Will the NEP improve our education system?

By Madhav ChavanPolicy documents are not binding on the government but they do indicate what the government is willing to do or is thinking of doing. The third National Education Policy of India announced recently, drafted by a committee headed by Dr K Kasturirangan, indicates in most cases what the government needs to do to substantially improve education in India.This policy will require finances for effective implementation. Therefore its declaration in the middle of a raging pandemic, with economic uncertainty looming large, is quite interesting.The Kothari Commission of 1964-66 recommended that the government should spend 6% of GDP (gross domestic product). It appears that this calculation was based on the projected costs of the system over the next 20 years and some estimates of what the developed countries were spending on education at that time. India’s education expenditure, most of it by the states, was around 1.82% of the GDP in 1968 and doubled to 3.71% by 1985-86. Over the next 35 years, it has gone a bit up and down in percentage terms and is estimated to be 4.43% of GDP at this time.We need to remind ourselves that our population has grown 2.5 times since the mid-1960s and our GDP has grown 45 times. The new policy declares that the Centre and the states will work together to get this expenditure up to 6% of GDP at the earliest. A lot would depend on how the increased expenditure will be managed. Does this 6% deserve another look? Will states be able to bear the increased burden? How much will the Centre contribute? What about the education cess and the Prarambhik Shiksha Kosh, the non-lapsable fund for education created by the first UPA government?The biggest problem facing India’s education is that of quality of learning. There is the question of absolute quality of learning and there are gaps in learning levels between children going to government schools and those going to various hues of private schools. It begins at the very foundation of early childhood education, widens at the primary level and by the time children reach the secondary stage, half or more who missed out on learning foundational skills have given up on education. Therefore, two new initiatives proposed in the policy are of critical importance.The first policy thrust proposes to create universal access to Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) as a part of building the foundations for learning. This is seen as a necessity for decades but it is for the first time that the policy recommendation is backed by some concrete suggestions for implementation. Convergence of various ministries to bring ECCE under school education has been proposed. By proposing to integrate the education of children from the age of 3 to 8 as a single Foundational Stage, the policy has given a bold direction. To those who worry that the children in the age group 3-6 will be burdened early with formal education, the policy lays down that “the overall aim of ECCE will be to attain optimal outcomes in the domains of: physical and motor development, cognitive development, socio-emotionalethical development, cultural/artistic development, and the development of communication and early language, literacy, and numeracy”. Of course, there is always the question about the slip between the cup and the lip, given the entrenched culture of rote learning and forced teaching.The creation of the Foundational Stage of school education is likely to clash with the proposal of consolidation of small schools for the sake of efficiency and quality of teaching. The bigger consolidated schools will not be within walking distance from the homes for many children.Children of age 3-8 should not have to travel far from home on foot, or in vehicles. Placing the Foundational Stage classes in the small-school infrastructure of smaller villages and hamlets will be necessary.The single most important proposal in the new policy is the one that lays down a clear implementation direction for governments to attain universal literacy and numeracy in all primary schools by 2025.It goes further to state emphatically that “the rest of the policy will become relevant for our students only if this most basic learning requirement is first achieved”. Pratham’s Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) has been focusing on the lack of foundational skills. We have also demonstrated on a large scale, year after year, that the problem can be solved relatively easily. It is natural, therefore, for us to hope that this one initiative is implemented in all seriousness. The finance minister announced the launch of a National Mission for Foundational Literacy and Numeracy as part of the stimulus package in mid-May. So, one assumes that financial arrangements for such a mission are already made.Addressing issues of education beyond secondary in the current situation is all about institutions and how they will operate and how they will be governed. The policy tends to favour light and tight regulation and greater autonomy. But, once again, laws will ultimately decide the ground realities. Learning to learn is a need of these times. The policy has stressed this enough in the discussion on school education. Learning cannot stop after schooling. In fact, today¡¦s economy demands that everyone continues to learn. Lifelong learning is no more an ideal; it is a need. Digital technology has created real conditions in favour of lifelong learning independent of brick-and-mortar institutions and barriers of all kinds. The new policy has paid enough attention to the need for flexibility and freedom of movement in institutions of higher education but it has stopped short of addressing the learning that can, will and is happening beyond the walls of educational institutions. Perhaps the next policy will take care of it. The writer is a cofounder of Pratham Education Foundation. Views are personal