Addressing The Gaps In Childrens’ Nutrition
The National Education Policy 2020 has been in the news for various reasons. The policy lists out radical changes to the education structure at all levels. A lot of the proposed changes have sparked debates on whether they are beneficial to all, or only for a select group of people. From structure of schooling to medium of schooling, a lot has been covered in this exhaustive 64-page policy document.
It does however bring to light the missed opportunities of looking at the health and nutrition aspect of students in this policy, yet again. The NEP puts a fair amount of focus on Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE). It proposes for ECCE to be covered by Right to Education (RTE). NCERT will be the nodal institute to make the curriculum for ECCE more robust for the proper cognitive development of a child. This is being termed as the National Curricular and Pedagogical Framework for Early Childhood Care and Education (NCPFECCE). Nutrition is an important contributor to the cognitive development of children, and needs to be taken in consideration. Along with continuous curriculum-based evaluation, it is also necessary to set uniform standards and defining milestones for growth of children between ages 3-6 and evaluate the same. This will help set the nutrition trajectory of the children from early on, reducing the chances of undernutrition, or overnutrition.
The role of Anganwadi Centres becomes even more crucial to provide quality ECCE. For this model Anganwadi Centres need to be promoted. There should be a Standard Operating Procedure for all AWCs to standardise the service provided at AWCs and have uniform infrastructure in place at all AWCs.
A big challenge to promote and make ECCE a success is the reluctance of a lot of parents across different socio-economic backgrounds, to enrol their kids in a Pre-School for various reasons. An in-depth study is needed to be conducted to analyse what are the biggest motivators for parents to enrol their children in pre-schools. This will help identify the gaps in current pre-schools programmes and make it more attractive for parents and kids.
For this, a road plan for consistent funding into pre-primary education is required. The Government should increase its own spending and look at the possibility of bringing in more private players and CSR money. More funding and effort will be needed to build the capacities of AWWs as well. The Government can adapt the E-ILA that trains AWW online on nutrition to include teaching aspects of ECCE. While the policy lays down that early childhood education will be a collaborative effort between the ministries of Education, Women and Child Development, Health and Family Welfare, and Tribal Affairs, there also needs to be a more coordinated and cohesive better convergence plan between these departments.
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The policy talks about the universalisation of school education from ages 3-18 years, and adds breakfast to the Mid-Day Meal Scheme. However, along with universalisation of education and with the amount of focus on overall development of children, it would have been worthwhile to look at extending the Mid-Day Meal Scheme to include all classes up to Class 12th. The nutritional and health benefits of MDM have been studied and proven time and again and should be extended to all school kids who need it. This in turn will help in strengthening WIFS program too.
Annual school medical check-ups need to go beyond surface level growth monitoring and include components of nutrition and basic nutrition education as well.
More importantly, Home Science as a subject needs to be upgraded. Gender socialisation has made the subject a domain of girls only, the name ‘home science’ adds to these gendered stereotypes. It is however an important subject and could do with a makeover in name and practice – make it more applicative. Not only will this help in raising awareness on nutrition amongst students, but should be offered as a lucrative career option as well.
The policy overlooks some important health issues that need to be taught and implemented in our education system like menstrual hygiene awareness. Our education system fails at imparting knowledge on these issues openly and clearly. Schools treat menstruation as a taboo, making young girls ashamed of their own bodies. Schools also need to ensure menstrual hygiene products are available on campus.
Same applies to institutes of higher education. The campuses should have provisions for subsidised medical check-ups of students and have easy access to menstrual health products. Nutritious meals at subsidised rates are also a necessity. WIFS should cover students in higher education as well, especially the girls.
The NEP looks at increasing the enrolment of students in education, and ensuring no child is left behind, but a lot of children, especially women drop out from higher education because of inaccessibility to healthy meals, menstrual products, clean washrooms and various other infrastructure limitations that the Government needs to address while implementing NEP 2020.
Cognitive development of children involves much more than right to education and any change in the structure of education should look more deeply at the kind of health, nutrition, and knowledge on these issues we want our children to have.
(Priyanka Bajaj is a nutrition expert, WeCan
Drishti Chibber is the Research, Content and Documentation Officer, WeCan)
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