New Education Policy- Will It be Groundbreaking?

The country waited 34 years to get modernised and updated system in education. But, the main challenge before our policymakers was to draft a policy, which would be futuristic and forward-looking in its approach, yet grounded in the current realities. Have they achieved this challenge? 

By Robin Keshaw 

In a world which is changing at such a rapid pace, with systems, structures and technologies becoming obsolete in a matter of a few years, the response of the education system should also commensurate with the change. India had to wait 34 years to get its National Education Policy after the last one came out in 1986 during the Rajiv Gandhi government. Thankfully, on July 29, Narendra Modi’s cabinet approved the National Education Policy (NEP), 2020. It took six years in making, and hundreds of consultative meetings later, the nation has something to look forward to, in the realm of education reforms. 

India’s education system has always been compared with the education models of developed nations like Finland, Singapore, South Korea, etc. Such comparisons have not been fair as the socio-cultural and economic contexts are remarkably different in these countries. The challenge before our policymakers was to draft a policy which is futuristic and forward-looking in its approach, yet grounded in the current realities of our country.  

For a system which caters to more than thirty crore children and nearly one crore teachers, this is not an easy task. The committee, first led by former Cabinet Secretary TSR Subramanian and then by former ISRO chief K Kasturirangan, had taken up a massive task to draft a NEP. 

The debate on viewing education as a social good and the imminent role of government in providing education to all sections of society has been going on 

Every child counts India has always struggled to make the education accessible to every single child in the country. Discerning eyes of the policymakers in the ivory towers of New Delhi have missed the child in the slums, rural and remote areas and the ones with academic limitation. In terms of accessibility, Sarv Shiksha Abhiyan (now Samagra Shiksha Abhiyan) and Right to Education(RTE) Act have tried to bridge the gap in the past, despite severe implementation challenges. RTE had mandated free and compulsory education for the children aged between 6-14 years. 

It was almost imminent on the part of the new policy to extend the realm of free and compulsory education to entire schooling years of the children, i.e 3-18 years. NEP 2020 has been ambiguously discreet about this inevitable step. It says that it will examine whether RTE provisions should be extended for 3-18 years bracket. It is quite underwhelming to see that the policy is still ‘examining’ whether to put the entire school education under the ambit of RTE. 

The debate on viewing education as a social good and the imminent role of government in providing education to all sections of society has been going on for quite a long time. On one side, many educationists see the government’s lack of willingness to allocate budget to public education as a subterfuge to the privatization of education.

They fear that privatization will constrict the access of education to the underprivileged whose numbers are many in our country. While on the other hand, there are many supporters of privatization who believe that it will improve the quality of education across the country, as there will be more competition for the existing space in education. 

The policy has been quite ambivalent on this note. On one hand, it recommends an increase of education budget to 6% of GDP for state governments and central government. This is a recommendation which has been in the collective conscience since the 1968 policy. Yet the new policy has decided to only recommend this step rather than making it mandatory. 

Similarly, the policy mentions that current public expenditure on education is only 10% of total government spending. There is no mention of the legislative commitments and fixed roadmap to increase it further. This big lacuna puts a question mark on the intent of NEP 2020, in reaching to all the children in our country. 

Building blocks NEP 2020 has been quite forthright in accepting the challenges of the current education system. It clearly mentions that ‘a large proportion of students currently in elementary school estimated to be over 5 crores – have not attained foundational literacy and numeracy, i.e., the ability to read and comprehend basic text and the ability to carry out basic addition and subtraction with Indian numerals.

If action is not taken soon, over the next few years, then we could lose 10 crore or more students from the learning system to illiteracy.’ This is an honest assessment of the current realities and NEP has laid out a plan to achieve ‘universal foundational literacy and numeracy in primary school and beyond by 2025’. 

First is the restructuring of the school curriculum and pedagogy to ‘5+3+3+4’ system, this also includes a focus on Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) ‘ to ensure that all children entering Grade 1 are school ready.’ Different research studies across the world have shown that in the primitive years, it is important for the child to learn the skill of ‘how to learn, rather than memorizing alphabets and multiplication tables.

Our traditional approach has ignored the importance of ECCE and placed the burden on Anganwadis, with very little systemic support to them.  NEP has categorically specified that governments must take up ECCE as part of the mainstream education system. 

