The word 'school' all over the country by and large refers to Classes I to X, extending to class XII in some states, while in other states Classes XI and XII are regarded as pre-university or junior college. Some schools also include two to three years of pre-school classes. The breaking up of schooling into four 'stages' extends far beyond mere administrative convenience. From the point of view of curriculum design and teacher preparation, these stages have a developmental validity. Seen from a stage-wise perspective, curriculum thinking and school organisation can overcome problems created by the current preoccupation with 'monograde' classrooms as being the norm, with rigid application of age-based grouping of children, and class-wise teaching and learning objectives. Single and two- teacher primary schools could be reconceptualised as a learning group with different abilities and learning needs rather than as 'multigrade' classrooms requiring time- management techniques. Assessing children for what they have learnt could also then take place over a longer cycle of years spent in school, rather than as yearly requirements spelt out for each class, in hierarchical progression. This would allow more respect for children's pace of learning. Schemes such as the Minimum Levels of Learning (MLL) reinforced not only the rigid adherence to year-end outcomes, but also allowed for these to be further narrowed to lessons. Describing the characteristics and concerns of the curriculum, pedagogy and assessment in stages allow syllabi, textbooks and learning resources, and for teachers to plan for children's development and the gradual and cumulative deepening of abilities, competencies and concepts.
The early childhood stage, until the age of 6–8 years, is the most critical period when the foundations are laid for life-long development and the realisation of full potential; research shows that there are 'critical periods' at this stage for full development of the brain's potential. The formation of later attitudes and values as well as the desire to learn are also influenced at this stage, while lack of support or neglect can lead to negative consequences, sometimes irreversible. Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) requires that young children be provided care, opportunities and experiences that lead to their all-round development — physical, mental, social and emotional, and school readiness. A holistic and integrated perspective views the health and nutritional needs of children as integrally related with their psychosocial/educational development. The curriculum framework and pedagogy for ECCE must be based on this holistic perspective, taking into account the various domains of development, the characteristics of children at each sub-stage, and their learning needs in terms of experiences.
It is well known that children have a natural desire to learn and make sense of the world around them. Learning in the early years must hence be directed by the child's interests and priorities, and should be contextualised by her experiences rather than being structured formally. An enabling environment for children would be one that is rich in stimulation and experiences that allows children to explore, experiment and freely express themselves, and one that is embedded in social relations that give them a sense of warmth, security and trust. Playing, music, rhyming, art and other activities using local materials, along with opportunities for speaking, listening and expressing themselves, and informal interaction are essential components of learning at this stage. It is important that the language used in early education is one that the child is familiar with in the immediate environment, while an informal multilingual classroom would help children to comfortably adjust to the early introduction of a second language (English) and the medium of instruction from Class I onwards. As the children who come under the purview of ECCE are a heterogeneous group, ranging from infants to pre-schoolers, it is important that activities and experiences for them are developmentally appropriate.
Early identification of disabilities assessment and the provision of appropriate stimulation would go a long way in preventing the aggravation of disadvantage on this account. The caution would be against pressurising children into the three R's (reading, writing and arithmetic) and the early introduction of formal instruction, i.e. against making pre-schools into training centres for admission to primary schools. In fact, the suggestion is that ECCE cover the age group 0–8 years (i.e. so as to include the early primary school years). This is in order that the holistic perspective of ECCE and its methodologies (all- round and integrated development, activity-based learning, listening and speaking a language before learning to write it, contextuality and continuity between home and school) can inform learning experiences of children throughout the childhood stage and lead to a smooth transition into the elementary school stage.
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.
Good quality ECCE programmes have a positive impact on children's all-round development. In addition, ECCE is also seen to have critical linkages with enrolment of children in schools and learning outcomes. To provide ECCE of equitable quality to all children, it is not only necessary to vastly enhance the funds committed for this purpose, but also to address through different strategies the five basic dimensions of quality, namely, developmentally appropriate curriculum, trained and adequately rewarded teachers, appropriate teacher-child ratio and group size, infrastructure supportive of children's needs, and an encouraging style of supervision. While there is need for decentralisation, flexibility and contextuality in these programmes, there is also an urgent need to evolve appropriate norms and guidelines and set in place a regulatory framework so that children's development is not compromised. Capacity building at all levels in relation to the plurality of roles that different functionaries play, as well as fair wages, must also be ensured.