By Hannah-May Wilson, Education Partnerships Group
For the last fifteen years, Pratham’s Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) has provided an important and timely reminder that schooling does not equal learning. There is now wide acceptance that – despite spending at least five years in school, only half of all children in India can read a Grade 2 level text. The first ten years of ASER provided a fairly consistent picture of learning nationwide: learning levels were low; progress was slow; and ‘learning profiles’ (representing gains in learning per year of schooling) were relatively flat – meaning that years spent in school only equate to ‘time served’ and not ‘skills gained’. In 2016, ASER started an alternate-year cycle of assessment – conducting the ‘basic’ ASER every other year, using a different lens to examine new aspects of learning in the alternate years. ASER 2017 was the first alternate year. Known as ASER ‘Beyond Basics’, the survey focused on understanding more about the basic skills, enrollment status and aspirations of youth aged 14-18. On Tuesday, ASER launched the second alternate report in New Delhi, known as ASER ‘Early Years’.
Why Early Years?
Drawing on other studies looking at the trajectories of younger children (most notably ASER’s five-year longitudinal Early Childhood Education Impact Study conducted jointly by ASER Centre and Ambedkar University, in three major Indian states between 2011-2016) it was decided that ASER 2019 provided an opportunity to conduct India’s first large-scale study with children age 4-8 to explore key dimensions of schooling and learning. The importance of this age group has since been emphasised in the draft New Education Policy 2019 highlighting that the ‘learning crisis’ starts well before children even enter Grade 1. The draft policy goes on to say that children who enter Grade 1 without the requisite foundations for learning will start out behind and fail to catch up throughout their primary years. Although the Right to Education Act 2009 mandates that children should enter Grade 1 at age 6, data suggests that children are entering formal schooling earlier, without the appropriate exposure to early childhood education. As the draft New Education Policy describes early childhood education as ‘perhaps the greatest and most powerful equaliser’, the launch of ASER ‘Early Years’ provides important and timely data to inform progress towards this vision.
ASER ‘Early Years’ retains the core elements of the ASER architecture: it is a sample-based household survey, conducted by local volunteers, using simple and easy to administer tools and formats. At first glance, the most striking departure from the regular ASER is the tool itself. Filled with colourful pictures, puzzles, games and shapes – the tool sends an important message to parents, teachers and community members about what kind of simple tasks are essential for developing ‘school readiness’. The tool includes simple cognitive tasks, social and emotional tasks, together with early language and numeracy tasks to understand more about what children are able to do. ASER 2019 ‘Early Years’ was conducted in 26 districts across 24 states in India, covering a total of 1,514 villages, 30,425 households, and 36,930 children in the age group 4-8.
Key Findings from ASER ‘Early Years’
a.) Nearly all children aged 4-8 are enrolled in some education institution
ASER ‘Early Years’ data shows that more than 90% children aged 4-8 are enrolled in some institution (including anganwadis (government-run childcare centres); government pre-primary schools and private kindergardens). However, within each cohort of the same age, there is enormous variation in what children are doing, and enrolment patterns vary substantially across districts. Whilst access still remains a challenge for the hardest-to-reach children, the near universal enrolment of young children in some type of institution points to the opportunity to strengthen existing provision.
b.) Learning progress is strongly related to age, with older children doing better
ASER ‘Early Years’ data shows that (in line with what child development experts expect, and other studies have found) regardless of whether or where young children are enrolled, children’s ability to do cognitive, early language, early numeracy and social and emotional tasks improves substantially with age. For example, 31% of 4-year olds enrolled in anganwadis or government pre-primary classes were able to do a 4-piece puzzle, compared to 45% of 5-year olds attending these institutions. Even within Grade 1, older children do better on all tasks. These findings point to the danger of enrolling very young children in formal school as they will have not acquired the foundational skills.
c.) Developing cognitive skills is the foundation for all future progress in school
ASER ‘Early Years’ data shows that children’s performance on tasks requiring cognitive skills (such as sorting, seriation, and pattern recognition) is strongly related to their ability to do early language tasks (such as describing what they see in a picture) and early numeracy tasks (such as relative comparison of objects). For example, children in Grade 1 who could do 3 cognitive tasks correctly had higher reading ability and were also more likely to solve oral word problems, than their peers who could not. These findings suggest that focusing on developmentally appropriate, play-based activities that build memory, reasoning, and problem-solving abilities builds the foundation for all future progress in school and is more productive than an early focus on content knowledge.
Policy Implications from ASER ‘Early Years’
- Strengthen play-based learning in anganwadi centres for young children
India boasts an impressive network of anganwadi centres nationwide. With over 1.3 million centres, anganwadis already cater to large proportions of young children before they enter the pre-primary grades. As the ASER data shows a clear relationship between children’s performance on cognitive tasks and measures of early language and numeracy, anganwadi centres could be further strengthened to ensure a focus on the development of cognitive skills to ensure that children enter Grade 1 with the appropriate foundations to enable them to learn well.
- Review and revisit state norms for entry into Grade 1
Although the Right to Education (RTE) Act 2009 mandates that children should enter Grade 1 at age 6, many states allow entry to Grade 1 at age 5. As data from ASER ‘Early Years’ clearly shows performance on all tasks is closely related to children’s age (with older children doing better than younger children), enrolling younger children in primary grades puts them at a disadvantage, which is difficult to overcome later on. Each state therefore should review the policy of entry into Grade 1 vis-à-vis actual patterns of school enrolment.
- Restructure early grade curriculum, training and classroom pedagogy along a continuum of school readiness
Currently, pre-school education centres are designed to be a downward extension of primary school – meaning they incorporate school-like features into the pre-school classroom, rather than developmentally appropriate, play-based activities by age and phase. The entire age band from 4 to 8 needs to be seen on a continuum that starts with play-based learning and progresses across grades and schooling stages to ensure that each subsequent grade or stage builds on the last.
To read the full ASER 2019 report, please click here
 Including sorting shapes by size and colour, recognising patterns, solving puzzles and spatial awareness through pictures.
 Including identifying emotions, resolving a situation of conflict and empathising with others.
 Including describing simple pictures, understanding a story that is read to them, as well as reading letters, words and simple texts.
 Including counting and comparing objects, recognising 1- and 2-digit numbers, and solving simple numeric problems