Tinu, as Dr Swati Popat Vats was called at 3, was not a fan of school. She remembers crying not to go and when she did it was only because she liked plopping down in the cosy lap of a teacher. Not any teacher at all—“The only teacher I liked was this well-built lady with a big bindi, named Bapuji. She was the only saving grace.” Many decades later, this unerring radar to see and tell it like it is, has remained the strong point of the woman that Tinu grew up into. That, and an enormous capacity to dig in, set the ball rolling and keep driving it forward till the mission is accomplished. And she largely pulls it off, humour intact and not a hair out of place. Yes, it’s difficult not to be impressed by Dr Swati Popat Vats, educational activist, child rights campaigner, teaching expert, parenting guru, President Podar Education Network, and President Early Childhood Association.
A trained teacher from Nirmala Niketan, despite the initial misgivings of a beloved father who believed she had a flair for art and would soon be bored of the “baby-sitting”, it perhaps could never have been just vanilla teaching for Swati. What appeared to be the constant scaling of the professional ladder has been driven by a perhaps unconscious desire to engender much needed and widespread change. Her early stint at the Hasanat High School run by the Saifee Trust provided that initial glimpse into teaching as it should be. “As a teacher trainee there, it changed my entire outlook of education,” she avers. “Every classroom opened into a garden, and the studies were completely project-based even in standard 10. It was way ahead of its time and I learnt so much about teaching, education, what it is to be teacher, and how to give lessons in a fun playway method. Years later when I did my B.Ed training, I went back to Hasanat to give my lessons and used puppetry to teach class 9 and 10 students.”
Her next stint at Mumbai’s popular starkids’ school Jamnabai Narsee saw her bringing in many of the methods learnt at Hasnat, including puppetry. Five years later, when she moved to Arya Vidya Mandir Juhu, it was for the opportunity offered to lecture in their teaching training programme as well. “This was something I looked forward to, because I could inspire so many people,” she recalls. Also heading the art and craft department, she realised her father was right—she did have a designer within her and it found the perfect ground to bloom. It bloomed further as she was approached to set up Early Childhood Education schools. “It had the design element, the curriculum element and I realised I enjoyed it,” smiles Dr Swati, who had also completed her B.Ed by then. Eight schools under her belt, she was appointed by Euro Kids as founder-consultant for their first 100 schools. It was a matter of time before she was on board the Podar Education Network, helming their now mammoth Jumbo Kids network. Over these 20 years, learning has been constant…
“I realised that principals of high schools are not in favour of bringing in changes in the early years. They are bringing about flipped classrooms and a host of other innovations, in the secondary, but nothing in the early years because that is where your admissions come in and they don’t have the knowledge to convince a parent about why they are doing what they are doing. A parent wants to put their child in a school that ‘writes’, and they feel it’s better not to change things,” she points out. Along with working on changing the mindset of principals, she helped create a modern and relevant ECE teacher training programme. “I realised that there was no teacher training programme in this country for the early years. Every state has its own programme of varying durations. The kind of teachers coming in are those who are shouting at children, threatening, abusing, forcing children to write. I thought something had to change.”
Further research, led to the realisation that much depended on the government, the NCERT, universities etc. Attending World Forum Foundation conferences abroad, which see 80 different countries come together for early years, she was inspired by their advocacy to their governments to bring about change. Realising that the associations in the country were largely ‘inactive’, she along with Dr Sonawat decided it was time to start their own – the Early Childhood Association. “It sounded like a foolish dream at that time but we said, let’s go for it. And surprisingly, even as we were framing the organisation’s members, we had good people who joined us like Swaroop Sampat, Samir Dalwai, Kamini Rege, Asha Verma… the founders - and it suddenly became clear that everybody was looking for an association like this. Every school and brand was saying that they wanted guidance, and they wanted somebody to be their voice.”
The ECA has since grown from strength to strength. “We started territories, campaigns like the Anti-Cursive campaign, the Anti-Spanking campaign, we are now doing the Right Start which means schools taking children in at the right age, and ensuring children are not interviewed as per the RTE Act.” The ECA has many important firsts to their credit - making parent groups part of the association, including corporate houses as members to ensure quality, and roping in NGOs that work with balwadis and anganwadis to deliver quality. “The only thing left now is the government. We want a one nation, one policy format where I’m not saying everything should be the same in every state but there should be some non-negotiables like age of entry to nursery class, and safety policy.” This has been something of an uphill task as in India, education is a concurrent subject. Dr Swati explains, “Early Childhood comes under the Women and Child Development Ministry, which makes the policies. But at the state level we don’t come under the education department nor WCD which doesn’t handle education. The education department’s Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan starts from age 6. When it comes to the state level we are lost, we are nobody’s baby. Though we are now hopeful with the Samagra Shiksha Abhiyan.”
Under this policy, education will now formally begin from three years onwards. Early Childhood Education will now be at the state level under the education department and under HRD at the central level. Additionally, NCERT has recently come out with an excellent policy and curriculum for the early years and while it should appear like a no-brainer that it be adopted across the states, the reality is not as uncomplicated. “Instead the states will individually form committees and make their own policies based on the NCERT policy and curriculum. This is what we are against. When we have a superb document like this, why is it not just implemented in all the states? Because education is a concurrent subject, which means every state can make changes in the education policy. And we are saying either put early years under one minister, so that she can control it across all states, or don’t make early years a concurrent subject,” Dr Swati points out.
Harking to Nobel-winning economist Heckman’s proposal on why one dollar invested in the early years, saves you 7 dollars when the child becomes an adult, Dr Swati points out that 80% of our children are studying in anganwadis. “This child can never catch up. Language, self-esteem will suffer. As adults, they will keep making wrong choices when they vote, lose jobs, fall prey to alcoholism, teenage pregnancies. You are always going to be investing in taking care of them. As a New York Times article said, are we investing in prisons or pre-schools? It’s time for government to now prove to the country that they care for its children. The teachers and parents of these children are a vote bank sitting right there!” Over the years, despite the many achievements, her must-do list has only increased. From ECA-conducted workshops in different cities to help teachers understand theory and how to use it in the classroom so they can become better and respectful educators, to advocating a uniform early years teacher training programme pan India, to demanding a separate budget for ECE, to making mandatory a parent education programme to prepare parents for child rearing, and above all, the setting up of child protective services… yes, there are miles to go but we get the feeling Dr Swati Popat Vats will propel it all and then some!
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