In the modern world, education is viewed as a basic human right - a core necessity for individuals, social groups, nations and the human society. Ever since the Indian independence, the idea of education for all has been highlighted by various landmark committees and commissions. However, a study of previous reports and policies points to the fact that the educational journey of the country has been quite uneven. Many genuine aspirations have remained unrealised even after 73 years of independence. There has been no major restructuring of the school education system that forms the foundation of the learning process.
In India, the last national education policy was created in 1986. The world has witnessed significant changes over the last 34 years – from technological developments, alterations in world politics to the outburst of a sudden pandemic. In the meanwhile, India opened its economy after 1991 - which prompted a high demand for skills and knowledge. However, despite the economic liberalisation, no comprehensive national vision was conceived to address the shortcomings in the educational system. This is the context behind the formulation of the National Education Policy (NEP) that has been recently proposed by the Indian government.
Emphasis on ECCE
Until now, the Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) was unaddressed. The NEP states, “Over 85% of a child’s cumulative brain development occurs prior to the age of 6, indicating the critical importance of appropriate care and stimulation of the brain in the early years in order to ensure healthy brain development and growth.” The policy puts a great emphasis on language - stating that the medium of education until class five will be the mother tongue of the students. It proposed the structure of 5+3+3+4 assessment model for school education where three years of pre-schooling is also taken into account instead of the 10+2 model.
The policy also discusses about the special attention and priority needed for the districts and locations that are particularly socio-economically disadvantaged. It said, “ECCE shall be delivered through a significantly expanded and strengthened system of early-childhood education institutions consisting of (a) stand-alone Anganwadis; (b) Anganwadis co-located with primary schools; (c) pre-primary schools/sections covering at least age 5 to 6 years co-located with existing primary schools; and (d) stand-alone pre-schools - all of which would recruit workers/teachers specially trained in the curriculum and pedagogy of ECCE.”
Reacting to the policy, Rustom Kerawalla, Chairman, Ampersand Group, said, “The integration of co-curricular subjects will help students honour their hobbies and skills and make value addition in the areas of preference. Project-based learning, vocational learning at an early age and learning of life skills and inclusion of technology will help a child realise ambitions, gain multi-dimensional knowledge and universal skills and lay the foundation for higher education.”
Sugata Bose, Gardiner Professor of Oceanic History and Affairs, Harvard University, in his op-ed for The Telegraph, stated that the policy contains some acceptable prescriptions that is expected in any 21st century reformulation of perspectives on education. The choice of the mother tongue as the medium of instruction in primary schools and the move away from the rigid bifurcation between arts and science streams in high school are among the less argumentative features of the policy. However, Bose argued that English should be taught as a second language at the primary level in addition to having the regional language as the medium of instruction. He wrote, “An entire generation in Bengal suffered as a consequence of the Left Front government’s short-sighted decision to do away with English in primary school.”
Shalini Chakraborty, a teaching faculty from a reputed school in South Kolkata, told BE, “The medium of instruction through mother tongues till the fifth grade can be pose a challenge especially for the rural students when in higher classes they opt for choices like Data Sciences, Coding etc. This will also be a problem for the migrant population.”
One of the major problems in the prevailing schooling system is the dropout rates, especially in the higher grades. The policy states that one of the primary goals of the schooling system must be to ensure that children are enrolled in and are attending schools. Through initiatives like the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (now the Samagra Shiksha) and the Right to Education Act, India has made remarkable strides in recent years in attaining near-universal enrolment in elementary education. However, the data for later grades indicates some serious issues in retaining children in the schooling system. As per the policy, “The Gross Enrolment Ratio (GER) for grades 6-8 was 90.9%, while for Grades 9-10 and 11-12 it was only 79.3% and 56.5% respectively - indicating that a significant proportion of enrolled students drop out after Grade 5 and especially after Grade 8. The NEP stated that it will be a top priority to bring these children back into the educational fold as early as possible and to prevent further students from dropping out, with a goal to achieve 100% GER in pre-school to secondary level by 2030.
Subhra Chatterjee, Assistant Inspector of Schools, North 24 Parganas, West Bengal, while talking about the main challenges of the prevailing schooling system, told BE, “There is a scarcity of subject teachers in many schools. Many a time, it happens that a high school needs a particular subject teacher. However, a teacher from the general category cannot be appointed in that seat as it is a reserved seat. As a result, that seat lies vacant for years.”
The NEP has stated that teacher vacancies will be filled at the earliest and in a time-bound manner - especially in disadvantaged areas and areas with large pupil-to-teacher ratios or high rates of illiteracy. Special attention will be given to employing local teachers or those with familiarity with local languages. A pupil-teacher ratio (PTR) of under 30:1 will be ensured at the level of each school and areas having large numbers of socio-economically disadvantaged students will aim for a PTR of under 25:1.
Reacting to the policy, Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel told The Economic Times that nothing has been specified on strengthening physical infrastructure and teacher training. Chatterjee also pointed out that during this pandemic, students from rural areas had to suffer a lot due to the absence of proper electricity and internet connectivity. Throughout this Covid-19 phase, online education emerged as a major supplement to the offline mode of teaching. These infrastructural loopholes should be dealt with before the NEP is implemented or else the under-privileged will continue to suffer.
The dissolution of the rigid formation of arts, science and commerce streams in the policy has been appreciated by many. However, Prince Gajendrababu, General Secretary, State Platform for Common School System-Tamil Nadu, stated that while children living in urban privileged areas may find a new hobby in the vocational courses but students from rural areas, many of whose parents follow these professions, will be entrapped in these jobs. A report in The Indian Express quoted him saying, “The same way a singer’s child may pick up singing, a farmer’s child may pick up those skills at home. In an aspiration to break the vicious cycle of poverty, they send their children to school to acquire new skills to follow a different profession. It seems the government wants people to continue being in the same level without significant social mobility.”