By Ashok Pandey
The United Nations observes January 24 as the International Day of Education, and on the eve of this day it’s worth studying where we stand in our objective to achieve the Sustainable Development Goal 4 (Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all).
The year-end review of the Ministry of Education throws some light on achievements of the government, and the alignment of various schemes with the NEP 2020 and SDGs. A revamped Samagra Shiksha scheme, the development and upgrade of 14,500 schools under the centrally-sponsored scheme (PM-SHRI) Schools, and 1 million students participating in the Vidyanjali programme are highlights of the review.
To start with, the Kasturba Gandhi Balika Vidyalayas (residential schools for girls aged 6-12, belonging to disadvantaged groups, minorities and below the poverty line families) are getting a substantial upgrade. The government is setting up a new National Assessment Centre, PARAKH (Performance Assessment, Review, and Analysis of Knowledge for Holistic Development). A standard-setting body under the Ministry, PARAKH will encourage school boards in shifting their assessment pattern towards the skill requirement of the 21st century.
The government has focused on NIPUN BHARAT (National Initiative for Proficiency in Reading with Understanding and Numeracy), the NCERT’s play-based school preparation module Vidya Pravesh, and NISHTHA 4.0 (ECCE). A national curriculum framework for foundation years was also released.
This shows that while a robust ecosystem to enable ground-level implementation of the NEP 2020 is in place, the challenges will surface once the 1.5 million schools roll out NEP. The NEP highlights the need to review and revise the existing regulatory framework for school education in India. Its section 8.5(c) states, “An effective quality self-regulation or accreditation system will be instituted for all stages of education including pre-school education—private, public, and philanthropic—to ensure compliance with essential quality standards. To ensure that all schools follow specific minimal professional and quality standards, States/UTs will set up an independent, State-wide body called the State School Standards Authority (SSSA). The SSSA will establish a minimal set of standards based on basic parameters (namely, safety, security, basic infrastructure, number of teachers across subjects and grades, financial integrity, and good governance processes), which all schools shall follow.” At this point, the NEP has departed from previous policies, mandating quality standards instead of only focusing on inputs. This departure can play a crucial role in achieving outcomes if the SSSA’s constitution, functioning and mandate are done in the right spirit of the policy.
The NEP rightly identifies ‘conflict of interest’ as the core issue of the current regulatory framework. It states “all main functions of governance and regulation of the school education system—namely, the provision of public education, the regulation of education institutions, and policymaking—are handled by a single body, the Department of School Education, or its arms. This leads to a conflict of interests and excessive concentration of power, leading to ineffective management of the school system.” (NEP, 8.2). Within this context, various private school associations found that there are as many as 145 State Acts and 101 corresponding rules that govern K12 education. Within these, each state has a ‘School Code’, a lengthy and dense compilation (over 2,000 pages each) of executive orders, notices and circulars issued by the state Departments of Education. These norms are intensely prescriptive and lay down regulatory frameworks for licensure, admissions, staff employment and other operational issues.
Further, there are judgments by courts in favour and against those orders, which complicates regulatory compliance. An analysis of the legislation for Maharashtra, Delhi, Karnataka, Gujarat, Tamil Nadu, Assam, Uttar Pradesh and several other states shows that most norms need to hold government schools accountable to the same standards as those for private schools. They impose ambiguous requirements (for example, proving a school is essential) and heavy penalties (for example, withdrawal of recognition) for private schools.
Amit Chandra, senior consultant, Central Square Foundation, has noted that “the salience of the NEP 2020 lies in its emphasis on quality assurance, adding it is big time opportunity for the system to separate the regulator and the operator.” The stakeholders’ view is unanimous on the need to leverage the potential of an independent body of professionals to be a part of the SSSA for a meaningful response to the provisions in section 8.5(c).
The government’s intent to invest in people and prioritise education is proven. Now, educators and school leaders must rethink ways to prepare the next generation for the future, thus transforming education into a flourishing civilisation. Quality and excellence hold the key, and we must take advantage of the incredible opportunity the NEP has given us to introduce the right kind of reforms towards making India a superpower.
The author is a Delhi-based educationist. Views are personal.