Over the past couple of years, India has made substantial progress on the access to education front. Government initiatives like the mid-day meal scheme, Beti Bachao, Beti Padao Yojana, Sarva Shiksha Abhiyaan have increased enrollment rates to more than 99% for primary education. However, the quality of India’s education system has been widely criticized for its lacklustre approach towards skill development and enhancement of critical thinking.

The focus has now shifted to ensuring that Indian students are imparted with the relevant skills that will allow them to be contributing members of the workforce, thereby serving as essential cogs in the wheel of development. India’s demographic dividend presents a lucrative opportunity, however, this latent human capital can only prove advantageous if proper infrastructure is provided and skill gaps are bridged.

A step forward in this direction is the new draft of the National Education Policy 2019. The draft brings with it a promise of a brighter future for Indian education with bold reforms and significant restructuring. K Kasturirangan, The Chair of the Committee responsible for drafting the NEP and former Chairman of ISRO, describes his vision for Indian education as “encompassing the holistic development of students with special emphasis on the development of the creative potential of each individual, in all its richness and complexity.”

 

Early Childhood Care and Education

The policy starts with an intent to establish a strong foundational base in the primary years through what it calls “Early Childhood Care and Education” or ECCE. This draws on the well-established and scientifically proven assertion that children who start out behind tend to stay behind. Due to greater access to resources, opportunities, nutrition and a strong learning environment at home, children born to affluent families tend to have a considerably large head start over those born to disadvantaged families. This creates a vicious cycle whereby inequality leads to greater inequality and this trend continues for generations to come. According to the National Achievement Survey (NAS) 2017 conducted by NCERT, 33% of students in Grade 3 cannot read smaller texts with comprehension and 44% of students in Grade 3 cannot use basic math to solve daily problems. This learning gap only widens in higher grades. Thus, improving foundational learning is essential for improved academic performance and lower dropout rates in the future.

According to the policy, quality ECCE entails access to health and nutrition of both the mother and child prior to the age of 3 as well as cognitive, kinetic and emotional stimulation for the kid. During the ages of 3-6, this includes play-based education to develop comfort around one’s peers, self-help skills such as getting ready on one’s own and moral development or a basic understanding of the difference between right and wrong. Overall, ECCE focuses less on rigid curriculum-based rote learning and more on the development of values such as compassion, playfulness, curiosity and respectful communication.

The implementation of ECCE resolves around the system of Anganwadis. These rural child care centres have come a long way in providing nutrition and healthcare to mothers and their infants, however, there is a need to include a robust educational dimension in these centres. On the other hand, most private pre-primary schools lack what Anganwadis make up for in terms of healthcare. The policy thus calls for the expansion of the Anganwadi system to include a strong educational component. As per the committee’s guidelines, a four-pronged approach will be followed to deliver the newly formed Curricular and Pedagogical Framework for Early Childhood Education, which includes growth targets and guidelines for both parents and children.

Depending on the needs of the locality as well as the infrastructure available, one of the following four approaches will be adopted – Expanding Anganwadis to include a strong educational component, developing Anganwadis in the vicinity of primary schools, co-locating pre-schools with primary schools or building stand-alone pre-schools.

Since the aim of the ECCA program is to serve as an equalizer, greater attention and priority will be accorded to the socio-economically disadvantaged. These efforts will be supplemented by educator training programs, greater funding allocations and installation of learning-friendly environments. Another long-awaited step that has been suggested is to include free and compulsory pre-primary education for children of the ages 3-6 under the ambit of the Right to Education Act.

ECCE aims to tackle the holes in India’s education system at the grassroots level. Improving the quality of education at the primary and pre-primary level is also a more cost-effective solution to the problem, as it is easier to fix learning gaps during the early years. In fact, UNESCO projects a fiscal cost of 10% of the total expenditure on primary education if the problem persists. Several other countries such as Vietnam, South Africa and Kenya have been prioritizing the improvement of foundational learning through extensive teacher training. ECCE marks an essential shift in focus from one set of all-important exams conducted in the last year of schooling to steady and sustained learning for a longer time.

Efforts under ECCE will also help achieve the policy’s second objective – foundational literacy and numeracy for every student in Grade 5 and beyond. These efforts will be supplemented by an expansion of the mid-day meal programme, provision of workbooks on language and mathematics, increasing focus on foundational literacy and numeracy in schools, ensuring proper teacher development, regular adaptive assessment, encouraging large scale community and volunteer involvement etc.

Moreover, there are plans to develop a national repository of language and mathematics resources which will be used in the National Tutors Programme, a peer to peer learning initiative, as well as the Remedial Instructional Aides Programme, an initiative to help students who have fallen behind catch up with the assistance of instructional aides. These efforts along with the extension of the RTE Act to cover secondary education will help decrease India’s problematic dropout rate.

