When the current government decided to draft a new National Education Policy (NEP), most practitioners welcomed the decision. Not surprising, given the last NEP was drafted in 1986. With or without a policy, one knows the secular priority in India is to address low student achievement in schools. The Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) – a household education survey – shows, year after year, a child in Class V is not able to read a Class II textbook. Secondary education is highly privatised, leaving many students out, while tertiary education struggles with its regulatory mess. It is therefore clear that much reform is needed. However, can the sector be saved by yet another policy document? The answer is, yes, provided it focusses on the right things.
The previous two NEPs (formulated in 1968 and 1986) looked at the education sector as a whole. The first one called for “radical restructuring” and “equalising educational opportunities”. It also laid stress on science and technology education. The second NEP (1986) similarly emphasised the need for “removing social disparities”. It took a progressive stance on classroom instruction, calling for a ‘child-centred approach’, and promoted ‘activity based learning’.
Both policies covered all aspects of education, and charted an enlightened course, yet we are somehow in this quagmire. To understand what happened, one must study the impact of national agenda setting on the education sector. Once educational ‘access’ was brought to the centre of policy, programmes like the District Primary Education Programme (1993) which focussed on creating infrastructure at the district level, followed by the government’s flagship scheme ‘Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (Education for All)’ (2001), came to be. These programmes spurred tremendous infrastructure creation – schools were opened up in remote hamlets – and the big thrust was getting children into school.
As a result, enrolment swelled – rising by almost 30 per cent between 1998 and 2008 – which bloated the requirement for qualified teachers. Most states coped by hiring contract teachers at lower pay. Sub-par teacher training colleges mushroomed, and their graduates were not equipped to serve in classrooms made worse due to children entering the system from all levels. An expanding public education system led to more paperwork and greater centralisation, robbing teachers of autonomy and ownership. Simultaneously, private schools came into play, and the economically better off parents voted with their feet, draining government schools of the demographic that typically demands high standards. To top it all, expenditure in education declined – from 4.1 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP) in 2000-2001 to 3.4 per cent in 2013-14, despite double digit growth in student numbers.
It is important to state that several other developments – economic and political – have brought public education to the brink, and one cannot address them all. But this history recap is to show that public education is often not about classrooms and teaching – although it should be. It is as much a battleground of competing interests, ideologies and local governance. This is abundantly clear if one looks at the process through which the new education policy is being developed. For its framing, the Ministry of Human Resources and Development (MHRD) designed a thorough consultative process by which ideas would be sourced all the way from villages, to towns, to national ministries.
About 2.75 lakh meetings were held across the country, and inputs from those meetings were incorporated into the original draft NEP report (written by the TSR Subramanian committee), which was released in 2016. The committee report made several observations pertaining to the desperate state of education in the country. Notable among them was the calling out of systemic failures, and the disruptive effect of political interference (in teacher education and recruitment). The report talked of the poor performance of teachers, although it offered little practicable advice on how to improve teacher quality and availability.
The committee also recommended the creation of an Indian Education Services (IES) – an education only bureaucracy, which would put the charge of education in the hands of specialists. But again, it did not address the real issue, which is not what type of Principal Secretary heads education, but how long does she stay in that role, and how accountable she is. Yes, one has to get into the larger issue of bureaucratic reform, but leaving the point out glosses over one of the major impediments to systemic reform. Another glaring omission was that of the affordable private school space, which the report barely touched on.
Despite its faults, the TSR Subramanian committee report was a good starting point; especially given it brought to conclusion an 18-month consultation and drafting process. However, the report was arbitrarily junked, and a new committee is in place to essentially ‘do-over’ the NEP. This about-turn shows a lack of urgency, and reveals why public education will not be saved by policy documents. If that had to happen, the National Curriculum Framework (2005) (150 pages), the National Curriculum Framework for Teacher Education (2010) (129 pages), and the Right to Education Act (2009) would have done the trick. This is not to say national frameworks have no meaning. But the historic trend in education policy has been to make perfect the enemy of good – everything is targeted, nothing tackled. Therefore, one hopes the new National Education Policy does more by taking on less.
One way to do that is to focus on those areas that everyone complains about, but only the central government can resolve. For instance, every year, the centre allocates money to states to run various programmes which fall under the centrally sponsored schemes in education. Over the years, states have complained about delays in funds or the air-tight compartments within which spending needs to be done, even if the needs on the ground change. Changing state or national budget items is something that is best tackled at the Central level, so this should be included in the new NEP.
Similarly, the issue of various ministries not working together effectively, even though they serve overlapping populations, must be addressed by the centre. Systemic accountability – which would involve changing some rules around teacher recruitment and promotion – should be looked at. The politician – education nexus must be abolished and not simply called out (as the 2016 draft NEP committee report did). New ways of education financing – be it through education bonds or private capital – should be covered by a new policy. Credible technology solutions that require the mass creation of digital infrastructure must be laid out, and a plan of action should be presented. The list goes on and on.
Given the quanta of policy required to address new-age challenges, a strong education policy document is the need of the hour. But, the new NEP should dictate bold steps, and not hide behind aphorisms such as making education “child-centric”, holding “teachers accountable” or “ensuring” this or that. The country deserves a strong operational charter that will clearly say how these things will be done, how systemic/policy impediments will be removed, and how all of this will be tracked/measured. Anything less will be much ado about nothing.