The education-nutrition nexus
The learning crisis is rooted in the gaps in childhood care and education
The recently released draft New Education Policy (NEP), 2019 seeks to reform India's education sector by providing a greater impetus to childhood learning and development. The policy recommends the introduction of an extensive programme for young children, what it calls Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE). It proposes to implement the ECCE through a strategic approach that "focuses on developing an excellent curricular and pedagogical framework for early childhood education by NCERT to be delivered through a significantly expanded and strengthened system of early childhood educational institutions." Furthermore, an efficient delivery mechanism would be ensured through professionally trained educators. To make ECCE universal, the NEP recommends its inclusion to the Right to Education Act, 2009.
That being said, the policy recognises the existence of a learning crisis in the current system. The same is in fact corroborated by the National Achievement Survey (NAS) 2014 results. Conducted by the Ministry of Human Resource Development covering 110,000 schools, the national average percentage score for Class III students in language and mathematics equalled 64 per cent and 66 per cent respectively, showcasing a serious learning deficit.
A learning crisis occurs when the learning outcomes of a child are not commensurate with the expected educational qualification. This shows that there exist some gaps in the learning outcomes for children. According to draft NEP, the learning crisis is rooted in the gaps in childhood care and education, which form the foundation of learning and school preparedness. Historically, India's education system has not majorly accounted for pre-school learning and care. The focus on learning outcomes usually began from induction into primary school and thereon. Apart from the basic learning activities conducted at anganwadi centers, a robust infrastructure to provide children foundational basics in their early years has been virtually non-existent. The draft policy itself recognises the scientific findings of neuroscience and states that "over 85 per cent of cumulative brain development occurs prior to the age of six." Another case in point to invest in early childhood education is that a rupee invested in a child's education reaps a ten-fold benefit in the future. Admittedly, sufficient attention to educational outcomes and learning is an investment in the future generations and productivity of the economy. Undoubtedly, the draft NEP is a right step in this direction.
But an investment in education is a necessary but not sufficient condition to facilitate improved educational performance. This means that any attempt to address the learning deficit without looking at other factors like health and nutrition that are inextricably linked to educational outcomes is likely to be illusory. The strong correlation between well-nourished children and educational achievements is perhaps well-documented. Nutritional deficiencies impact the mental, physical and cognitive development of a child, lower their immunity and can have serious implications on learning outcomes. Undernutrition pertains a high economic cost in terms of both compromised learning outcomes as well as productivity losses. The National Family Health Survey (2015-16) data show some dismal trends with the proportion of stunted (low height-for-age), wasted (low weight-for-height) and underweight (low weight-for-age), children standing at as high as 38.4 per cent, 21 per cent and 35.8 per cent respectively. In the context of India's high incidence of undernutrition, the problem assumes a worryingly alarming proportion. Therefore, a strong education-nutrition nexus needs to be the centre stage of the foundational development of a child.
India's 158.79 million children in the 0-6 years age group are in an all the more precarious position. They face the double-edged sword of a high learning deficit and the burden of undernutrition. For any education reform to be truly effective, the way forward would need to be sound, collaborative and multi-pronged with focus on both foundational education and health & nutrition outcomes. No doubt, this is an ambitious endeavour. But a comprehensive policy that combines both learning and nutrition during early childhood is what must be undertaken. The draft NEP is a welcome effort in this direction and provides a framework for foundational literacy and numeracy to young children. At the same time, there is a need for the Integrated Child Development Scheme to provide adequate nutritional support through a balanced diet, supplements and physical activities complementing the efforts of the draft NEP. Sustained investments in the child's foundational stage today would yield long-term benefits in the form of creating a healthy and productive working population of tomorrow.
(The author is Young Professional, Economic Advisory Council to Prime Minister, NITI Aayog. Views expressed are strictly personal)