No country can ignore education, particularly if around 65% of its population are the youth. The risk otherwise is of converting its huge demographic dividend into a curse. Education plays a vital role in building any country. It is at the root of a strong economy. Even before independence, education was a topic of debate and discussion. Gandhiji's Nayi Taleem was a vision statement and instrument of change for independent India. Government of India did set-up Education Commissions which submitted their reports in 1966 and 1986 (modified further in 1992) to transform education and these did achieve some results. At the time of independence, the literacy rate in India was around 12% which rose to 75% at present; school going children in 1947 were around 18%, presently over 90% children go to schools. Despite these achievements, the truth of education in our country is that 4% of our children never start school, 58% do not complete primary schools and 90% do not complete school. The Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) published each year by Pratham shows the sad state of our education. With the Narendra Modi government coming to New Delhi on the high tide of aspirations and development, it was but obvious that it would work to transform the education landscape of the country. Also there have been many innovations and research in the field of education since the last Revised Education Policy of 1992. Ours is a digital world where technology influences every aspect of life and the Education Policy should mirror these changing times.
The education sector in the country has not always got the attention it needed by successive governments. School education and primary education in particular faced the brunt of this failure. Right from the First Five-Year Plan the focus had been on building higher education institutions. The inputs for the draft of New Education Policy, 2016 (from here on to be referred as draft) rightly analyses that without intervention at primary school level it is not possible to improve higher education in the country. Hence, the announcement to develop a New Education Policy brought in hope and was also a reflection of changing priorities.
A closer look at the draft reveals that it is in line with the Goal 4 of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which is to 'Ensure inclusive and quality education for all and promote lifelong learning'. The framers of the New Education Policy, 2016 claim that the "thrust of this policy is on quality of education, as the country has already been witnessing the benefits of on-going efforts for expanding access and increasing inclusion. Employability is a matter of great concern which also has been given due attention. Given the global changes and technological advancements, some new areas are also brought forth to realize the various objectives." It also tells that "the policy envisages broadening the scope of education to facilitate various pathways to learning depending on learners’ choice and potential and in relation with skills required for the world of work while ensuring recognition and certification of learning outcomes acquired by learners through formal and non-formal learning modalities, including open and distance learning modes."
It is heartening to see that the framers of the draft have recognized the concerns of the people related to education field and taken note of them. It talks about all the major concerns varying from pre-school education to curriculum, teacher training to school leadership, school governance and management to accreditation of schools and colleges & making entire processes more transparent and accountable. While these issues were addressed by previous policies too, one can hope that the detailed New Education Policy that would emerge out of the draft after due consideration would have implementable actions resolving these concerns. The draft also recognizes the federal nature of our Polity where formulation of strategies and plans are indicated at National, State and District levels but implementation happens at the local levels. This would give schools liberty to innovate and find solutions to problems which are unique to them.
For clear understanding of the draft here I shall restrict the analysis to Schools and School Education. School as an entity has multiple dimensions and therefore problems associated are also varying. But at the very core of a school lies the student, the teacher, learning environment, school leadership and the local community with which the school interacts. So to understand what this policy brings in for schools we need to understand what it has in store for these components.
The major challenge before policy makers was to bring students to school and make schools accessible for all. With the implementation of Sarva Sikhsa Abhiyan, enrolment in primary schools at present is around 96%. But statistics suggest that despite this, the absolute number of non-literates above the age of 7 in India is around 282.6 million as of 2011, the highest number of adult illiterates in the world.
The draft talks of challenges with regard to participation due to lack of pre-school education, retention of students after elementary education and their enrolment in secondary education. There is a huge population of out-of-school children in India. The draft also identifies urban poor, children of migrant labourers and girls apart from traditionally disadvantaged groups to be the worst sufferers.
The draft proposes to involve Aanganwadi workers and the existing infrastructure of schools to develop a program related to pre-school education. A child's capacity to learn is best during the early years and this plays an important role in developing skills for life-long learning. This gap in pre-school education also determines the gap in performance. Students belonging to socially and economically disadvantaged sections of the society usually suffer the most due to lack of pre-school education. For pre-school education, state governments would be required to prepare cadres and create facilities for in-service trainings. This suggestion was also a part of 1986 policy which talked of Early Childhood Care and Education but did not yield much result. We need a rigorous campaign like 'School Chale Ham' to create awareness about pre-school education.
To retain students after primary school and ensure they enrol for secondary education successful programmes like the Mid-Day Meal programme would be extended to cover students of secondary schools. Various studies have credited Mid-Day meal scheme for bringing in children to schools. The scope of the Right to Education Act is proposed to be extended to be age-appropriate for covering secondary level education. It also talks of Open school facilities for dropouts and working children like previous commissions suggested. For tribal children there is a provision to make instruction multilingual for sustaining interest in education. The draft talks about addressing regional imbalances by having differentiated policies for different terrains like hills areas, tribal areas, desert areas and coastal areas.
