Seminar, February 01, 2005

Pratham experiences
Rukmini Banerji

Pre-school coverage for universalization of primary education dominated Pratham’s efforts in the mid 1990s. Pratham’s low cost and replicable model of community based pre-school provision led to a rapid expansion of the balwadi (pre-school) network across the slum areas of the city. In 1995, there were 200 Pratham balwadis catering to 4000 pre-school age children. By 1996, the number had risen to 350, reaching 7000 children between the ages of three and five. By 1998, the pre-school network had expanded extensively across the city; through approximately 3000 balwadis, close to 55,000 children had access to affordable early childhood education.

The model was simple: first the need for a pre-school centre in a neighbourhood had to be established. This was usually done by a local Pratham activist with the help of recruits from that neighbourhood. If there were at least 20 children in that slum community in the age group 3 to 5, a pre-school centre could be started. A local, enthusiastic and energetic young woman from the neighbourhood became the balwadi instructor. She received training, materials and ongoing support from Pratham. Though Pratham provided a nominal stipend on a monthly basis, she was also free to charge fees from the children on condition that no child would be turned away if the family could not pay. Children gathered together for two and a half hours at a mutually convenient time in a space that was close to where they lived.

The low-cost model implied that no rent was paid for use of space. This in turn meant that negotiations had to be done with whomever necessary for availing of public space or if the balwadi was to be conducted in the teacher’s home, family members had to agree to keep the space free for the duration of the ‘class’.3 The no-rent policy meant that other members of the community or the family had to support the running of the balwadi – this in turn created a neighbourhood support link for the educational effort. Any available public space – empty rooms or available space in school buildings, temples, verandahs of public buildings,4 open space in a park, even offices of political parties – was put to use as balwadis.

The growth of Pratham’s balwadi network from 200 balwadis to almost 3000 and coverage from 4000 to 55,000 children in a space of three years was unprecedented and led to tremendous learning for the organization. As Pratham activity spread across the city, more and more young people at the local neighbourhood level got involved in community mobilization, interacting with young children and learning organizational skills. More pegs were placed in localities and communities all through Mumbai, pegs that were later useful in weaving an ‘education’ net to cover all slum communities. Knowledge about problems and needs at the ground level grew. Acquaintance with community and neighbourhood level resources deepened into stronger ties. Insights about workable strategies developed through the network as Pratham activists experimented with different models of community mobilization.

From the beginning, Pratham’s operating style has been based on a conviction that action is the best path forward to understand and plan the direction and nature of future action. To build credibility, show commitment to solving problems in communities – demonstration of sustained action and persistence is key. In a short period of time, the creation and development of the balwadi network was extremely useful in demonstrating and establishing Pratham’s credibility in communities around Mumbai. Thus, the balwadi experience of the 1995-1998 enrolled period, with respect to coverage as well as the organizational features of the balwadi model, acted as a springboard for further community action.

Between October-November 1998, a massive exercise was carried out to assess the extent of access to pre-school in Mumbai slums. The Pratham network now stretched to almost every low income community in the city. In addition there were a number of pre-schools run by different agencies. Apart from Pratham’s balwadis in slum neighbourhoods, there were about 800 anganwadis as part of the central government’s Integrated Child Development Scheme in the city.

Ten municipal wards out of a total of 23 wards in Mumbai were selected and Pratham activists set forth to assess coverage,5 mostly using secondary data. Child population (3 to 5 years) data was extracted from each ward’s health post figures (official data from the municipal health department). Every pre-school, anganwadi, nursery school/kindergarten or balwadi in every slum community in these 10 wards was visited to get enrollment figures. The attempt was to match numbers for each slum community. Community based organizations (mahila mandals, resident committees, youth groups) were asked whether all children in their communities had access to pre-schools.6

The assessment effort faced several problems in matching child population data by slum community with pre-school coverage figures. In some wards it was difficult to extract the child population numbers for particular slums from the health post information. Community health coverage (and hence data) through the municipal system was weak, especially in unauthorized slums. In some areas the number of slum communities was much lower than in other wards (e.g. F-South ward). In other cases, children living in one ward attended pre-schools in other wards and so it was difficult to exactly match child population. Still the data that was collected provided a rough sense of pre-school coverage in Mumbai in 1998. It suggested that coverage was close to 100% in many of the selected wards.



