By Namita Ranganathan
After 34 long years since the last National Policy on Education (1986), the New Education Policy finally arrived! From a Draft policy document of 484 odd pages, it was consolidated into a slim document of 66 pages, approved by the Union Cabinet on 29th July 2020. It’s trajectory from conception to delivery saw three successive HRD Ministers, a team of Senior Career Bureaucrats and Scientists and Academicians as members of the Drafting Committee and it finally took Professor Kasturirangan’s leadership to bring it to fruition.
With bated breath when the document was unfurled, opened and read by all, what emerged were four major sections focussing on:
Other key areas of focus like Professional Education, Digital Education, Arts and Aesthetics etc. and
-a brief overview of the roll out plan in chronological sequence spanning the next 20 years.
Incidentally, since this is a Children’s Day special issue, I will restrict the discussion in this short perspective piece to the recommendations in the policy that relate to children and schooling. To begin with, as a very radical step, the policy has recommended complete overhauling and restructuring of the school system into a 5+3+3+4 pattern to replace the existing 10+2+3 system. Within this, the first 5 years relate to children in the age group of 3 to 8 years which subsume the pre-primary years and grades 1 and 2. They are designated conceptually as the foundational years. The clear departure here is the clubbing of pre-primary education with early primary education in organic continuity. Undoubtedly this has given a great fillip to Early Childhood Education (ECE), recognizing that the formative years mark the period of maximal brain development and therefore the need for early cognitive stimulation and creating a strong foundational base for the subsequent levels of schooling. The policy appropriately places emphasis in this regard on foundational literacy and numeracy. While this is not a new idea, it may be perceived as beneficial from a developmental perspective because it does impact how readiness for the subsequent levels of education unfold. The real challenge lies in making it work. ECE has been largely in the domain of Anganwadis and Pre-primary schools or exclusive sections in composite schools. The Anganwadi workers are expected to focus on children’s health, nutrition, immunization and school readiness. They are often drawn from the local community and may have studied only upto class 8 or 10. So how children’s education will get addressed upto grade 2 and whether the Anganwadies will have to be re–located in the premises of regular schools, remain unanswered dilemmas.
The next 3 years relate to grades 3, 4 and 5 which are presently designated as the primary years. The policy recommends viewing them as the preparatory years for what will follow as the middle school stage from grade 6 to 8. The underlying logic which merits appreciation here is that children can be exposed to an organized routine, more subjects to study, more teachers to adjust to and a robust school life for the years to follow. At middle school there is exposure to all school subjects and activities and opportunities to identify one’s talents, abilities and interests. All this sounds ideal, almost utopian in also being congruent with the principles of child development, but the real challenge is in having curricula, pedagogic approaches, assessment systems and more importantly well trained and competent teachers! The final 4 years relate to grades 9, 10, 11 and 12 which the policy labels as the secondary stage.The existing nomenclature of senior secondary for grades 11 and 12 has been dropped and one wonders why, because the skills and qualifications required by teachers to teach at this level are more than those upto grade 10. What additionally needs to be factored in is that in several States grade 11 and 12 are situated in college education and called junior college, pre-university course, intermediate, etc. Since Education is a subject in the Concurrent list, States are free to follow what they deem appropriate. So many anomalies will have to be addressed in the action plan. It may require a lot of unlearning and re-learning on the part of educators and policy makers. Re-imagining of school education is what is needed, rather than merely fitting in the recommendations into the existing system.
Another very strong recommendation that has been made pertains to the medium of instruction upto the middle school stage. The policy explicitly states that children should preferably be taught in the mother tongue or home language upto grade 5 if not upto grade 8! It does not preclude teaching English as a language but clearly undervalues it as a preferred medium of instruction. Once again, the logic is drawn from research in early childhood learning which has demonstrated initial ease for a child to learn in a language that he/she is familiar and comfortable with. However, stretching it so far is something that needs to be reviewed. In its zest to be child-friendly and facilitative, somewhere the policy has failed to take cognisance of English being the aspirational language and identity of almost everyone and also the means to upward social and occupational mobility. More significantly, we have to recognize that we are a pluralistic culture and society in which cross cultural, inter-caste, inter–religious, inter-regional and international marriages have been taking place since the last 50 years! In such a scenario, does mother tongue have any relevance? In fact, world over, the dominant view is that there is a global childhood which we have to prepare our children for, while retaining important local cultural and contextual dimensions. The challenge lies in creating an appropriate synthesis. And for children who have parents in transferrable jobs, it is English as the medium of instruction which becomes the stabilizing unifier. The policy does recognize this but requires more explicit articulation about it.
An aspect highlighted by the policy which is of immense importance relates to having a workforce of capable teachers for all levels of schooling. One sub section is devoted to spelling out what the nature and form of Teacher Education Programmes should be. One wonders why only Pre-Service Teacher Education is discussed whereas the need for change and adaptation in the existing workforce of teachers is at the moment, a more pressing need. There is thus a clear case for a meaningful framework for In-Service Teacher Education. It is hoped that this will find expression in the Implementation Plan.
No Educational Policy should be read in isolation from the policies that preceded it. So the recommendation relating to introduction of Vocational Subjects from the middle school level should be seen in relation to the failure of Vocational Education, recommended by the policies of 1968 and 1986, respectively. The idea is that the same mistakes should not be repeated, particularly creating an early divide between blue and white collar employability. In an Education for All framework, policies are expected to be inclusive, provide equal opportunities to all and address issues of equality, secularism and non-discrimination, enshrined as constitutional commitments, however lofty they may sound. Once again, the way forward in this will have to be part of the implementation plan.
I would like to end on a note of optimism and hope! Childhood has been re-discovered for the potential that it has. From the hapless receiver of knowledge and information, the child is now seen from a capability lens and his/her education is required to tap this capability. Children’s voices, their agency and potential have at last been recognized. This is indeed a welcome starting point. The new structure of levels of schooling likewise has aligned itself with developmental research in the field. One just wishes that lost childhoods, marginalized childhoods, discriminatory patterns, appropriate flexibility and contextualization of curricula and standards find place in the roll out plan for school education so that more children can enjoy their schooling experience. It should not remain a dream!