Many students face difficulty in schools as they suffer from learning disabilities, which goes undetected and causes poor academic performance. This affects the confidence of the child. The draft mentions these issues and talks of addressing them with the help of doctors and experts at school level.
A lot of students drop out of school as they see no link between what is being taught and its relevance in getting a job. The policy talks of linking school curriculum with vocational skills and developing a mechanism to certify various skills. Recognising that poverty and lack of resources act as an impediment for many students, a National Fellowship Fund to support tuition fees, learning materials and living expenses of economically weaker section students has been proposed.
The purpose of any policy is to facilitate ease and not act as hindrance in matters of access. The Right to Education Act is proposed to be amended to recognize alternative schools which offer interventions at local levels. Also, clause 12 (1) (c) of the RTE which talks of 25% reservation for the economically backward in schools would be amended to include government-aided minority institutions.
The teacher plays a central role in a student’s life. The role is not merely confined to completing the curriculum but goes beyond to building individuals of character. For this we need motivated persons as teachers. Any policy related to education has to address teacher issues. These largely include problems of non-transparent selection and lack of career opportunities. There is also a need for teacher training and assessment. These issues have plagued teacher performance for long and have not been duly addressed. Having said that, teacher absenteeism is also a serious concern for our country.
Mapping of schools not only for inadequate infrastructure but also for insufficient number of teachers in accordance with the subjects they teach is important. This would help in allocation of teachers in a transparent and effective manner. The draft recommends recruitment of teachers by independent commissions to bring in transparency and merit in selection. As regards disciplinary powers, they would be vested with the School Management Committees (SMCs) for primary schools; head teachers/ principals would deal with absenteeism and indiscipline for upper primary and secondary schools . Technologies like biometric devices would be used to deal with these issues.
The draft policy has provision for mandatory training for teachers every three years. Building Teacher Education Universities at national and local levels is a right step towards building quality teachers. Like other professions, teachers too need to constantly upgrade their skills and knowledge with changing times and introduction of new methodologies. These universities can also act in building India's soft power where India can provide quality teachers to the world. Here instead of creating separate universities for teachers, building centres of learning for teachers in the existing universities as state of the art facilities would give them more holistic view. Apart from teacher training, another important aspect that is left out due to strong teacher unions is teacher assessment. The draft talks of periodic assessment of teachers on skills and knowledge every five years.
The job of a teacher is often considered thankless. While there are teachers who put in huge effort despite the lack of support in the system, this is seldom reciprocated by the system or by the larger society. Teachers also need appropriate incentives for better performance. For this purpose the draft talks of awarding teachers not only at National level but also state and district levels. The New Education Policy should develop a method where the best practices used by awarded teachers are recorded and shared on open source platforms like the YouTube for everyone to access.
The draft also reiterates past policy decision of having Indian Education Services like other services. It is important that a part of such services be reserved for existing teachers. Such a move will create empathy for the job of a teacher in the administration and bring in domain expertise. Usually policy makers lack this empathy due to zero or non-significant exposure to ground realities. Also it would be a step ahead towards National Integration which the 1968 Education Policy envisioned.
Another relief for teachers mentioned in the draft is that they would no longer be involved with the task of supervising mid day meals; meals shall be provided through centralised kitchens. Though the very decision to have centralised or localised kitchens could be debated, there is no doubt that teachers should not be involved in supervision work, unrelated to teaching.
The learning environment largely includes building a safe environment for the child, effective curriculum and pedagogy, and a system of evaluation which does not merely assesses the rote skills and child's ability to reproduce content but also comprehensively and continuously assesses child's skills in both scholastic and co-scholastic domains. This includes building a system which not only promotes ability to learn but also unlearn and relearn to adapt with the changing times.
To create a safe learning environment for the child, self-learning online programmes on child rights is proposed to be developed for the benefit of students, teachers and parents. Schools would engage trained counsellors to confidentially advise parents and teachers on adolescence problems faced by growing boys and girls. There should be strict provisions against corporal punishment; this would include emotional harassment too.
As regards pre-school education the draft states that there is a need to develop curriculum which is not merely a downward extension of primary education but also focuses on cognitive and language skills. Even the school curriculum needs to be expanded to include life skills like creativity, critical thinking, communication and problem solving abilities.
To keep up with technology advancement in society, the draft talks of introducing digital literacy with focus on practical aspects of information and communication technology at earlier stages.
In a country as vast and diverse as India every region is unique and has a rich culture and history. The debates have gone on for long as to why a child in Nagaland or Kashmir or in the South should study history which is very Delhi centric. A very progressive step in the draft is that it talks of having a common national curriculum for subjects like Science, Math and English while only a part of the Social Science curriculum is common, designing the rest is at the discretion of States.