Pre-school Coverage in Mumbai Slums (selected wards) 1998

Municipal ward

Total child population


Total children in preschool


Total children in Pratham balwadis

Total children in other balwadis






























































































Source: Pre-school coverage assessment: Pratham, September-November 1998.

In a public rally in Kamgaar Maidan on Children’s Day (14 November 1998) the Mayor of Mumbai announced that in 10 wards of the city, access to pre-school was close to 100%. Many community-based organizations attended the rally. This was perhaps the first time in any of India’s mega cities that a community-based effort had been conducted to assess if universal pre-school coverage had been reached and in support of universalization of pre-school education.

The community-based assessment of pre-school coverage was followed by a school-based exercise in the following year. In practically every municipal school in the city, every child enrolled in Std I in 1999-2000 was asked if he or she had attended pre-school prior to enrolling in primary school. Approximately 95,000 Std I children were tracked to see if they had attended any kind of pre-school.7 (Of these 12, 347 children had been to Pratham pre-schools or balwadis.) The main finding was that almost 49% of children in Std I came to regular school without exposure to any kind of early childhood education.

These findings were in contrast to the 100% coverage view that the earlier assessment had generated. A quick comprehensive study was done of 1500 Std I children in 1999-2000 in F-North ward. These children had come to Std I without any kind of pre-school exposure. The survey indicated that:

* 33% had recently migrated from the village or had no fixed place to stay.

* 29% felt that they did not have easy access to a balwadi (or to an affordable balwadi or to a balwadi in their mother tongue).

* 29% were not enrolled in a balwadi by parents for no particular reason; and

* 9% had miscellaneous reasons such as illness.

The combined effect of these two assessment exercises led Pratham to refine pre-school and early childhood education strategies. To ensure that every child in Mumbai who entered Std I in June 2000 would have some pre-school background, two proactive steps were taken.

(a) Based on the gaps identified (in terms of language, location and community) in the school based tracking study, a more sharply targeted (locality-language) balwadi coverage was planned in 2000-2001 in areas where there was still need for pre-schools.

(b) In June 2000, in collaboration with municipal authorities, Pratham placed a balsakhi (teacher’s helper/child’s friend) in every Std I class in the municipal school system, that requested this additional help.8 Together with the regular Std I teacher, the balsakhi implemented an eight-week school readiness programme aimed at children with no prior exposure to pre-school education. During this period, the focus is on games, stories and songs, reading-writing readiness activities, maths games and activities, colour-shape recognition, free play etc. that are part of a pre-school curriculum.

These two interventions ensured that by December 2000 every child in Std I (in municipal schools) has had some basic school-readiness pre-school education. This met one of the primary objectives of Pratham – universalization of pre-school education by the year 2000.

How does pre-school help children in primary school? Would all of the children attending Pratham balwadis have enrolled in formal schools anyway? How has Pratham’s balwadi activity helped to bring every child to school or helped them to learn better? Estimates suggest that in the 1999-2000 school year, a third of all children who entered Std I in the municipal school system with some exposure to early childhood education were from Pratham balwadis. Pratham’s own figures showed that unless the child’s family moves out of Mumbai, practically all children go on to the formal education system – whether it is private schools or government or municipal schools. Enrollment in Std I in a city like Mumbai is very high. With or without pre-school, most six year olds are children are enrolled in Std I.

In 2000-2001, a study sampled approximately 4000 Std I children in municipal schools across Mumbai and compared children who had exposure to early childhood education with those who had none. The study suggests that in this context the real ‘value-added’ of pre-schools has to do with attendance and achievement.

