ON PAPER, THE New Education Policy (NEP) ticks all the right boxes. From universalising access to Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) to reforming university education, NEP 2020 goes the whole hog. That’s not all. The hand of experienced education administrators who know where to tinker and ensure better outcomes is visible in the document.
The new policy is ambitious. The last time such a thoroughgoing reform was made—in 1986—India was a highly resource-constrained economy. It is sad to recall that the list of ‘essential’ items at the primary school stage included blackboards, toilets for children, mats and furniture, chalk and duster. An unconscionably high number of schools could not even provide these basic facilities. Many still can’t. But times change and India now is a huge economy and can afford to dream big.
If one were to pick three areas that stand out in terms of reforms in the new policy, they would be doing away with the 10+2 system and bringing in the 5+3+3+4 formula to ensure that kids start their learning process at three years and spend the next five years getting geared for the actual task. Education workers in anganwadis—the backbone of the pre-school system—are now formally part of this schooling plan. Instead of the final two years in the school system (Classes XI and XII), now the secondary stage will involve four classes—from Class IX to XII. Importantly, the disciplinary walls that rigidly compartmentalised the final years of school have been torn down. For example, if a student wants to learn mathematics and music, the new system enables it. The earlier system of separating arts, commerce and science had become counterproductive. Instead of furthering learning and creativity, it created a class system whereby only science students were considered ‘meritorious’ while the others were tagged as also ran. The deleterious effect this system had on Indian social life will be a fascinating topic for future historians.
The third outstanding feature of the system is the possibility of multiple entry and exit points as one proceeds to higher education. Suppose one wants to take a break for some reason. Under the present system, re-joining a university is cumbersome to the point that it is discouraged. In the new policy, an academic credit bank is proposed that will enable the student to pick up from where he left.
A host of other reforms include ‘devaluation’ of the school board system and establishing a national-level performance assessment system (along with state-level counterparts). The school board system was effectively a continuation of a colonial pattern of learning and evaluation that had long outlived its utility. It has been known for a long time that this system encouraged rote learning. The present-day crisis of unemployability of graduates from engineering schools has its roots in this system. In case of ‘normal degrees’, the outcome is just a waste of money: most of these graduates cannot even write straight sentences leave alone engage in critical thinking necessary for any knowledge-intensive work.
NEP 2020 rightly puts emphasis on mathematical training, probably the weakest link in learning in Indian schools. From engineering to economics, this weakness is visible at the higher end of the educational system. It may sound controversial but for any mathematics-intensive education at the doctoral level in any discipline, the first option for Indian students is Western universities. India boasts excellent centres of mathematics learning—for example, the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (Mumbai) and The Institute of Mathematical Sciences (Chennai), among others. But these are oases in a vast desert. The weaknesses that originate in the school system magnify manifold by the time one reaches the doctoral level.
This hankering after mathematics may sound abstruse and obscure. But there is a real world example that illustrates the grave disadvantage India has been put at due to this lopsided system. Some years ago, the outlook for Indian information technology companies darkened all of a sudden. It was not the US government’s changed visa regime but something more fundamental. All of a sudden, the ‘patchwork’ that Indian firms excelled at very low cost became nearly redundant. The new areas where the ‘future lay’, so to speak, were artificial intelligence and mathematical analysis and modelling of a very different kind. These were subjects that required mathematical creativity that was not inculcated in Indian schools. The result was an acute and near absolute shortage of manpower with the right training and skills. Training is perhaps a wrong word here. What a good mathematics degree in the West equips a person with is a set of tools that enable him/her to look at problems in a very different manner. This is something that engineers don’t have and no amount of re-skilling can impart that. If Indian mathematics graduates are to shine, then the work needs to begin at school. Hopefully, the new policy will push the system in that direction.
Any policy, especially in the Indian setting, is as good as ink spilled on paper. Things begin to crumble at the implementation stage. It is heartening to note that NEP 2020 has a long gestation period. The new curriculum is to be designed by 2021-22; preparation of teachers by 2022-23; and major outcomes are not expected before 2029-2030. This gives ample time for governments to prepare and marshal the resources that will be necessary for implementation. For example, universal provision of quality early childhood development and care is expected only by 2029-30.
There is, however, one major caveat about the new policy. Its emphasis on local language instruction until Class V, and preferably, until Class VIII. This is misplaced to say the least and may even unhinge all that it seeks to achieve. Consider the current situation. Government schools across the country impart education in the local language, whatever it may be. But increasingly, at least for a decade now, parents with a huge diversity (disparity actually) of incomes and earnings now send their children to private schools. There are many reasons for doing that but the quality of education and English instruction figure at the top of the list. Backers of government schools—and there is an entire legion of them from politicians to intellectuals, including some late entrants to the latter club—who rail against this claim. But there is no other way to square this observation: knowledge of English is now considered a prerequisite for any quality job. This sits badly with nationalists, but then facts have to be faced.
There is nothing wrong in imparting education in the local language. The trouble starts when children transition from this system to the English learning one in secondary school, and in many cases, after school (when instruction in mathematics and science is available in the local language.) This is a rough period for any child and so far efforts to smoothen it have failed. There is a deeper logic here as well: much of India’s prowess and success in information technology and management comes from a workforce that is not only skilled but has also been globally mobile. An inward-looking education system that pushes local language instruction, for whatever reasons, can threaten this. This is a part of the NEP 2020 that requires a harder look. A better option will be to give schools the choice to pick the language of instruction they want. Private schools, it can be conjectured, will certainly do so as the demand for English-based education is high. It is best not to interfere with this on ideological grounds.