Reflections on Policy Reforms in the Draft National Education Policy 2019

Kasturirangan Committee submits the New National Education Policy Draft to the Union HRD

Dr Manisha Priyam
On the eve of the new Ministry led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi taking charge a draft of the new Education Policy 2019 was put on the Ministry’s website for public deliberations and comments. The measure represented both continuities of efforts between the outgoing ministry and the new, as also a clear affirmation of the high policy priority to be accorded to education in Modi’s new government. Barely had the dust gathered in the elections begun to settle down, that the people are now invited to see an agenda in a blueprint. I must begin by acknowledging that the country last put together a national education policy over three decades ago in 1986, under then Prime Minister Rajeev Gandhi. The tenets of this policy were founded in then-current exigencies of educational under-development, particularly the concentration of educational lags in the erstwhile “BIMARU” states—a demographic phenomenon represented in gendered inequalities of access in disadvantaged social castes and tribes.
Much has changed since then, with a near-universal access to schooling even in remote areas, a constitutionally mandated right to education, and equity and access considered the cornerstone of educational policy planning.
The contemporary urgency is one of thinking about a rich quality education at all levels, given India will be home to the world’s largest population of the young. Given the demographic dividend, the one sure way in which this can be turned into an advantage is by addressing the global standards in scientific learning, even as it recognises the strengths and drawbacks from locally embedded issues. Learning happens in a context—and the one singular reality of the Indian context is the extreme poverty of a majority of its school and college going learners, embedded as they are in their inherited status of social caste or tribe, and a population that grows up in a plural culture, speaking a diversity of languages.
Given this context, how well do the tenets of the proposed policy fare in addressing challenges? Has the implementation ladder been thought through? And where possibly can the pitfalls lie? Firstly, the composition of the committee merits some attention—its leadership under a space scientist of repute, and eminent mathematician of global repute, a member from the country’s first all women’s university, as also those who could represent the point of view the disadvantaged social castes, tribes, and the minority communities. With a holistic overview and reflection on all stages of learning, the report is, in the words of its Chairman Kasturirangan, an attempt to change the “entire educational landscape”.
The first opening suggestion is for childhood to be treated in a holistic way, by doing away the mechanical division of childhood into a pre-school group (0-6 years) and, thereafter a school going one. The report recommends covering the entire chain of childhood under the statutory obligation of the RTE. Further, the report recognises that almost the entire cognitive development of the brain happens at this early stage, and early school preparedness is essential for achieving quality learning in schools. Therefore, this integration is the first step toward averring the goal of quality learning—the real promise of education to childhood. Systems are to be aligned with this goal—the ICDS centres are to be co-located with schools, guidelines are to be made for health, nutrition, and
cognitive development of children in the 0-3 and 3-8 age-group. Given the reality that a number of such
centres run in additional rooms alongside schools in remote rural areas, and have a convergence with school resources, the Aanganbadi centres will no longer be accorded informal or step-motherly treatment by the field presence of the Education Department. Besides, the Aasha workers are the hands and feet of the school and the state, reaching out to mothers and communities even in inaccessible rural areas. How the real merger of the two different line Departments of Child Development and Education will be happening in the diverse realities of Indian states, is yet to be seen.
The second opening note is the focus on learning—the potential of childhood is to be realised with quality learning. With an emphasis on play-based and activity based learning at an early stage, realising the competencies of literacy and numeracy, fostering learning to enhance critical learning, alongside envisaged flexibility of choice for the learners receive the priority attention of the policy. With this emphasis on quality, the state and its public provision of education will no longer rely on supply-side provision alone. By 20125, every student in grade 5 and beyond should have achieved foundational literacy and numeracy skills, performing basic mathematical operations and develop the ability to comprehend basic texts. The World Development Report 2018 in fact notes that education without learning and skills is not just a waste of human resources; it is an injustice that perpetuates poverty and exclusion. Some concrete suggestions here include the creation of a teacher’s portal-DIKSHA, tutors resources, and remedial courses.

An important aspect of the report is its ability to translate each stated goal into an objective and envision a stated blueprint of inputs to achieve the same. In order to achieve the goals of learning with quality in literacy and numeracy, it recommends a reduction of curricular load and expanding learning choices, especially by recognition of the rich repository of multi-lingual traditions in India. It suggests education in the mother tongue, exposure to three or more languages in schools, and teaching in a bilingual way. Given that English is still spoken and understood by a meagre 15 per cent of the population, any attempt at egalitarian learning provision needs to recognise this structural burden of colonialism. It further recommends, textbooks in regional languages, acquisition of local skills and art, even if local tutors have to be appointed for the same.
The most immediate negative political reactions on the approach of multilingualism came from the state of Tamil Nadu which saw this as a way of central imposition of Hindi—a policy measure that the state has opposed. The clarifications by the MHRD make it clear that the recommendations of the NPE 1968, 1986, and the NCF 2005 with respect to the three- language formula will continue.
Teachers are the key to implementing this vision of quality learning. The draft NPE 2019 is realistic in accepting that teacher education and professionalism are in a crisis. The approach of the NEP here is to call for a thorough institutional revamp, including the closure of poor quality teacher education shops as by 2030, it calls for all teacher education to be housed in Universities with a four- year programme rich in content, pedagogy, and practicum. If implemented well, this measure could revamp teacher professionalism and school quality as the experience of high achievers on global school tests such as PISA, for example, Finland, is simply that they invest in teacher professionalism. Some of the best University graduates take to teaching in schools. The profession of a teacher is to impart learning to think in a critical way—and this comes from engaged learning of the subjects and pedagogy in a liberal University environment. It also makes a bold statement asking for stopping all recruitment of para-teachers by 2022, a measure that this author has consistently opposed for its poor quality and lack of professionalism (p.123). Teachers are also to be given professional workspaces in schools, or school complexes, including internet facilities, and opportunities for continuous professional development. The report recommends the provision of a ladder for professional advancement to becoming teacher educators and administrators, so that teaching is viewed as a full profession and not a career meant for stagnation.
It must be said in all fairness, that the drafting committee has been cognizant of all the relevant research and ideas for policy reforms in the field of school and teacher education—global as well as that based on national experience. The singular challenge will be policy implementation through a plethora of state-specific federal instrumentalities and arrangements. Also, in the complex federal arrangement that we have, the centre is responsible for providing the pool of ideas, and the resources. Implementation remains the domain of the state—especially teacher recruitments. Here, while standards setting is done by the centre, how it will motivate state political leaders and their bureaucracies is the singular challenge. For any measure of policy reform to move beyond being a shiny technical idea, or even a thorough document, it is the labyrinth of implementation that it must finally navigate.

(The writer has a doctorate in International Development and Education Policy Reforms from the London School of Economics, and is a Senior Academic)