Dear Reader,

If there’s anything six years of NDA rule has taught us, it’s that most things in general, whether planned or unplanned, come unannounced. The much-awaited new National Education Policy (NEP) was no different: tweeted about at around midday on Wednesday, the 29th of July, and then released at 4 PM, less than four hours later.

As you might have seen on the news, several changes are in the offing with the arrival of this NEP, 34 years after its predecessor was passed in 1986. We won’t list out everything it seeks to change (the government has a PDF that does it much better) or prematurely tell you whether the Policy is a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ document. Instead, let’s break down the larger context within which some major developments in the NEP seem to have been made. Today’s newsletter is on developments in schooling. Tomorrow we will cover higher education.

What is a National Education Policy? It’s All in the Name

A national policy on education lays out the government’s vision for education and human resource development in the country. The first such policy was released in 1968. It stated that “the primary purpose of education is to provide him [the student] with the widest opportunity to develop his potentialities to the full.”

The next one, released 18 years later in 1986, emphasised on “the elimination of disparities in the educational system and on improvement in the quality of publicly funded schools so that, ordinarily, parents may not feel the need to send their children to private high fee-charging institutions.”

The third national education policy, released 34 years later in 2020 has a more specific mission: “[The NEP] is based on the principle that education must develop not only cognitive capacities — both the ‘foundation capacities’ of literacy and numeracy and ‘higher-order’ cognitive capacities, such as critical thinking and problem-solving — but also social, ethical, and emotional capacities and disposition.”

Clearly, over the decades, the goals of our policy planners have become narrower and far more specific. In this context, why are the objectives of the 2020 NEP significant?

Because, if learning outcomes are anything to go by, most of India’s ~237 million students aren’t learning well enough, in spite of well-intentioned (or well-written, rather) education policies. According to the 2018 ASER, only 27.2% of Grade 3 students can read Grade 2 texts fluently, while less than 29% can perform subtraction. Our gross enrolment ratio for higher education was only 26.3% in 2018-19. Our education system has largely failed to instil the fundamental skills of literacy, numeracy, and extended learning — which are basic outcomes desired of any education system — over 52 years. This is why the 2020 NEP becomes important.

To start off, for an in-depth historical rundown of everything our past national education policies didn’t do but should consider doing for India’s students, do read our two-part series (Don’t) Get Smart, by ex-Teach For India (TFI) fellow Aparna Ramanujam. TFI fellow Manish Sharma also provides an in-depth preliminary explainer on the state of education in India today.

The reasons for this state of affairs are many, but there are a few that stand out especially in the school education scenario.

Reason 1: Poor education budgeting and spending, which as our former Education Associate Ipsita Mishra noted in February, directly impacts the quality of infrastructure, teaching, and learning. Even as the NEP seeks to increase overall government spending on education to 6% of the GDP, have our states have shown competence in spending wisely and executing effectively to make the most of this?

Reason 2: A child’s ability to learn well upon first entering the education system also heavily depends on their nutrition, health, and overall well being. To address this systematically, the state released the National Early Childhood Care and Education Policy (ECCE) in 2013, to address the needs of growing students. As Tanvi Mehta and I noted in 2017, the implementation of the ECCE policy in India–through Anganwadis — left something to be desired. In that light, this NEP’s firm stance to universalise ECCE — which if implemented well will substantively benefit the learning outcomes of young children — could be a step in the right direction.

Reason 3: Social biases, especially of the gendered variety. While deliberating what a new NEP should look like in 2018, staff writer Evita Rodrigues noted that “the 2011 Census recorded India’s female literacy rate at 65.46%, a figure significantly lower than the male literacy rate (82.14%).” The new NEP’s targeted plans to focus on gender inclusion across education could help alleviate this state of affairs. Yet, questions of gender are always intersectional: our textbooks and curricula need to evolve to sensitively accommodate diversities in gender, sexuality, caste, and class. Whether the NEP will address this lacuna of sensitive textbooks remains to be seen.

Reason 4: A marks-driven education system that privileges board exams often works against a child’s ability to learn, trapping them in cycles of poor performances. As former TFI fellow Upasna Sachdeva noted in her series Trapped!, these “learning traps feed into intergenerational poverty traps,” which only worsen drop out rates and widen social inequalities in the long run. This could explain the NEP’s plans to reduce the volume of curriculum, the stakes of ‘board exams’, and the breaking down of the education system from 10+2, to “5+3+3+4”. Given the pandemic, alongside such curricular reforms though, strong measures to support school students’ and teachers’ mental health while navigating the education system are also required.

Reason 5: The medium of instruction. The NEP proposes that until grade 5, and preferably grade 8, students should be taught in their home language, mother tongue, or regional language. Why? Because research has consistently shown that students learn and understand much better in their mother tongues than in English, as Evita notes. Yet, English is a language endowed with enormous power, and can help improve students’ professional prospects in the long run, especially if they’re from disadvantaged backgrounds. While debating ‘Hindi imposition’ in India last year (that has thankfully been left out of this NEP), renowned scholar Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd, and DMK spokesperson Manuraj Shanmugasundaram offer insights into how English empowers the oppressed. Could this aspect of the NEP ironically be a step against social equality and equity? Or, will it help achieve universal literacy? Only time will tell.

Reason 6: Poor teacher training, which collides with factors like the medium of instruction to produce poor learning outcomes and high dropout rates. More teachers need to be hired, and better trained and supported to facilitate learning, especially digital learning. This is perhaps why the NEP suggests implementing National Professional Standards for Teachers, and strong training in digital methods. Shivani Gangakhedkar, Pranjali Hardikar, and Ashwini Maslekar of Leadership for Equity show us just how this can be done in tier-2 and tier-3 India.

That’s a wrap for today’s very long newsletter, but what can we say, we love covering and talking about education here at The Bastion. Why? Because it will always impact people’s lives and India’s development, even when it’s not in the news cycle.

You can read more of our education coverage over the years here. If you’d like to contribute to our growing education reportage, please click here to read our submission guidelines, and then drop your pitch off at editorial@thebastion.co.in.

Finally, if you enjoy what you read, please do consider supporting our work. Every bit helps us continue to cover the sector critically and independently. The link for the same is in the box below!

Happy reading and stay safe!

Aarathi Ganesan
Editor, The Bastion

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