A draft National Education Policy coming out decades after the second National Policy on Education was promulgated in 1986 and distilled through five years of several draft panels and national consultations naturally carries expectations. However, the 2019 draft seems to only air some loud and naive thinking, some well-intentioned but unsubstantiated ideas and some smartly crafted statements on contentious intended action.
The draft’s eponymous chapter on ‘foundational literacy and numeracy’ describes a severe “learning crisis” and warns that the country could lose “10 crore or more students — the size of a large country — from the learning system”. It then goes on to resolve that this cannot be allowed to happen. “The cost is far too great— to crores of individuals and to the nation. Attaining foundational literacy and numeracy for all children must become an immediate national mission,” it notes.
It then goes on to state, almost tautologically, that the reason behind this is a “lack of school preparedness”, a problem which the draft says acutely ‘afflicts’ children from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds without access to pre-primary education.
Hiding behind terms like ‘fun’
It asserts that early grade schooling does not lay emphasis on reading, writing and speaking or on mathematical ideas and thinking, but moves quickly on to rote learning. In actual fact, ‘rote’ learning frames all of schooling, its expectations, syllabi, texts, teaching and assessment at all levels, as has been recognised and discussed by all the earlier policies. So how does this policy acknowledge, understand or face that systemic challenge? It does not, but continues with “If and when rote learning is used, it will always be pre-accompanied by context and motivation and post accompanied by analysis and discussion” (p. 76).
Moreover, it adds, “If students are given a solid foundation in reading, writing, speaking, counting, arithmetic, mathematical and logical thinking, problem-solving…then all other future lifelong learning will become…more enjoyable.”
Enumerating counting, arithmetic and mathematical thinking as different elements of foundational numeracy indicates a lay understanding of ‘learning’ that runs through the document, often hiding behind the repeated use of terms such as ‘flexible’ and ‘fun’.
In Curriculum and Pedagogy (chapter four), we get a dream menu of permutations and combinations of this ‘fun’. From ‘interactive fun classrooms’ (p. 76), to language teaching in a ‘fun and interactive style’ (p. 85) as done by Samskrita Bharati and Alliance Française, for Sanskrit and French (but probably not for those in their early years).
Contrary to theories of learning, it recommends harnessing the “extremely flexible capacity” (p. 79) of young students, from pre-school onwards, who would be “exposed to three or more languages with the aim of developing speaking proficiency and interaction, and the ability to recognise scripts and read basic texts, in all three languages by Grade 3” (p. 81). It also states that during grades six to eight every student will take a ‘fun course’ (p. 86) on the languages of India. Multilingualism and an understanding of diversity are important aims but not done in such an ad-hoc manner.
It adds that puzzles or competitions to write on a topic without a given sound/alphabet can offer a “fun way to understand and play with language” (p. 93).
Incidentally, such ideas have been used in NCERT language or mathematics textbooks, but not as arbitrarily and definitely not for ‘fun’, as they seem to be listed in the policy.
Lack of focus on how students will imbibe skills
A crucial theme on integrating work and education, not for a vocation but as a medium of learning from life and for life, which has been implemented by the Zakir Hussain Committee (1938), has not been seriously discussed at all. The draft claims that “exposure to practical vocational-style training is always fun for young students” (p. 94) and recommends, without any modalities, that every student will take a fun year-long course on a survey of vocational skills and crafts, sometime between grades six and eight, with some hands-on experience of carpentry, electric work, gardening, pottery, and so on.
It states that the National Curriculum Framework of 2005 has given excellent strategies for “accomplishing a more constructivist type of learning” (p. 101). Indeed, this is still relevant, but the draft gives no understanding of how the “shrinking of the curriculum content to its core” (p. 102) will be achieved or what the ‘core’ implies.
High dependence on technology, industry funding
Meanwhile, the list on Constitutional values includes, among other things, equality, justice, plurality, scientific temper, and a ‘true rootedness and pride in India’. The last phrase looks new, while secular values are conspicuously absent (p. 96).
The draft’s highly centralising agenda also comes to the fore. Both the government-controlled Rashtriya Shiksha Ayog and the well-funded National Research Foundation, with links with the industry to “ensure that most urgent national issues are researched” merit discussion.
Attempts to control and dictate research topics through the government’s wishlist have been made earlier but with an influx of funds, this can have crippling consequences.
Similarly, high dependence on technology through the National Educational Technology Forum, for all kinds of ‘adaptive’ assessments which obscure the agency and autonomy of teachers, and the National Repository of Educational Data which will house digital records of all institutions, teachers and students is a contentious proposition triggering due concerns on data privacy.
A highly contentious recommendation in chapter three proposes school ‘rationalisation or consolidation’ through the set up of ‘school complexes’. This would be done through mergers and by closing down ‘unsustainable’ small schools, something which has long since been targeted by corporate NGOs and funding agencies. Many states under pressure from Niti Ayog have already closed thousands of schools; this policy’s claims of ensuring access through buses, paid walking escorts or rickshaws to parents, are not practical or realistic.
Right to Education curtailed
The most brazen attack is on the Right to Education Act, which while being proposed to be extended has been hugely curtailed with. Its most basic requirements like the quality of provision, qualification of teachers, and so on will be removed, “to allow alternative models of education such as gurukulas, paathshaalas, madrasas, and home schooling” to flourish.
A ‘flexible’ market model with minimal regulations, to give “greater flexibility (and) create greater educational choices for students and healthy competition among schools” (p. 71), is sought to transform the nature of school education. The euphemism of multiple ‘alternate models’, helps to also include the huge industry of low-cost private schools, ‘philanthropic-public partnership’ schools, religious schools, and the largest network of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh schools, including its single-teacher Ekal Vidyalayas in predominantly tribal regions, for which “multiple pathways to learning” (p. 69) through non-formal methods, technologies and National Institute of Open Schooling courses (equivalent to grades three, five and eight) are being justified.
These models are violative of the fundamental right of children to good quality education in regular schools; removing Right to Education regulations amounts to depriving the poor and disadvantaged of their most basic entitlements.
Moreover, the draft policy makes mockery of the rights of under represented groups through its National Programme of Tutors (NTP) “where the best performers in each school will be drawn in for up to five hours a week as tutors during the school for fellow (generally younger) students who need help” (p. 60).
Contrary to known theories of learning and experience in India, it still advocates for ‘each-one-teach-one’, for schools and also for adult education.
Poor students cheated of quality education
Another brazen agenda to short shrift the poor, who need nurturing attention from qualified teachers, is the Remedial Instructional Aides Programme (RIAP). The term ‘remedial’ is demeaning and demotivating, indicating a deficit or illness in need of a remedy, and the Ministry of Human Resource Development had stopped using it soon after enacting the Right to Education. Initially, RIAP has been presented as a 10-year project to employ instructional aides — especially women from socio-economically disadvantaged communities (who have completed the highest grade in school available in their region) — to hold such classes during and after school, and during the summer.
The draft says ‘true local heroes’ will be trained to teach foundational literacy and numeracy, to bring back students who might drop out, not attend, or never catch up. Glorifying deprofessionalisation in education is being used by different governments for their own agendas.
Foundational learning offers a new garb to segregate the disenfranchised into ghettos of low cost, minimalist skill programmes, while allowing unqualified unregulated ‘heroes’ to be ’employed’ and to influence the agenda of schools.
Ironically, qualified teachers, who are not available for these children, are expected to consistently monitor their learning, and also this army of volunteers, peer tutors, and instructional aides.