National Education Policy: The Good, the Bad, and the Iffy

The new National Education policy has reiterated state’s long-standing commitment to 6% GDP, the holy grail of education finance in India.Photo: Shakeeb KPA/Maktoob

The new National Education policy is out after a long wait. Here is a quick take on top ten recommendations in relation to school education in this policy. These are categorised into what is good, bad, and iffy – provisions that are high on rhetoric but may be difficult to realise.

The Good

  1. Early Childhood Education (ECCE) and Foundational Literacy and Numeracy: The policy document asserts, “The rest of this Policy will become relevant for our students only if this most basic learning requirement (i.e., reading, writing,  and  arithmetic  at  the  foundational  level)  is  first  achieved.” The focus on ECCE, Foundational Skills, and restructuring of school structure to 5+3+3+4 must viewed in this light. It stipulates that every child should achieve foundational skills by grade 3. Other suggestions include setting up a national mission on foundational literacy and numeracy and engaging peers and community volunteers in this effort. The policy, however, shies away from a commitment to include ECCE under the ambit of RTE.
  • Multilingual education: Despite the controversies around imposition of Hindi and neglect of English, the policy has sensible provisions on the language issue by distinguishing between the learning of a language (e.g. English) and the medium of instruction. “All languages will be taught with high quality to all students; a language does not need to be the medium of instruction for it to be taught and learned well.”  This is complemented by a focus on local teachers and multilingual readers. The benefits of teaching in child’s home language in early years is very well established, so is the ability of a child to pick up multiple languages. Having English medium schools for children who do not have exposure to the language at home or in the community is dysfunctional, particularly for children from the marginalised social groups. This is evident when one visits any English medium government school or a low fee private school.
  • Teacher education: The shifting of teacher education within universities, a commitment to shutdown standalone B.Ed colleges, and converting NCTE to an advisory body (instead of an approving authority for new B.Ed colleges) are much needed reforms that  Justice J. S. Verma Commission has suggested way back in 2012. This will attack the issue of corruption and sub-standard quality of education in these colleges. The commitment to a four integrated B.Ed. would further professionalise the teaching cadre.
  • Institutional design: The unbundling of monitoring and policy making; finance and operations; regulatory; and academic standard setting function of education department proposed in this policy is an important move.  By divesting the responsibilities of approving and inspecting private schools to a State School Standards Authority (SSSA), it frees up the Directorate of School education to focus on managing government schools. Hopefully, the so-called “light but tight” regulation would also reduce corruption. Further, the policy “strongly recommends” setting of school complexes that comprise all schools within a radius of five to ten kilometres. This opens many interesting possibilities for government schools, like sharing of resources, that are not possible in the present structure.

The Bad

  • Informalisation and privatisation: There is thrust on encouraging “philanthropic and private sector” into school education. The new regulatory regime can also be looked upon as a provision to enable ease of doing ‘business’ for such schools. Private schools would now have significant autonomy in deciding there operational and academic matters. Further, the policy dilutes the requirement of formal schooling by encouraging alternative forms of schools, as well as informal and open schooling.  These provisions are problematic on multiple counts and go against long-standing policy commitments and violate the spirit of the Right to Education Act (RTE). Privatisation would further result in stratification of schools which moves us further from the ideal of a common school that was recommended by every policy document so far. One of the reasons for discouraging informal and open schooling in RTE was prevent students from marginalised communities to getting sub-standard in these non-formal centres. These idea of common schooling and commitment to minimum input standards are now at risk.
  • A conservative conception of citizenship:  Even while the policy text has tried to maintain a fine balance between progressive and conservative language, the right-wing leaning of the peers through. Multiple hagiographic references to “the rich heritage of ancient and eternal Indian knowledge and thought” and values such as “seva, ahimsa,  swachchhata,  satya,  nishkam  karma” stand out in the text.  More striking is a conception of citizenship that privileges fundamental duties and national pride over that of right bearing individual and encumbered state. None of these are problematic in themselves, but a careful textual analysis of the text is likely to reveal a distinct shift in the idea of citizenship to that of an all-embracing state that commands its subjects to observe their duties. This becomes salient in the context of state response to recent student agitations.
  • Overemphasis of learning outcomes: Despite the rhetoric of reducing assessment load, this policy promotes high stakes testing. While ongoing formative assessments to support a child’s learning are useful, name and shame high stakes assessment have proven to be dysfunctional in most countries. One may read the horrors of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) policy in the USA to get a glimpse of what is at stake here. Now grade three is an additional grade (other than grade five and eight that were introduced in a recent RTE amendment) where a child can be detained. The use of learning outcomes derived from National and State Achievement Surveys to rank schools and states is likely to start a chain of events where teaching to the test (and not holistic education as this policy recommends) would be the norm. It is not difficult to imagine Indian parents in a new rate race to have their children categorised as ‘gifted’ to avail of gifted education that the policy promises. All this is going to put tremendous pressure on the students, and those from the marginalised sections of the society would be biggest losers.

The Iffy

  • Public investment in education: The policy has reiterated state’s long-standing commitment to 6% GDP, the holy grail of education finance in India. That we have never achieved this in any of our seventy years since independent is telling.  The policy text hedges its bets by claiming “The Centre and the States will work together to increase the public investment in Education sector to reach 6% of GDP at the earliest.”The current fiscal situation makes this extremely unlikely in the foreseeable future. In absence of this funding, many of the recommendations of this policy would be a dead letter right from its inception.
  • Multidisciplinary and holistic development: The policy laudably emphasises that removing of artificial boundaries between academic and vocational, curricular and cocurricular, science, and humanities education. Experience in implementing NCF 2005 has demonstrated that achieving this would require re-culturing of the entire education system and societal attitudes. This is a mammoth task, and policy provisions do not inspire confidence that the state is set up for this task. Only tangible result of this is likely to be the abolition of streaming in grades eleven and twelve into science, commerce, and humanities.
  1. Equity and Inclusion: The policy has some interesting inclusions and exclusions with respect to socio-economically disadvantaged groups. Transgenders as a category appears for the first time in an education policy text. There are progressive provisions for children with disabilities that align with The Rights of Persons with Disabilities (RPWD) Act 2016. Thankfully, there is no mention of abolishing 25% reservation for socio-economically disadvantaged groups in private schools mandated by RTE. It also reiterates continued support to established mechanisms such as Ashram Shala and Navodaya Vidyalaya that are targeted to these groups contrary to what was suggested in the Draft NEP. One as to wait to see how provisions like the gender equity fund and special educational zones pan out.  However, madrassas modernisation finds no mention in the policy text. Despite all this, the one is left with an impression that an opportunity for a radical rethinking on schooling of these groups was missed out in this policy. We have had similar provisions for quite some time now, but the educational status of these groups is anything but satisfactory.  The policy text does not inspire confidence that the situation would change substantially in near future.

The author is a faculty with School of Education, Azim Premji University. He can be reached at [email protected]