The National Education Policy 2020, which came out last month had been a much-awaited document. When I started reading it, I had two scanners running simultaneously in my mind. One was the lens of a parent to two children attending a reputed school in the capital city and the second was of a development sector enthusiast passionate about the cause of equality in quality education for every child of her country.
As a parent, I felt heard. I found an acknowledgement of many of my concerns – the unnecessary stress due to the examination pressure, repetitive curriculum and rote learning in the current system. It advocates an open and multidisciplinary experiential approach towards learning. In that sense, NEP 2020 gave me an aspirational feeling. However, a closer look and on reading the subtext, NEP 2020 as a vision confounded me about the basic premise of being projected as India's resolve to provide equitable education. It also seemed to be disconnected with the present ground reality on many fronts. It felt necessary to pause and assess this euphoria around a grand vision with some deeper reflection -
No clarity on the status of Right to Education
Right to Free Education which was passed in 2009 and implementation of it started in 2010, established the duty of the state to provide free and compulsory education for all its children from 6-14 years of age, basically till class 8th. We are in 2020 and RTE is still a law. However, NEP 2020 doesn't treat it as the baseline. Yes, it does talk about universalising education from pre-school to the 12th and adds that suitable facilitating systems will be put in place, but it confuses by not stating clearly that RTE would be extended upwards or downwards. By relegating RTE as a past initiative, there is an impression to universalise education on the surface only but no clarity on how it will be achieved and ensured. There are millions of children who would be less than six years of age and the preparatory education sector operates in a pretty unregulated manner. Thus, without forcing the plans to come under the purview of a legal act like RTE, this would be a lofty idea put on paper without a legal underpinning for the states. A promise done without much thought on implementation details and the huge costs. It is sad and concerning that, an education policy document of the 21st century which is being advocated as forward-looking seems to bring closure to the dilution of an important law like RTE in this way.
The impetus to privatisation and unsustainable alternate school models
Even in a state like Delhi, there is a high percentage of low-income private schools which have mushroomed like anything in the past decade or so. The reasons have been the poor infrastructure of the state-run schools as well as the bias towards the quality being better in the private setups. Recent pandemic has shown how these setups are an unsustainable option in the long term as they are run on a low budget and cannot survive in such crisis, leave apart the quality education. Because NEP 2020 is silent on RTE and how universalisation will be achieved, it seems to be making provisions for the proliferation of such schools when it says "restrictions with regard to infrastructure and inputs of all kinds will be relaxed to allow non-government philanthropic organisations and alternative models of schools to come and set up and enable universalisation". With this ambiguous and open-ended statement, the NEP 2020 seems to be encouraging not just the low fee-paying schools but also other options such as ideologically driven and one teacher schools which have seen a splurge in recent times, something which doesn't go well with the pluralistic fabric of our country. Secondly, the policy's thrust on privatization especially in higher education may act as a deterrent for education equalities and vistas for the disadvantaged and marginalized students.
Encouraging ghettoization – One basket of Socioeconomically disadvantaged groups
Education can act as a great leveller taking care of the social and economic inequities. The NEP 2020 puts all the marginalised categories -SC, ST, OBC, minorities, the poor and disability (even special needs children) in one basket and calls them Socioeconomically disadvantaged groups. It is strange that a policy of education of the country disregards the constitutional categories and ignores the differences which exist in these marginalised groups which constitute more than 80% of India's population. For these groups, it suggests Special Education Zones and provisions segregating the school system and teacher education system from the non-Special Education Zones. This includes community-led volunteering, peer tutoring, special certification courses for teachers in these zones which are different from the 4-year integrated model. This may further exacerbate the socio-economic inequalities, thus marginalising the already marginalised communities further. The Kothari commission had suggested a Common School system model wherein children from various economic and social strata studied together. In effect, a beautiful concept which if implemented well could set a foundation of an inclusive society right from the school. However, it is strange that even when stating a vision of education for the next decade and claiming equity as its underlying principle, NEP2020 fails to mention Common school system, rather suggests ways which shall exacerbate not just social and economic but also educational inequalities.
The state of teachers' education and disconnect with the ground reality
I was expecting that as a policy document, NEP shall start from where we are, build on what we have and address the gaps that we have, which is amiss with NEP 2020. A case in point is no mention of lakhs of teachers' vacancies, of lack of adequately trained teachers and the problem of contractual teachers. 2019 draft of Education Policy had mentioned that there are over 10 lakh teacher vacancies in the country and a large number of teachers who aren't adequately trained and then there are contractual teachers. NEP 2020 just excuses itself completely ignoring this fact.
Another important miss is the recommendations of The Justice Verma Commission which was constituted by the Supreme Court of India and had submitted its report in 2012. Based on which major reforms were made in 2014 around teacher education, duration of programs and the curricula.
The JVC had recommended clearly that there should be just a face-to-face teacher education program, however, NEP2020 makes provision for online programs as well. Secondly, it was flagged that 95% of teacher's institutes were in the private sector and the state should invest more in building on it because RTE couldn't be implemented given the lack of institutional capacity to train teachers. NEP2020 misses on that point completely. JVC had also recommended that there should be two-year programs after graduation and 4-year integrated program but NEP 2020 proposes a singular model program for 4 years integrated for preparatory, primary, middle, a secondary school which seems out of place. How can the foundational aspects of all the levels be same, can we expect a secondary teacher to be trained with the same knowledge base as of the preparatory?
The question of Curricula
How should a pluralistic country decide upon the curriculum in its schools? Can it be a universal curriculum? A curriculum is essentially a discourse inside live classrooms where source materials are discussed using local culture as a medium. NEP2020 hints on a homogenized and standardized curriculum something on the lines of a "national curricula" based on the principles of NEP2020 which doesn't do justice to respecting the diversity of our nation. Also, when we speak about curriculum reduction, is this deletion of the aspects which drive our pluralistic essence. The policy doesn't talk about fundamental rights but just duties, one wonders if this homogenization of curriculum is with a certain purpose and agenda?
Denigrating the role of Social and emotional skills vis-à-vis teachers and students
India ranks at 144th position out of 156 countries when it comes to Happiness Index. The NEP document misses on putting a spotlight on raising a happy generation of individuals with strong social and emotional skills. The purpose of education should be to shape an individual with an equal focus to all the three pillars – academic, social and emotional. There has been a rapid increase in the cases of disorientation and suicide amongst Indian youth. Sad but true NEP 2020 fails to put a spotlight on the mental health with just very oblique references and inclusion of some of the life skills as soft skills. There is neither a definitive plan nor any concrete steps. Also, it misses on an important opportunity to suggest ways to nurturing the esteem of teachers and their role in nation-building, isn't that happy teachers raise happy children? What we need is a good teacher education which can empower them to take a spontaneous decision and enable children to link the social milieu around them with what they are studying.
Way Forward - We need to keep questioning
NEP 2020 is an ambitious vision but fails to address the issues of inequality at various levels, rather suggests proposals which may exacerbate education inequality. It seems to be sitting on a cloud, speaking of an ideal situation which is disconnected with the present and misses on the details around the implementation.
The purpose of education should be to raise a happy generation which is empathetic, compassionate and also questions. When we talk of reforms, we cannot afford to create a disconnect of students, teachers and the school system with the past and current social context of the country. As conscious parents and citizens invested in the future of education, let's not feel complacent by the surface grandeur of the vision but keep watching and questioning its implementation and intent.
About the author: Anjali G Sharma is a published author, social activist and a development sector enthusiast. She currently leads the Education initiatives for North India at Charter for Compassion. You can find her on Twitter and LinkedIn.