 

A Structural Change in Curriculum and Pedagogy

Another major task taken up by the policy includes restructuring 10+2 framework into a 5+3+3+4 design corresponding to the ages ranges of 3-8, 8-11, 11-14 and 14-18. A recommendation welcomed by several educators, the new structure will include 5 years of the foundational stage which incorporated ECCE, 3 years of the primary stage, the focus of which will be on laying the general groundwork across subjects as well as imparting foundational literacy and numeracy, 3 years of the middle stage in the course of which specific subject teachers will be introduced and finally 4 years of the secondary stage which will include multidisciplinary study with greater depth, critical thinking and flexibility.

The policy exerts great emphasis on the importance of imparting Indian and local traditions through education as well as the benefits of teaching in the home language or mother tongue at least in the early stages. The document asserts that the cognitive benefits of multilingualism aside, children grasp concepts more quickly when taught in the language they speak at home. Ironically, it was over the matter of language that the NEP found itself in a bind when it was first released. The controversy stemmed from the discontent of southern states regarding BJP’s alleged attempt to impose Hindi on non-Hindi speaking states through the NEP.

While the BJP and its allies have a notorious reputation of attempting to saffronise Indian education, the debate on the NEP was largely ill-informed. Nowhere in its 400+ pages does the NEP refer to Hindi as India’s “national language”. In fact, it provided a repetition of the three-language formula that had already been in place while also promoting instruction in the home or regional language at the primary stages. However, following the protests, a revised draft of the National Education Policy was released which dropped Hindi as a requirement and encouraged Hindi speaking states to offer and teach other modern Indian languages to promote national integration.

In addition to the obvious cognitive benefits of multilingualism, these efforts aim to bridge the gap between the elite and the disadvantaged by slowly but surely chipping away at the notion of English being a prerequisite for high paying jobs, or even to be considered educated. Although English will be taught for functionality as evidently English has become an international common language in certain realms such as science and technology research, the depth of literature, art and culture should be explored through Indian languages.

It appears that the proposed changes and additions in the curriculum aim to eradicate the common cry of all students regarding not being taught anything that they will end up using in the “real world”. Although this reiteration is a tad unfair, considering even traditional subjects build critical thinking abilities and directly or indirectly have some real-world application, it is safe to say that Indian education lacks essential courses on life skills, digital literacy, vocational exposure, evidence-based learning, current affairs and ethical and moral reasoning. Students with sufficient resources and time to take extra classes may end up bridging these gaps of their own accord, however, this only widens the achievement gaps that we talked about earlier. Extra material and information on the internet is more often than not available only in English and there is a great lack of quality translations. Hence the draft policy, rightly so, attempts to integrate these courses in the formal education system thereby equipping schools with the right tools to provide a holistic education.

A suggestion that will come as a sigh of relief to those that dread the all-important Board Exams will aim to eliminate their “high stakes” aspect. As per the document: “Students will be expected to take a total of at least 24 subject Board Examinations, or on average three per semester, and these examinations would be in lieu of in-school final examinations so as not to be an additional burden on students or teachers.” Some of these include compulsory examinations subjects such as mathematics, science, Indian history, economics, ethics and philosophy etc. while a total of 15 or more subjects will be chosen by the student himself and will be tested locally by the school. There will be minimal segregation of science and arts streams with greater flexibility in choosing different combinations of subjects. Moreover, it aims to change the “one size fits all” approach to education by supporting children who have singular talents.

 

The Role and Training of Teachers

The question of how these reforms will pan out will remain a moot point if the country is unable to develop the appropriate infrastructure to support such changes. An essential element of this infrastructure includes professionally trained and skilled educators that will be able to make the ground reality of these reforms a success. The quality of India’s teachers and their training is far from ideal. The problems start with how we recruit teachers and spans to a lack of incentive to take up the occupation. As teachers form the backbone of the education system and are largely responsible for the successful implementation of any educational reform, the NEP seeks to ensure that students are taught by trained, suitably equipped and passionate teachers.

Teachers will be recruited through a highly rigorous and transparent process which will compulsorily involve interviews as well as in-class demos. A strict ratio will be maintained along with sufficient diversity amongst the teaching staff. Overstaffing as well as understaffing will be avoided at all costs by preparing a comprehensive teacher requirement plan and funding will be allocated accordingly. Additionally, teachers will witness an increase in incentives to teach in rural areas, a slow down of the current pattern of frequent teacher transfers, less administrative burden due to compulsory participation in non-teaching activities such as electioneering, cooking midday meals etc. as well as the implementation of a robust merit-based appraisal and promotion system.

Teachers’ education is being taken as seriously as that of students. Providing flexibility, quality course materials and online resources for training is just as important for teachers as it is for students. The document quotes that “Teacher education for all levels will take place within the university / higher education system as a stage-specific, 4-year integrated Bachelor of Education (B.Ed.) programme that combines high-quality content, pedagogy, and practical training.” Over and above that the option of a 2-year B.Ed. programme will also be provided for lateral entry into the profession. A crackdown on substandard and corrupt teacher training institutes with poorly performing programmes has been planned in order to weed out unqualified teachers to a great extent.