Overall, the data suggest early cognitive advantage of children who have been to pre-school. Children with a pre-school background scored significantly higher in the first test in Std I in language and maths as compared to children without exposure to preschool. This is especially true for Marathi medium schools. Although there may be problems with the measurement of children’s academic progress in school and questions about the accuracy and reliability of attendance data, analyses based on the school system’s own figures do show the comparative advantage of a child who has been to pre-school before.

Designing curriculum and ensuring effective teaching learning in any large scale programme is a challenge. Rapid expansion of the balwadi network added a further dimension to this challenge. How has Pratham faced these challenges?

In the mid-1990s, curriculum development and training for Pratham’s balwadis was done by a number of other institutions and agencies in Mumbai. Training support from Mobile Crèches, SNDT University, Sadhana Training College and others was very helpful in getting the community based pre-school programme off the ground. But as the balwadi network grew, external help became insufficient. This training had a strong focus on theoretical issues and was based on a set of assumptions about space, materials and duration of children in a balwadi. Practical realities of Pratham balwadis were that balwadis ran in small spaces or in situations were there was little of teaching-material available. The curriculum was also designed for a year and teachers were at a loss when children attended balwadis for shorter durations. Once training was over, there was no structure of ongoing support. Finally, with the rapidly expanding scale of the programme, it was difficult to find adequate numbers of resource people from other institutions to keep up with the training needs of the organization.

The beginnings of an in-house training and curriculum team were initiated in 1997. An early childhood expert was brought into the Pratham team. Several outstanding Pratham balwadi teachers with good communication and leadership skills were also added to the team. The team developed a structure of pre-service and in-service training and developed training teams for each zone in Mumbai keeping in mind the practical realities faced by balwadi teachers in Mumbai slums. The content was more practical: for example how to make maximum use of cramped spaces was discussed. Material development became a common feature of the training sessions. A modular theme-based curriculum was developed so that whether a child attended for a few months or for the whole academic year there were new activities introduced into the balwadis constantly. Within the low-cost budgets available to the balwadi programme, teaching-learning materials like beads, blocks and clay were introduced.

Even with ongoing rounds of pre-service and in-service training, there was still substantial transmission loss. It was important to build in adequate continuous support to the balwadi network. Organizational changes were needed to implement ongoing training and monitoring support. In terms of structure, by 1998, the role of the layer of people above the instructors shifted from being ‘supervisors’ to ‘trainer-monitors’. To follow through with what was learned and demonstrated in training, each zone’s ‘trainer-monitor’ visited balwadis to support and show how activities were to be done, how materials were to be used and how time was to be effectively organized. At least three visits a month to each balwadi were planned. In addition, all instructors met their trainer-monitors at least twice a month. The effectiveness of the training-monitoring structure depended entirely on the capacity of the ‘trainer-monitor’ to deliver the support. Thus capacity building of the trainer-monitors became as important, if not even more so, than that of the balwadi instructors.

Interestingly, the shift from ‘supervision’ to ‘training monitoring’ is visible in the monitoring indicators too. In order to keep track of the rapidly growing network of balwadis, in 1997-1998, a set of simple indicators were used. On each visit, the ‘supervisor’ marked the balwadi on a number of observed criteria. For example, marks were given for display of materials, attendance, cleanliness of the location, timeliness of the teacher and so on. These marks were then aggregated each month to come up with the number of balwadis who were in the ‘good’, ‘better’ and ‘excellent’ categories.

With the shift from ‘supervision’ to ‘training-monitoring’, the monitoring indicators changed as well. Now the checklists were closely linked to activities that had been stressed in training. These included games and activities for number readiness, reading and writing readiness, physical games and songs. So the monitoring format had questions like ‘Were most children crying?’ or ‘Did most children participate in the game that the teacher was doing?’ Apart from the observations and notings of the trainer-monitor, it was expected that if the activity was not being done satisfactorily, she would demonstrate it in the class. On a return visit later in the month, it was important for her to assess if the inputs had made any difference. Linking monitoring to issues discussed in training and following it with hands-on support in the balwadi was an essential feature of this phase.

