National Education Policy: The Hits And Misses
Students sit studying at a college in Uttar Pradesh. (Photographer: Dhiraj Singh/Bloomberg)

National Education Policy: The Hits And Misses

BloombergQuintOpinion

The new National Education Policy that is intended to take India into the future deserves most of the accolades and criticism leveled at it so far, but the one thing it does not deserve is to be called impractical. Polio eradication was impractical till they did it. The changes suggested in the policy are transformational, and require both heft and will. Those that cast a shadow on it are doing so perhaps because they lack the intent to lift themselves out of the comfortable doldrums, or have lost the will to fight. Other are unable see how this change is possible, viewed from the tough times we are currently in. It will need some heavy-lifting if we are to educate students in a way that they can compete and win in the world.

Taking A New Approach

This is the first policy that seeks to unshackle students from the tyranny of administrative constraints with multiple-choice, multidisciplinary learning, and multiple chances. Students can choose their subjects regardless of streams. In higher education, the shift to learning via multiple lenses is expected to create more well-rounded students who can build futures unrestricted by the previous tunnel vision imposed on them. The intent is to reduce stress in the system too, with middle school being more exploration and experience-driven, with board exams having more chances, and with assessments now testing for the ability to apply rather than rote learning. If you’ve engaged with your learning, you can play around with the concepts in your head to answer the question. You cannot drill your way to marks in an examination. This is the intent of the new style of assessment that the NEP seeks to drive.

The assessment system is one of the largest institutional changes suggested in the policy, and if managed with reason, it should drive much of the change.

The most significant change, from a systems view, is the separation of regulation and operation of schools. This was overdue – it is unconscionable that the authority that runs some schools, regulates all schools. This does not mean that the governance of schools has been adequately addressed in the policy. For school as well as higher education, the policy embarrassingly states that the primary aim of regulation is to control the private sector. It is possible that of all the goals of regulation listed, there are others that are more impactful than pulling a valuable contributor down.

The contribution of the private sector and civil society to the quality of education has not only been ignored, it has also been disrespected.

Indeed, most of the changes that are so daunting to most traditional educators have already been in place in some schools for over a decade. It would be a shame to take an extra decade to recreate this when partnerships for success are possible.

Missing A Step

The new policy has tried to please all, and the layers are clearly visible in the document. It says all the right things and tries to cover all bases, often slipping off keel. To be aware and proud of past glories is excellent, to be able to build future glories is better. Also, as a public system, meritocracy is good, equal opportunity and equity are better. In both the thinking, and in the document, there are lags, such as the integration of technology and pedagogy. There are big gaps such as lifelong learning, which should have been a key element of upgrading to emerging sciences.

Transitional structures, such as bridges between school and higher education, or gateways to opportunity such as community colleges find no room.

Homeschooling is relegated to the less-able rather than being an actual example of flexibility in learning. In a way, the policy is honest about its limited understanding of what has not been mainstream in its experience. But no institutional reform can succeed without transitional pathways – else we end up in the old siloed world.

There is much in the document ripe for debate – such as language. The NEP seeks to enable home language learning up to class five, in order to improve learning outcomes. Sure, early comprehension of concepts is better in the home language and is critical for future progress. This also feeds into the focus on foundational learning sought by the policy. If the foundations are not sound, learning suffers, even with the best of teaching and infrastructure. But it is also true that a core goal of education is social and economic mobility, and the language of mobility in India is English.

In enabling learning, if one is losing mobility – that is not acceptable.

Home language succeeds in places where the ecosystem extends all the way through higher education and into employment. Without such an ecosystem in place, this may not be good enough. The NEP speaks of multilingualism and that must be emphasised. Most classes in India are de facto bilingual. Teachers often explain things in languages other than the English given in the texts, and peer learning, a very strong force, is also in the language of play. All the NEP needed to do was to reinforce this with enabling resources, both online and offline.

Of course, none of this is possible without two things: funding, and a will to change. Education is notoriously resistant to change. But we live in unusual times. The pandemic has taken educators through one paradigm shift already, and if we act soon, change and improvement are what will get embedded in the system.

A shift in the cost structure of education is inevitable. While funding at 6% of GDP remains doubtful, it is possible that parts of the transformation are achievable at lower cost for greater scale. There is no getting away from the need for a digital highway and device access for all, to enable the future of learning. The NEP is but one step towards freedom in education. So much, including the concepts of synchronous learning, of batch-processing and of provision as patronage are gone and we must embrace the change.

Meeta Sengupta is a writer, speaker and advisor on education with a cross-country perspective on policy, skills and pedagogies.

The views expressed here are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of BloombergQuint or its editorial team.

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