When the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) returned to power in May 2019, one of the first tasks that the newly formed government did was to release the Draft National Education Policy. Running to 484 pages, the document elaborated on structural, curricular, pedagogical and governance issues in school and higher education. After much discussion, deliberation and subjecting it to public debates, the Union Cabinet chaired by Prime Minister Narendra Modi gave its assent to the National Education Policy 2020 on July 29, 2020 paving way for the long awaited reforms in the education sector.
In the era of 4th industrial revolution, with technology ruling our lives and the world set to undergo unprecedented changes in the post-COVID era, India needs a framework for developing its human capital to deal with the challenges of this new age. The National Education Policy (NEP) 2020 has evolved keeping this as the central point and forms the blueprint for India’s growth and rise as a knowledge power.
It needs to be understood that any policy is only a vision document and any vision document will have its set of hits and misses. This article attempts to unpack certain important elements of school education section of the policy through a pragmatic lens.
RTE extension – How will it be done?
For the first time in the educational history of independent India, education is being seen as a continuum and not in silos. One of the major lacunae in the 10+2 learning trajectory and the present Right To Education (RTE) Act is that it fails to recognize early childhood education (ECE) as the base for learning. The new policy considers early childhood as not just the foundation over which further learning happens but also as a right. In essence, the policy says that children have to learn for at least 15 years from age 3-18 up from the existing 12 years.
In order to implement this, the draft policy mentioned about extending the RTE downwards and upwards to enable free and compulsory education for children from the age group 3-18 years. But the phraseology of the revised policy shows a nuanced change by stating that “a concerted national effort will be made to ensure universal access and afford opportunity to all children of the country to obtain quality holistic education–including vocational education – from pre-school to Grade 12.”
Perhaps, the policy makers have realized that the RTE Act is a follow up legislation of Article 21 A, a fundamental right, and that the extension of RTE would require a Constitutional Amendment. It is also possible that the Centre might allow individual States to provide for compulsory ECE and secondary and higher education considering the fact that education falls under concurrent list.
Redesigning schooling structure
As mentioned before, the suggested 5+3+3+4 structure provides for 15 years of formal school education compared to the existing 12 years. The initial 5 years is regarded as the foundational stage that comprises 3 years of pre-school followed by grade 1 and 2. The next three years (Grade 3, 4 and 5) will be the preparatory stage that prepares the child for entering middle school (Grade 6, 7 and 8). The high school period of 4 years seeks to give more agency to the learner by providing flexibility in terms of choice of subjects, frequency of assessments and also by breaking the hard separation between different disciplines, vocational and academic, curricular and extra-curricular. This restructuring of schooling design into four stages and the pedagogical approaches in each of the stages is based on Jean Piaget’s theory of cognitive development. Here, learning is seen as a constructive process where children actively engage with their environment and build knowledge by assimilation and accommodation of information. This is evident from the gradual progress of a play-based pedagogy in early years to a more subjected oriented pedagogy in higher classes. It is evident that the new policy is heavily inspired by NCF 2005 which remains the base document for constructivist approach towards learning.
A lot of misinformation has been circulating about 'board examinations' being conducted for grade 3, 5, and 8. While the draft policy did mention of 'State census examinations' to be conducted by the State governments, the new policy mentions that to track progress of children throughout their schooling years and not just in grade 10 and 12, all students will take 'school examinations' conducted by appropriate authority that tests core concepts rather than rote memorization. This form of school examination' already exists in all good quality schools. This will not only help as a feedback mechanism in teaching-learning process but also reduce dropout rates particularly after grade 8 and 10 which is the case now as children who get automatically promoted till class 8 suddenly encounter the reality of examinations in grade 10.
Language and language politics
The insistence on education through home language/mother tongue/local language is in line with the sociocultural theory of Vygotsky which considers language as key in human development. Language is the repository of cultural beliefs and value systems. According to Vygotsky, thought and language remain independent till three years of age after which it becomes interdependent and drives cognitive development. Our thought process occurs in the language we are fluent with. For most children in India, it is the home language which is usually the mother tongue and not English. Having mother tongue as the medium of instruction will enhance not just the cognitive abilities but also articulation and communication skills which are very much necessary to negotiate in today’s world. It is in this light that the policy strongly advocates for home language/mother tongue as the medium of instruction at least till grade 5 and if possible, till grade 8. This does not mean that the policy is anti-English. With the three-language formula in place, children do get the opportunity to learn English and another Indian language.
Critics point out that the state promoting mother tongue based education denies a child from poorest of the poor family (the one who has access only to government schools) the opportunity to go through English medium schooling which an urban child studying in a private school has access to.
This argument is bound to fall flat because, as of today, neither are there enough good English language teachers nor is English spoken in rural government schools despite there being English medium. In fact, it is the children who become a victim of this misplaced sense of social justice as they are neither able to get proficiency in English nor their own language. ASER reports point out abysmal learning levels where children are not able to read basic text in their own language which handicaps the children in their learning journey.
Hence, one must go by what scientific evidence suggests and what works on the ground instead of trivializing the issue by bringing in the argument of social justice. In fact, teaching children in a language that is unfamiliar to them is what goes against the principle of social justice.
Whenever there is a discussion on language, there is always one state that rises involuntarily – Tamil Nadu. The policy states that “the three-language formula will continue to be implemented while keeping in mind the Constitutional provisions, aspirations of the people, regions, and the Union, and the need to promote multilingualism as well as promote national unity.” Although the revised policy has stated categorically that no language will be imposed on any state, there seems to be no end for Tamil Nadu political parties’ obsession over the two-language policy. In fact, the policy provides room for states like Tamil Nadu by saying that “there will be greater flexibility in the implementation of the three-language formula”.