By 2000, Pratham had proved that working on scale with local volunteers was possible even in the most difficult slum areas. Similar initiatives like that in Mumbai were starting in other cities of Maharashtra, Gujarat, Karnataka and North India. Although balwadis were not established everywhere, the approach to community based action drew on the lessons learned from building the balwadi network in Mumbai.

The focus within the Pratham network now turned to strengthening of learning. Intensive experiments with accelerated learning techniques began in late 2001 and carried through 2002 and forward. Within the pre-school network as well there was a visible focus on the development of early literacy skills.

In 2000-2001, the Mumbai programme introduced books to balwadis. The ‘book bag’ brought simple picture books into each balwadi. Each child got a book for herself or himself. This was an exciting new development in the lives of these children – many of whom were from families in which they or their parents were the first generation learners. A set of daily activities was centred on the book: how to hold the book, how to turn pages, discussions about the pictures in the book, noticing colour, shapes, events. Parent’s involvement was built into the balwadi activities. Parents had to be oriented too in terms of what to do because children now brought books home.

The ‘Book Bag’ project was a precursor to the evolving ‘Shishuvachan’ programme for early literacy. A variety of different approaches are being tried under the emerging shishuvachan umbrella. The focus is on early literacy with children (four and half and older) in which simple picture books with simple words and few sentences are used. The font size is large; often words on successive pages are similar or repeated. The teacher tells the story and then reads aloud daily with her finger on the words as she reads the sentence. Children watch and listen and look into their own copy of the story. Watching and listening to the teacher daily encourages the children to re-tell the story and to start reading. Apart from story telling and story reading, children do a variety of daily games with words and alphabets with cards. After a month or so the barahkhadi chart is introduced.10

Variations of the shishuvachan approach are being experimented in different parts of the Pratham network. The basic idea is to provide a rich literacy environment for children in which books and reading play a major part; there is an effort to reduce instruction and let children learn to read on their own.

Using this approach systematically in balwadis has proved to be useful. Children enter Std I with familiarity with books and text and ability to read text in Std I textbooks.11 The basic foundation for reading and for dealing with text and books can be solidly built in pre-school itself. Readiness for reading is one of the key pillars of basic learning and future educational progress. If this foundation is strong, one of the major reasons for children falling behind and eventually dropping out is taken care of.

How to work with the large network of anganwadis has been a question that we have been considering for the past few years. Although there are variations in practice, anganwadis exist and do cater through their nutrition and health efforts to children of pre-school age. Usually the early childhood component of the programme is weak. In 2002-2003, an experiment was tried in 50 anganwadis in the Kothrud area of Pune.12 The basic idea was to layer Pratham’s shishuvachan programme with the ongoing anganwadi structure.

In practical terms, a Pratham volunteer (balsakhi) went to the anganwadi and worked for 45 minutes with the older children (four and a half and above) on reading. The same balsakhi was able to spend 45 minutes in three anganwadis in the same neighbourhood daily. Although initially there was some hesitation from anganwadi teachers, gradually as attendance improved and children began to read, the acceptance of this initiative within the anganwadi structure grew. In this pilot, 820 children participated and after four months or so 80% could read simple paragraphs. (The children who have not as yet learned to read were non-Marathi speaking children.) 300 children from the original batch were followed into school. We found that they could read the later sections of Std I textbook.

The Kothrud experiment was expanded to 100 anganwadis in Pune in 2003-2004 and to 250 anganwadis in the current year. We continue to see similar success rates with children reading simple sentences as they enter Std I.