Another point on mother tongue as a language of instruction in foundational years is a welcome step. In their foundational years, children learn the best in their mother tongue, as has been cited by numerous research studies. Unfortunately, in our school system, most of the children are forced to learn a new language when they should be learning other foundational skills.

This is an unnecessary burden on the children, especially the ones who are first-generation learners. Focus on the mother tongue will make learning more accessible to a large number of underprivileged and first-generation learners. 

The choice paradigm 

Singapore’s education system is considered to be one of the most flexible in the world. Students have different choices to select their subjects, their pace of learning, focus on academics vs vocational, etc from a very early stage. India, on the other hand, was following an extremely orthodox, watertight system which focused more on homogenizing education and left little leeway to cater to the different learning abilities of students.

Traditionally, pass percentages in Class 12 boards have been higher than Class 10 boards. One of the reasons attributed to this trend is forcing the students to study Math and Science in Class 10, which see the lowest pass percentage. After Class 10, students can opt-out of Math and Science, if they are not opting for Science stream, giving them the liberty to excel in the subjects of their choice. 

India was following an extremely orthodox, watertight system which focused more on homogenizing education and left little leeway to cater to the different learning abilities of students 

NEP 2020 has made the subject choices more flexible and has moved away from the rigid stream wise boundaries. Students will have the choice to study the subjects as per their choice, which can have a combination of arts, science and vocational courses. This will put off the unnecessary pressure on the students and give them the agency to choose their interest areas. 

However, NEP has shied away from making a strong transition plan for moving from the current system to the proposed system. This is a huge drawback as the students who will be moving out of the school system to the colleges in the near future wouldn’t have clarity about their subject choices.

This ambiguity can snowball into a major issue for lakhs of students. Ironically, the choice construct made available to the students has been denied to the school principals and administrators, albeit in an allusive manner.

Modern governance and regulatory systems are moving towards a trust-based, decentralised approach, where an implicit faith is placed on the abilities of every stakeholder. In the existing system, a school principal and the teachers are already following directions from different government bodies like the Department of Education, SCERT, MHRD, etc.

There is little or almost no alignment and coordination between these bodies because of which school administration is always navigating through confused communications. 

NEP has proposed setting up of new bodies – State School Regulatory Authority, Rashtriya Shiksha Aayog, National Assessment Centre and National Testing Agency. While these bodies intend to improve the regulation, administration and governance of education in the country, there are high chances that there will be clashes between these bodies as they would try to prove their existence in this complex setup.

This also means that the hands of the school administration will be tied and there will be very little decision making left at their disposal. More the confusion at the top, more chaos will be at the school level and more detrimental this would be to our students. 

Social good in education 

The NEP 2020 ‘calls for the rejuvenation, active promotion, and support for private philanthropic activity in the education sector. It has introduced a new version of PPP – Public-Philanthropic Partnerships. Surprisingly, the term finds it mention at many places in the document, almost insinuating non-commitment of government to increase its spending on education.

This has also triggered the fear of intrusion of private entities in the education space, which in our country’s context should be more government-driven. The document goes very abstract and silent on acknowledging these fears. 

Another step which hints at the commercialization of education, especially in the higher education space, is the invitation to the foreign universities to open their campuses in India. This is a good step albeit with a couple of caveats. As the government spending on higher education has remained stagnant for decades, the emerging space has been occupied by private players.  

Despite the presence of the government bodies like UGC, NCTE, etc, the private players have exploited the students and parents in the guise of quality education. This has further widened the social divide in our country. The students from underprivileged backgrounds have been kept away from these spaces as they can’t afford to pay such high fees. On its part, governments have done little to bridge the gap and we are yet to see a strong regulatory framework for the private universities.  

With the influx of foreign universities, if that happens, there would be further divide based on the socio-economic conditions of the students. The questions on the reservation, fees regulation, accreditation framework, etc in foreign universities have been left unanswered, which is a major drawback. 

Overall, there are many progressive steps mentioned in the policy which are the need of the hour. However, the document feels like a long laundry list of wishes which can make all the drawbacks of our education system vanish. It has missed out on grounding several of the proposed reforms in our country’s context.

On the other hand, it has shied away from making specific commitments on improving the education system in our country. In the absence of these details, the policy document remains a fairytale genie which knows what to do but doesn’t know how to do – which is the biggest gap in our education policy making space.  

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