. This period of eight years is one of tremendous cognitive development, shaping reason, intellect and social skills, as well as the skills and attitudes necessary for entering the work place.
The elementary school classes now cater to many children of school-going age coming from diverse backgrounds. Plurality and flexibility without compromising on standards need to become the hallmark of education for this period. Education during this period must be of an integrated character, enabling children to acquire facility in language and expression and to grow in self confidence as learners, both within and outside school.
The first concern of the school is on the development of the child's language competence: issues related to articulation and literacy, and the ability to use language to create, to think and to communicate with others. Special stress is needed to ensure that there are maximum opportunities for those who wish to study in their mother tongue, including tribal languages and linguistic pockets, even if the number of students is small. The ability of the system to promote and nurture these options, along with working out mechanisms to ensure that future options remain open, should become a marker of its ability to provide for quality education. To achieve this, there must be a creative and concerted effort to maintain the multilingual genius of Indians and implement the three-language formula. While English may be taught during this period, it must not be at the expense of learning Indian languages.
The development of mathematical thinking, beginning with learning numeracy and moving towards the enjoyment of and facility with more abstract ideas, needs to be supported with concrete experiences and work with manipulations. It is in the early years, up to Class IV, that efforts at diagnosing learning difficulties and addressing remedial work in language and mathematics must be directed.
The ECCE programmes present a picture of plurality, with government, non-government (voluntary sector) and private agencies providing a variety of services. However, the coverage of these programmes is extremely narrow, and the quality of services provided is variable and largely poor. A vast majority of children, especially those belonging to poor and marginal groups, are not covered by early care programmes and are left to fend for themselves. Pre-school programmes range from those that subject children to a dull and monotonous routine to those where children are exposed to structured formal learning, often in English, made to do tests and homework, and denied their right to play. These are undesirable and harmful practices that result from misguided parental aspirations and the growing commercialisation of pre-schooling, and are detrimental to children's development and motivation to learn. Most of these problems derive from the still 'unrecognised' status of ECCE as a part of the mainstream education system. Polarised services both reflect and perpetuate the multiple overlapping social divides in our country. The deep gender bias and pervasive patriarchal values in Indian society are responsible for the failure to recognise the need for cre'ches and day-care facilities, especially for children of poor rural and urban working women; this neglect has also had an adverse impact on the education of girls.
Such concrete experiences are also essential in the introduction to the integrated study of the environment through which children's intuitive knowledge of the world is integrated into school knowledge. Over the years, this study should move towards a more disciplinary approach, but with integrative themes, within which there are located opportunities to develop concepts and learn the vocabulary and methods of the discipline.
The study of arts and crafts is essential for developing not only the aesthetic sensibility but also for learning how to manipulate materials and developing attitudes and skills essential for work. The curriculum must expose children to practical life skills and work experiences of varied kinds. Physical development through sports activities is also a must. A variety of activities at this stage of schooling should be made available, including participating in cultural programmes, organising events, travelling to places outside the school, providing experiences to develop socially and emotionally into creative and confident individuals sensitive to others, and capable of taking initiative and responsibility. Teachers with a background in guidance and counselling can design and lead activities to meet the developmental needs of children, thus laying the foundation for the necessary attitudes and perceptions towards the self and the world of work. They can also provide the needed support and guidance to children belonging to various strata of society for their sustenance through the elementary school years. The approach to the whole curriculum should be process oriented rather than outcome oriented. All these arenas of development should be made available to all children. Care must be taken to ensure that the curriculum does not reinforce stereotypes about preferences, choices and capabilities of different groups. In this context, the gradual inclusion of vocationally oriented skills as a part of exposure to work would be an important aspect of an inclusive curriculum.