In 2003-2004, other rural areas within the Pune district (Baramati taluka) of the ICDS programme became interested in the early literacy approach that Pratham had introduced in the Pune anganwadis. Pratham resource people helped train 300 anganwadi teachers in the shishuvachan method so that they could work with children to help them read on their own. The ICDS staff had tested 25 anganwadis randomly and found that most children were able to read. Since then the CDPO has been transferred and the early literacy activities have not been carried forward. The ability to work collaboratively and demonstrate ‘progress’ has been a key element of the Pratham-anganwadi collaboration.

Even in the initial years of Pratham balwadis, instructors were encouraged to charge fees in consultation with the group of parents. While Pratham gave the instructor a nominal stipend, she could keep the fees that she charged. The only condition was that no child should be turned away if he or she could not pay the fees. Over the years, many balwadis in Mumbai have become ‘self sustaining’. The instructor no longer needs the stipend from Pratham. In some cases, these balwadis still use Pratham’s materials and training support.

In most urban and rural locations the provision of pre-school education has been in the hands of either the ICDS or NGOs and private nursery schools. Comprehensive or collaborative attempts to assess pre-school coverage in communities and moves to improve coverage and quality across the board have been few and far between. Structural links between pre-school and primary school have not been conceptualized well in policy nor implemented effectively in practice in many parts of the country.13

As we move into 2005, the pre-school component in Pratham work across the country is getting stronger. In terms of strategy, universalizing access and pre-school coverage is a goal in every community in which we work. In 2005, it is likely that Pratham will have a direct presence in over 4000 urban slum communities and rural locations.14 In each of these communities, the attempt will be to ensure that all pre-school age children attend pre-school.15 In Pratham balwadis, the shishuvachan approach of early literacy will be adopted widely.

In addition, every community in which Pratham has a presence has a community children’s library. Every effort is being made to have books for pre-schoolers and early readers in the libraries.16 Apart from book exchange and literacy related activities, the librarian also keep track of all children in the community. The tracking will ensure that all children are in pre-school and that as pre-school children graduate they enroll and attend regularly. We also hope that the children’s library will develop into a centre for providing learning support to the community children as they progress through school.

Based on the positive experiences with anganwadis and with municipal schools, efforts are being made in all Pratham locations to seek partnerships and collaborations with government schools (especially in Std I or in nursery and KG where they exist within the government school system) and with the ICDS network.17 Going from our early model of balwadis to the emerging shishuvachan model, learning-readiness is becoming increasingly important in our balwadis. Organizationally too, there has been evolution. In the early years the model was one of part support from Pratham. At the time, after discussions with parents, the balwadi instructor could charge fees and keep the income as her own. Today various models for sustainability are being developed in Pratham locations.

The last ten years of pre-school experience has taught us a lot. In terms of coverage and access, we have learned a great deal about how to create, sustain and support a mass-scale network. In terms of learning, creating the basic building blocks is essential. We continue to believe that ‘every child in pre-school and learning’ is an integral part of the drive to universalize elementary education. Start early, build basics and create partnerships for success.


Madhav Chavan, Building Societal Missions for Universalizing Pre-primary and Primary Education. UNESCO-IIEP, Paris, 2000.

Madhav Chavan, Read India, a mass scale, rapid, ‘learning to read’ campaign. A foundation for achieving national/global goals of Universal Elementary Education. The pilot phase of Pratham’s accelerated reading programme. Jan 2003-Jun 2003. Pratham Resource Centre Working Paper Series, 2004.

Madhav Chavan, Usha Rane and Rukmini Banerji, Learning to Read, Seminar 536, April 2004.


1. Today there are Pratham programmes in 12 states reaching close to 200,000 children daily.

2. The massive countrywide central government funded ICDS (Integrated Child Development Scheme) programme covers children in the 0 to 5 age group. Among other things, it is supposed to deliver nutritional supplements, health inputs and early childhood care and education to children from disadvantaged families. Primarily conceived of as a rural programme, its urban coverage is low. Compared to other big cities in the country, at least in the mid 1990s, Mumbai was grossly underserved by the programme. Thus, most slum communities in Mumbai, especially the unauthorized areas, did not have any government funds earmarked for pre-school provision.

