Ever since the enactment of the Right to Education Act, 2009, I have been interested in issues related to education, in particular, education of the poor. My interest was also due to my association with Deepalaya, a premier Delhi-based NGO, engaged in education of children from vulnerable communities. The announcement of the passing of the National Education Policy 2020, on Wednesday 29 July 2020, was a happy news for me.
Structured in 4 parts (‘School Education’, ‘Higher Education’, ‘Other Key Areas of Focus’ and ‘Making It Happen’) and 27 chapters, the Policy document runs into 65 pages. My purpose in this article is to deal with the aspects that appealed to me and to dwell briefly on a few of my concerns, primarily with reference to School Education.
Overall, the National Education Policy 2020 (NEP) proposes to discourage “rote learning” and encourage “critical thinking”. This is a fundamental reform long awaited. Coming to the other notable features, what strikes me most is the proposal to make Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) an integral part of school education. So far, it has not been an essential part of school education. Some private schools have been conducting one or two years of ‘nursery’ before the child is formally admitted to Primary School.
As part of the ICDS (Intensive Child Development Services) programme, Anganwadis have been imparting some lessons in language – often mother tongue or local language – and rudimentary arithmetic, but this not substitute to ECCE. Considering that development of a large part of a child’s brain takes place in the first six years, this is an extremely desirable reform.
The Policy stipulates that by the end of Grade 3, every child must acquire foundational literacy and numeracy, so that it would be easier to follow what is taught in subsequent grades. Year after year, the Annual Survey of Education Report brought out by Pradham, a premier NGO specialized in assessing learning outcomes in children, brings the sad news that less than half of the students in Class V can read a paragraph or do an addition/subtraction of Class III level.
The proposal to end hard separation of secondary school curriculum into Science, Arts and Commerce would enable students to have sufficient flexibility in their choice. The pupil-teacher ratio is fixed at 30:1 and in backward areas at 25:1. Although several Government Schools now have less number of students in each class, that is mainly due to the fact that many children, even children from economically poor families, shift to private schools, because of the poor quality of teaching in Government Schools. In Private Schools, number of children per class varies from 50 to 55. The proposed ratio will enable the teacher to give sufficient attention to each child.
The section dealing with integration of Vocational Education particularly appealed to me, although I am curious as to how the Government would address the issue of ‘low social status’ accorded to vocational education, in general, in Indian societies. I am reminded of what I witnessed in a BBC programme, during my stay with my son’s family in London. That was a programme titled “Who wants to be a Millionaire”, similar to Amitab Bachan’s KBC programme. I was surprised to hear that the man who won half a million pounds, was a plumber by profession. The facts relevant here are (a) how a man working as a plumber had so much knowledge to answer questions from science, history, geography, arts, sports etc. (b) will the students in India who take a degree in Vocational Education, will get jobs with as much salaries as a lecturer/engineer/doctor/bank official gets, and, if not, will the students take such classes seriously (c) whether somebody with that much knowledge, implying one who is at least a Graduate, if not a Post graduate, will take up a profession like ‘plumbing’.
The target of ‘foundational literacy and numeracy’ by Grade 3, to be achieved by 2025, is another fact that gladdened me, “as the rest of this Policy will become relevant for our students only if this basic learning requirement is first achieved”. Besides, 2025 is not that far! Seventh, those who are concerned about school education, complain of teachers being frequently assigned non-teaching tasks like census enumeration, election duty etc. Such people, like me, will be happy to read the emphatic statement that teachers will no longer be assigned non-teaching jobs.
The policy, however, is mysteriously silent about the most worrying of problems – the teachers in Government School, are not teaching at all. As Gurucharan Das says in his article (“One and a half Cheers” in TOI 3/8/20), “one of four teachers is absent in State schools across India, and one in two who are present, is not teaching. This is not because teacher salaries are low – starting salary in UP last year was Rs 48,918/- p.m. or 11 times UP’s per capita income”. A few years back, I made a casual visit to a Government School in Shaharanpur, along with a Priest of the local Catholic Parish, as he had to meet the Headmaster of the school. I was astonished to find a few teachers playing cards under the shadow of a tree in the school compound, while the children were shouting and playing in the class! While the Policy shifts emphasis from ‘inputs’ to ‘outcome’, it would have been better if there were a provision to hold each teacher responsible to ensure the expected learning outcome in each students he/she teaches, to be tested by higher authorities from time to time. Nevertheless, it is heartening to note that there is a provision for a periodic ‘health check-up’ of the system, with reference to the learning levels of students sampled from Government and Private Schools, to be done by the National Assessment Centre.
I am associated with a few NGOs engaged in education of poor children. Quite a number of children studying in their ‘Learning Centres’ are first generation learners. Their parents are unable to guide or encourage them at home. It doesn’t even occur to them that they should remind the children to do their home work. If the teachers in the school spare some time after school hours and help such students to do their home work, it will help a lot in the children catching up with what is taught in the class. In fact, one NGO I am associated with is taking such a trouble. I wish there were such a provision in the NEP. After all, our goal is ‘Education for All’, which was to be achieved by 2015!
According to Government’s own data, out of 100 children admitted in Class 1, only 17 pass out of Class 12, taking children from all sections of our society into account. If we break down the figure, says Anil Sadagopal, a reputed Educationist, in his article published in “Frontline” of 7/8/15, “only 6% of tribal children, 8% of Dalit children, 9% of Muslim children and 10% of children from Other Backward Communities, cross Class 12”. Most of the children, especially girls, from these sections drop out long before they reach Class 10. The NEP talks of expansion and strengthening of ‘Open & Distance Learning Programmes’, ‘National Institute of Open Schooling’ and ‘State Open Schools’. How far these measures will address this vital issue is to be seen.
The title “Making It Happen” of Part IV of the document indicates that the Government is determined to meet this challenge. This is accentuated by the statement that progress in implementation of the Policy is to be evaluated every year jointly by the Centre and States. Crucial to “Making it Happen” is the financial means. The document says that Centre and the States together will raise the estimated ‘6% of GDP’. 6% of GDP is the figure estimated by the Kothari Commission in 1964 at the time of formulating the 1st Education Policy, which was much less ambitious than the present one. The fact is also that our yearly allocation has varied from 3 to 4.3% only over the years, during various political dispensations. Let us hope that this time the Government will meet the challenge.
• The writer is a Development Consultant and can be reached at email@example.com