How Good Is Free Education?

ICDS staff at Chhattisgarh and UP build system capacity and lift up CLR’s drive to benefit pre-school children

By Sujata Devadas, January 21, 2018

A revolution can be silent, if leadership for constructive change is built early. 


Very early. At the pre-school age 3 to 6.

Free pre-schools, ‘anganwadis’, are run by state governments in India. This puts  the Women and Child Development (WCD) department centre stage. Anganwadis run its Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS), giving free food and education.

To strengthen ICDS capacity across the organisational pyramid, UNICEF recommended the Centre for Learning Resources (CLR) to do a leadership project in 2012 for its staff, funding the project in 5 Chhattisgarh districts.


The impact of the ICDS Leadership Project (ILP) and the enthusiasm for it grew.  The large state of Uttar Pradesh wished to be included in ILP.  First with 15 districts, then adding 7 more to be covered in 2 phases reaching 50,000 anganwadis. 

Evidently, CLR’s cascaded ILP training had homed in.

The ultimate beneficiary

Based in Pune, CLR’s core competency is system capacity building. Its 9 incremental cycle ILP training aims to build three-way leadership in ICDS staff so that pre-school children receive well designed, quality education. 


“Imparting early education to pre-schoolers does not require textbooks.” says Shikha Kundra, the head of CLR’s Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) cell.  “A child’s integrated development involves addressing nutrition, health, play, conversation and communication. Miss one… a problem emerges.  CLR’s ECCE cell uses experiential learning to design activities in 5 domains: cognitive, physical, language, social and creative. These activities are put into the anganwadis’ 4- or 5-hour time table.”

“I have worked with pre-school children and I know anganwadi workers cannot afford exotic purchases for ‘show-and-tell’. Local resources are great educational tools” she explains, “because children are awed by nature’s diversity. It stimulates their imagination, creativity, language, communication and problem-solving aptitudes. ILP’s ultimate beneficiary is the pre-school child.”

Khute (District Officer) visits a Chhattisgarh anganwadi with CDPO Mariam Tigga and CLR's Project Officer Sita Adhikari during ECCE training

An anganwadi teacher's handmade kitchen set for the playhouse from Moradabad, Uttar Pradesh

Don’t preach

From simple to complex,  the ILP training schedule spans 5 years. In the 6-day training period for each cycle, “do-it-yourself is the motto. The anganwadi field visit is mandatory. Do early education activities in different domains with anganwadi children. Then train others. Mentor them too.” says Shikha.

CLR project officers train, monitor and mentor District Officers and Child Development Project Officers(CDPO) in ILP.  Its completion is followed by these officers cascading ILP’s triple-hat leadership modules down to the next level, the supervisors.  The supervisors once again follow the same method before training anganwadi workers who interact with the children daily.

Custom-fitting sustainable education

One way to assist early literacy is decorate anganwadis with words. For instance, the word ’darwaaza’ (‘door’ in Hindi, the medium of instruction in both states), is written on doors. This is done all over the anganwadis receiving ILP so that children become familiar with Hindi script.

Phonetics are effective in language development. One activity encourages children to listen to different sounds and recognise similar ones.  Each child’s mother tongue is not necessarily Hindi. It may be a local dialect.  So when the children walk in each morning, anganwadi workers talk to them in that dialect or narrate stories in it later. 

With due socio-cultural perspective, ILP’s first module motivates trainees to make anganwadis attractive, sing songs with the little kids and teach them physical exercises.  Module 2 encourages them to use stems, stones, leaves,flowers or local cultural items to classify and match, promoting cognitive and creative skills.

Module 3 requires trainees to create new stories, contextualised in the local environment so that children understand it. Narrate  these stories with telling effect.

Uttam (CDPO, Chattisgarh) prompts children to describe what they see in a picture before detailing his plans for supervisor training

Higher ILP cycles go further up in complexity.

Known impact

5 districts - state: Chhattisgarh - reached 7160 anganwadis.

15 districts - state: Uttar Pradesh (phase 1) - reached 42,000 anganwadis. 7 more districts in phase II would extend coverage to 50,000 anganwadis in UP.

The value of ECCE, how it makes their jobs significant, their need to be innovative in imparting better quality education became clear to the ICDS staff. Their motivation soared.  ECCE became a core departmental goal.


CLR Project Manager Vaibhav Yadav heads the training in Chhattisgarh. 7 CLR project officers train 34 district officers and 27 child development officers, carried through to 268 supervisors to reach 290 sectors in this state. 


Tejas Muley heads ILP in Uttar Pradesh. “We began in June 2015, to build the capacity of our ECCE team, conduct baseline studies, establish rapport with the district administration and develop the Project Office training centre for 5 districts. The first cycle of training took place in June 2016.” he says. “Today, district officers team with 140 child development officers and 1200 supervisors in order to reach 42,000 pre-schools offering ECCE free.”

As budgeted, CLR gives post training support in 5 districts for both states. 

Uttar Pradesh: an outdoor activity in a Moradabad district anganwadi with Teacher Shabana.

When parents bring their child to the anganwadi, they stay to observe. They enter into discussions with anganwadi workers. Far from ‘just expressing’ their interest, they get involved by making toys.

Rearranged anganwadi interiors have given the children more space.  Prior to ILP and ECCE, the anganwadi workers were regarded as ‘food distributors’. Nothing else was expected of them.  The result was slim attendance. Now in districts with ILP,  some parents have turned this around, choosing anganwadis over other play-schools for their child. Earlier, children stayed silent. Now they confide their problems to anganwadi teachers. As the emotional ambience changes, the children attending anganwadis have increased. They hate to be absent.


Malnourishment is a frightening reality in rural and tribal areas.  So, WCD gives free breakfast and lunch to anganwadi children and organises the Weight Festival (‘Wazan Tyohaar’).  Anganwadi workers measure the children’s weight and record it in a colour-coded chart. ’Malnourished’, ‘severely malnourished’, ‘moderately malnourished’ … Parents are informed.  Anganwadi workers have gained stature by raising parents’ awareness on the huge disadvantage shadowing malnourishment. When children show enthusiasm in attending the anganwadi, parents get involved.  Aanganwadi pre-schoolers’ weight has shown dramatic gain within 2 months - girls and boys alike.

A print rich Chhattisgarh anganwadi and a free ICDS lunch

Going further

ILP happened because of the collaboration of ICDS staff, funder and mediator UNICEF and CLR together.  Will ILP continue? 

Remains to be seen. 

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