Pratham has worked to strengthen early childhood education in India through its Balwadi (pre-school) program. Pratham recognized that the first step to achieving universal primary education is to achieve universal pre-school education for children, and has worked towards this goal through the Balwadi program. By tapping into under-utilized resources in terms of infrastructure, staff, and community involvement, this approach keeps start-up and recurring costs at a minimum, allowing access to early childhood education for even the most socio-economically disadvantaged communities.
When Pratham started working in Mumbai in 1994-95 one of the first initiatives that was undertaken was the setting up of pre-school centers in urban slums. The word “balwadi” can be easily understood – “bal” means young child and “wadi” means place. Pratham’s Balwadi program was a unique low-cost way to mobilize communities and utilize community resources (space, instructors, parents) to deliver a much needed service. Although the Balwadi program has evolved in many ways in the last 15 years, the basic elements still remain much the same. Balwadis run in community spaces such as temples or in the house of the teacher or of another community member. Balwadis were and are always run in rent-free locations that are situated close to students' homes. This helps to facilitate community engagement in the program. Approximately 20-25 children gather in the class every day for about 3-4 hours.
The teacher is always a member of the children's community, and is someone with whom the children are familiar. Teachers are selected and trained in early childhood care and education by the Pratham team and also provided with teaching and learning material to use with the children. The Pratham team monitors each Balwadi regularly, and a Pratham volunteer visits approximately two Balwadis each day. Balwadi classes seek to develop students' social, emotional, motor, and cognitive skills, preparing them for success in school environment later on. Balwadis provide spaces for young children to interact and build foundational skills. Many of the parents are illiterate or have not received much education and thus are unable to help their children at least in terms of their school readiness or early learning. The Balwadis are therefore an important way of providing support for these children and their families for developing early foundational skills and to facilitate their transition into formal schools.
The Balwadi program has also recruited and developed committed teachers from a previously untapped source: Pratham recruits people from outside the workforce, mostly unmarried young women, recently married women, or women with young children. These women have some education, but usually have not worked outside the home. In order to attract and retain such teachers, Pratham ensures that Balwadi teachers work only part-time and remain in their local communities. Fees are locally determined based on what the local communities can afford. While teacher training and Balwadi norms in terms of the number of enrolled children, monitoring processes etc. are uniform, each area/city/community also adapts the model to suit the local context of the community in which it is run.
Today Pratham’s pre-school programs cover a variety of locations and methods of delivery. For example, in some states, Pratham partners with the government’s Integrated Child Development Scheme’s centers to provide pre-school education to children in these centers. Pratham also offers a distance education model of early childhood certification for its Balwadi instructors.
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CEI approaches in action
Balwadis keep costs low by employing members of the local community as teachers and conducting the pre-schools in local community spaces. This allows even the most economically vulnerable access to the program.
In the initial years of the Balwadi program's operation, demand and growth were both very high. From 1996 to 1998 alone, the number of balwadis grew from 150 to 3,000 across India. Over time, the program began to develop relationships with government schools, and as the number of government schools offering early childhood education has increased over time, the Balwadi program has begun to shift its focus away from providing new models of education to strengthening existing systems. In addition to its own Balwadis, the program now also places community volunteers to work and implement the program in existing government pre-schools.
Monitoring & Evaluation
One Pratham volunteer visits two schools a day, conducting monitoring, training, mentoring and materials across all balwadis.
JPAL has conducted an impact evaluation of balwadis in Delhi.