It is to be noted that all the south Indian states of Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and Karnataka along with states like West Bengal, Odisha, Maharashtra, that takes pride in their language as much as Tamil Nadu does, follow the three-language policy. Even in Tamil Nadu, most of the private CBSE and matriculation schools offer three languages till 8th grade. However, the political parties in Tamil Nadu – the DMK, AIADMK, VCK and others whip up unwarranted claims of Hindi/Sanskrit imposition.
In that case, it is pertinent to identify who is imposing what here. While the NEP 2020 offers all children in public and private schools the opportunity to learn three languages of their choice, what the political parties and the Tamil Nadu government are doing is disadvantage government school children while the private school children continue to benefit from learning three languages. In essence they ‘impose’ the two-language policy on underprivileged government school children saying “We will let you study only two languages in government schools. If you want to study a third language, you should join a private school”
What is likely to be seen as a political agenda is the importance given to Sanskrit. The policy calls for providing Sanskrit as an optional language at all levels of school and higher education. But it also says that other classical languages like Tamil, Odia, Telugu, Kannada Malayalam, Pali, Persian and Prakrit shall also be available as options. So, Sanskrit is just one among the other options provided. The learner makes the decision of choosing a language. Hence, there is no imposition of any language on anybody.
The policy lays stress on education being India-centred. This is evident from the importance given to classical Indian languages and Indian knowledge systems. Contribution of Indian thinkers like Charaka, Susruta, Aryabhata, Panini, Chanakya and Patanjali among others to various fields ranging from medicine, science, engineering and arts find mention in the policy. All these are bound to evoke reactions from certain sections, especially from the academic and political class on the left side of the ideological spectrum. However, one must understand that such a position of the government comes from the continuous neglect and unwillingness of the left dominated Indian academia to engage with indigenous epistemological sources as they did not consider such sources to be 'academically qualified' to be part of our education system.
This has been the most contentious element as many have alleged that it is an indirect way of enforcing caste hierarchies. It is even dubbed as modern day version of Rajaji’s ‘Kulakalvi Thittam’ in Tamil Nadu. However, Rajaji’s Kulakalvi Thittam was very different from the idea of vocational education proposed in this policy.
In the Modern Scheme of Elementary Education 1953 mooted by Rajaji (which was dubbed Kulakalvi Thittam), it proposed to introduce two shifts in elementary schools. During the morning session, regular teaching-learning activity would be undertaken while the evening session was dedicated to learning the occupation of their parents. This was problematic as it would mean that a Dalit child whose father is a sewer cleaner would have to learn to clean sewers from his father.
But the idea of vocational education proposed in NEP 2020 is to expose ‘all children’ cutting across sections to various vocations – electric work, carpentry, gardening, metal work, pottery, etc when they are in grade 6-8 so that children learn the dignity of labour. The policy wishes to change the popular perception of vocational education which is currently seen as something inferior to the mainstream education by integrating vocational streams early in schools.
Critics argue that this would lead to underprivileged children many of whom drop out at class 8 or 10 to take up skill based jobs early on in their lives, which they say would restrict their academic and socio-economic mobility. In that case, how is the current system beneficial to those who drop out who have neither acquired academic skills nor vocational skills? The current system only pushes them into oblivion where these children end up doing unskilled labour work when they grow up. It is the current system that restricts their socio-economic mobility. Learning a skill would lead to both forward and backward linkages in the economy and would involuntarily result in upward mobility of disadvantaged communities.
It is to be noted that vocational education is accorded high priority in advanced economies. The United States has 52% of its workforce trained in formal vocational education while it is 75% in Germany and 96% in South Korea. If India has to reap its demographic dividend and become Atmanirbhar, it cannot afford to lose out on vocational education.
What may not work
Throughout the policy the word school complex is clubbed with schools. This shows the importance that the Kasturirangan Committee has attached to the idea. The concept of school complex was however mooted as early as 1966 by the Kothari Commission. It suggested two-tier integration where a middle school would be linked with primary schools in the first tier which would in turn be integrated with a secondary school of the area in the second tier. The Economic Survey 2018-19 also emphasised the need to merge schools to make them viable rather than build new ones. Similar to what was suggested by the Kothari Commission report, this policy suggests setting up school complexes consisting of one secondary school linked to other primary schools in the neighbourhood within 5-10 kilometers.
Before critiquing, let us see why the very idea of school complex finds place in this policy. According to U-DISE data of 2016-17, there are currently 1,05,352 single-teacher schools, with the majority of them being government schools (96,897) in rural areas. The policy says that these schools function at a sub-optimal level and have become operationally complex, in terms of allocating physical, financial and human resources. In view of this, school complex aims to bring in efficiency and effectiveness by sharing of resources and creating a community of teachers.
The idea of school complex might look reasonable on paper but is it really pragmatic? Will the children be brought to the secondary school to access education or will teachers from secondary schools go and deliver educational services in the neighbourhood primary schools? How will children get mid-day meals? How will playgrounds be accessed? How do we ensure teachers turn up after consolidation of schools given the problem of teacher absenteeism? In 2017, a study conducted by Azim Premji University revealed that teacher absenteeism hovers between 18-20% in primary and middle schools. These logistical issues need much more thought before going ahead with implementation. However, the policy leaves it to the wisdom of states by stating that the “State/UT governments may adopt innovative formats such as school complexes, rationalization of schools, etc for effective school governance”, implying that it is up to the states to go ahead with such a policy.
Any policy cannot be correct to the T. Policies are only frameworks for a government to put in place systems and programmes. The NEP 2020 acknowledges that education is a public service and quality education is a fundamental right of every citizen. The translation of this policy to practice should be guided by Gandhi’s Talisman – “Recall the face of the poorest and the weakest man/woman whom you may have seen, and ask yourself, if the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him/her.”