3. In a typical Mumbai slum home, the family has one room which is used for all activities. There is an arrangement for cooking in one part of the room and usually a bed on which the bedding is stored during the day. To conduct a balwadi for 15 to 20 children in this space, all other family members have to leave the house and no other household activities can be conducted during that time. Thus, while conducting a balwadi at home is convenient, it has to have the support and cooperation of all family members.

4. I even once visited a balwadi in the verandah of a police station.

5. 10 municipal wards were F/S ward: Parel, F/N: Wadala, K/E ward: Santa Cruz, Ville Parle, H/E ward: Bandra (East), M/E and M/W: Chembur, L ward: Kurla, N ward: Ghatpokar, S ward: Vikroli, T ward: Mulund.

6. Stacks of letters on letterheads of community based organizations came in to the Pratham office to document the involvement of these organizations in assessing access to pre-school in their areas.

7. 85% of all Std I classes in municipal primary schools was covered by this tracking study.

8. Each municipal school had to request for the assistance of a balsakhi. Some schools felt that they did not need additional support for implementing the school readiness programme. In other cases, a balsakhi (person with the appropriate qualifications and fluency in the needed language willing to work under the given circumstances) could not be found. By early July 2000, 1067 balsakhis were working with 31,000 Std I children in 714 municipal primary schools. Another 123 schools requested balsakhis but these could not be provided. (At the time, there are approximately 1200 municipal primary schools in Mumbai.)

9. A pilot study of a small sample of Std I students conducted in 1997 compared the attendance of balwadi children with that of children who came without any preschool exposure to formal school. The results indicated that balwadi children’s attendance was substantially higher (4% to 16%) than that of other children who came to Std I without any pre-school experience.

10. Some people introduce a few letters at a time and then use the barahkhadi chart to help children recognize matras. Others have not used the barahkhadi till later in the programme.

11. Early findings from a tracking study at the end of 2003-2004 of 2000 Std I children in Mumbai indicates that children who have been through the Shishuvachan programme are doing well. In particular, children in private schools who have been through Shishuvachan have retained their advantage in reading and built on it. However, similar patterns are not seen in municipal schools where the gains from the early literacy programme have not been significantly sustained.

12. Pune Municipal Corporation in 2002 had decided to expand the anganwadi coverage and suggested that Pratham not run balwadis so that there was no duplication of effort.

13. There have, however, been efforts to forge these links. For example, in Uttar Pradesh, as part of DPEP, anganwadis ran either near the school or in the school premises. However, the Ministry of Women and Child Welfare run ICDS programmes and primary schools are under the purview of the Ministry of Human Resource Development.

14. For operationally purposes, Pratham defines a ‘community’ as a clearly demarcated pocket of approximately 200 to 250 households. Although the numbers vary somewhat by geographical regions, on average in an urban slum there are 400 children in the age group 3-14. At least 100 tend to be of pre-school age. In 2005, Pratham is likely to work in at least 4000 such communities, which means that it is likely that our direct reach will be to 400,000 pre-school children.

15. It is not important whether they attend Pratham balwadis or anganwadis or other pre-schools. What is important is that they attend pre-schools.

16. In 2004, Pratham Books has been launched as a separate initiative. 50 new titles in Hindi, Marathi and Kannada have been released. Many of these books are targeted to pre-schoolers and early readers. In 2005, 200 new titles are being proposed. A significant proportion of these books will continue to target the 3-5 age group.

17. In some states like Maharashtra, anganwadi coverage has been increasing in urban areas. In such situations, for example in Mumbai, we have begun to scale down our direct efforts and increased collaboration with the ICDS structure


@ Copyright, Seminar, New Delhi.