 

Equity and Inclusion

Finally, to ensure that these reforms benefit all sections of society in an equitable fashion, the NEP lays the groundwork for an inclusive education system. It aims to ensure that all children have equal opportunities to learn so that participation and learning outcomes are equalised across all genders and social categories by 2030. Widening achievement gaps across genders, regions and socio-economic backgrounds are a cause of worry for the nation. Not only does this stunt the country’s growth but also makes it vulnerable to conflicts. Indeed, education is the most effective equaliser and thereby makes for a more peaceful society. Current disparities in the schooling system are evident. While dropout rates steadily rise as we move to higher grades, the dropout rates for marginalised communities are disturbingly higher. The problem doesn’t just end at access to opportunities. A student’s social and economic background creates either a destructive or conducive environment for learning at home. First generation learners from disadvantaged families do not have the privilege of full bellies, educated parents, a comfortable environment and plentiful resources.

Social biases that have been reinforced for years work against these students in many ways. Girls not being able to focus on their schooling due to the burden of domestic chores or simply not being sent to school altogether has been a failure on part of the country’s efforts to ensure equality. Curriculum, textbooks and the school environment also plays a role in either furthering or breaking this vicious cycle of discrimination. Representation of different communities and their culture, struggles, history etc. needs to be integrated into the curriculum. Children need to be sensitised to each other’s differences, while also normalising the fact that different people have different needs, ideas and beliefs.

To tackle these issues the NEP will demarcate certain regions of the country with significantly larger populations of vulnerable groups as Special Education Zones or SEZs, where schemes and policies to promote their upliftment through education will be implemented with greater vigour. Policy measures in these zones will be closely measured and adjusted according to their outcomes. Financial support will be extended to these underrepresented groups in the forms of targeted scholarships. The application process of such scholarships will be simplified through the single window system, the same system that played a mammoth role in India’s exceptional improvement on the Ease of Doing Business Index.

Many argue that the solution to poverty is to empower the nation’s women and they’re not wrong. The Government of India is set to develop a Gender Inclusion Fund which will build the nation’s capacity to provide quality education to all girls. Girls that do end up enrolling in school find it difficult to stay there due to the lack of a safe environment along with a dearth of female role models. To facilitate the hiring and retention of women not just in teaching positions but also in administration and leadership roles, the amended Maternity Benefit Act provides for the provision of creche facilities for employees. In order for a school to be accredited, it will have to follow certain guidelines for the safety and security of girls. A regular stock of menstrual hygiene products along with proper training of the school staff to deal with gender-based violence are just some of the prerequisites for institutional accreditation. The aim is to build harassment-free and positive learning environments for girls that are conducive to their growth. The NEP also has similar policies tailored towards the education of children belonging to scheduled caste communities, other backward classes, tribal communities, urban poor families, underrepresented groups within minority communities as well as transgender children and children with special needs.

 

NEP and Finland

Finland’s education system is regarded to be one of the best and it routinely outperforms most developed countries in reading, mathematics and science. While it might seem unreasonable and even unfair to see how the NEP holds up against the Finnish system due to how different the two countries are, comparing similarities to identify areas that require improvement is still worth a shot.

Finland’s system works on certain core pillars. The first and most important is that equal access to education is a right protected by the constitution. The NEP in India is a step forward in this direction due to the expansion of the Right to Education Act as well as the various policy suggestions for the establishment of an equitable and inclusive education system. Finland’s early childhood education is centred around the concept of pay based learning which is exactly what the NEP tries to implement through its Early Childhood Care and Education or ECCE initiative. Coincidently (or not) this initiative in Finland has been christened the Early Childhood Education and Care or ECEC program.

Students in Finland have a very high degree of autonomy when it comes to choosing the subjects they want to learn. While more flexibility is always welcome, the structure proposed under the NEP is substantially more flexible than any of our current systems. Teaching in Finland is also a very respected profession. Most of their educators hold a master’s degree and teachers are continuously required to undergo professional training in order to update their knowledge and skills. Not to mention that Finland’s recruitment process for teachers is one of the most rigorous in the world. While NEP dedicates a whole chapter to teacher recruitment, training and development, we simply have to wait to see how effectively these recommendations are implemented.

At the upper secondary level, Finland’s education system is split mainly into two paths – general and vocational. The general path consists mostly of course work, which students have a lot of autonomy in deciding. This path caters to those students who seek to gain higher education. The second path, or the vocational path, is more job-centric. It incorporates apprenticeships and skill enhancement courses. This segregation of paths for students who have different goals and seek different things is something that the NEP still lacks. Since the prospect of a college education is not something that is either attainable or appealing to all, a separate curriculum for those who want to join the workforce directly after school could be something that the government implements in the future. However, for now, the changes suggested in the NEP are quite exemplary and make me want to redo my schooling under India’s new and improved educational paradigm.

 

 

 

By Shreya Roy

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