English medium education in schools has been for long at the centre of various debates. The draft offers a choice of instruction in mother tongue, local or regional language till primary education which is in accordance with the Right to Education Act and research worldwide. Simultaneously recognizing the importance of English language the draft also talks of having English as second language in primary education. The draft also talks about the importance of Sanskrit in the development of most Indian languages and hence the need to develop facilities for teaching it. It talks about using curriculum for national integration and harmony and at the same time addressing the issues of gender, social, cultural and regional disparities.
As regards school examinations go, the draft brings clarity on the much debated ‘No Detention Policy’ and talks of having it only till class V. No detention policy had been blamed for poor academic performance in elementary classes.
With multiple boards and varying examination patterns it is hard to get a comparative idea of student achievement levels across boards and across years. The draft talks of exploring methodologies which give a fair idea on academic achievement levels of students. Another far reaching proposal in the draft is addressing the high failure rate in class X. It has been noted that most failures in class X are in the subjects of Math, Science and English. Therefore the policy proposes to create two levels of difficulty for these subjects and students in accordance to their interest and future plan can take the exams accordingly. A prerequisite for implementing this proposal successfully is making the student aware of her interests and potential. Hence there is a scheme of aptitude tests of students to identify their interests and with help of experts exploring their potential over the period of school education.
There is no mechanism in India to assess and recognize prior learning skills and competencies. The draft talks about developing a mechanism to recognise and certify such skills. This would help in honing such skills and to develop entrepreneurship and improve employment opportunities.
The draft talks of setting up an Education Commission which would comprise of academic experts every five years to assist the Ministry of HRD in identifying new knowledge areas/ disciplines/ domains as well as pedagogic, curricular and assessment reforms at the global level, which will help to keep up with the change in global scenario and national aspirations. Also it recommends that periodic renewal of curricula and pedagogy be done by NCERT. Here involvement of State Boards is also very important.
School Leadership & Management:
There has been a growing realisation among experts that a School Principal/School Leader plays a very important role in building school culture and an environment of learning. There is a need to expand the role of school leader to improve school governance. The draft talks of articulating a school leader competency framework, introducing a robust and transparent process of selection of principals/head teachers and induction programme for school leaders, and providing opportunities for continuing professional development with well-defined pathways for career growth.Accountability also comes with responsibility. The school principals/head teachers would now be held accountable for the academic performance of the schools and its improvement. They shall be given security of tenure but would have to deliver results.
To make parents more aware of the schools and protect them from false claims and promises that schools make, the draft proposes developing a framework for evaluation, grading and ranking of schools. It talks of making the School Management Committees more transparent with clear guidelines for selection, tenure, role and responsibilities, ensuring their training and providing grants on time for School Development Plans.
But the draft falls short in both imagination and provisions for engaging the local community and the larger society. There is no provision in the draft to train parents for pre-school education or creating empathy in the society for the role of teacher and problems of schools. One step could have been to involve retired government officials/working professionals in teaching or making provisions for involving corporates to adopt schools.
The New Education Policy, 2016 has been the most widely deliberated education policy when compared with previous ones. The Committee headed by TSR Subramanian met some 500 experts and received 29109 suggestions. This report should be seen in continuity to previous reports which talk of the concerns of existing times. Like the 1986 report talked about Population Education, teaching students about family planning while this report has no mention of family planning. The draft on the other hand talks of present day concerns like physical and sexual abuse. It goes beyond inclusion and quality of education to include innovation. The committee like previous ones recognizes the fundamental importance of education in nation building and is designed to make India great again.
The draft has been widely accepted and well praised but has also been criticised on a few fronts. One of the major criticisms of the draft is that it has no achievable vision unlike previous reports. The draft talks a lot about lot many points but skips the specifics. It is hoped that after due deliberation, government develops a Policy which has achievable targets with a concrete roadmap. Unlike the 1986 report which talked separately about the Women, SC/ST and minorities, the draft makes no such categorisation. It has been claimed that the draft would dilute the RTE by including alternate schools. Also while the RTE has been extended to secondary schools, it is not clear why it does not include the entire school. The draft lays a lot of stress on Information and Communication Technology but it is important to realize that mere access to these technologies is no guarantee for better quality of education. Also the provision of having aptitude tests should in no way bracket or limit the child or the choices she makes in life. The draft also falls short on opening up our systems to international evaluation.
Late Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam used to say that " (W)e will be remembered only if we give to our younger generation a prosperous and safe India, resulting out of economic prosperity coupled with civilisational heritage. " The draft too strives to create an ecosystem which creates proud Indians and better individuals. The key though shall always lie on how well the draft shall be implemented on ground.
Aaditya Tiwari is Senior Research Fellow at India Foundation. The views expressed are his own.