Young India is advancing to the peak of its demographic bulge—which means education and skill development is likely to be top priority for the decades to come. Hence, NEP assumes greater significance.
By Narayanan Ramaswamy
The second term of the NDA government started with a lot of excitement coinciding with the release of the draft New Education Policy (NEP) 2019. Education is an involved subject and so it is no surprise it attracted attention from far and wide. Young India is advancing to the peak of its demographic bulge—which means education and skill development is likely to be top priority for the decades to come. Hence, NEP assumes greater significance.
In this light, our expectations from the government are greatly influenced by NEP 2019. This is the second edition of the much awaited policy document after its first edition was dismissed amongst controversies. This edition seems like a sincere effort by some highly-learned and well-meaning individuals. It is thorough and attempts to cover all facets of education. One of the highlights of this NEP is it takes a shift from how the learning years are classified. Instead of the traditional pre-school or kindergarten, primary, secondary and higher secondary—a 2+5+5+2 format—it looks at a model with foundational, preparatory, middle and secondary phases with a 5+3+3+4 format. While the overall secondary school completion age remains the same at 15 years (since NEP suggests starting at age 3), phasing and hence emphasis is likely to be different.
The policy looks at pre-schooling in a formal context. NEP starts with ECCE (Early Child Care and Education) and goes on to emphasise the need for formal curriculum and pedagogical framework starting from age 3. The pre-school years of ages 3, 4 and 5 along with Grade 1 and 2 (ages 6 and 7) have been categorised as the foundational stage. Within this, there is emphasis on the transition from what is usually called the kindergarten years to Grade 1 in terms of preparing the child for a more structured system of learning.
NEP has some interesting suggestions, too. A striking feature of the traditional gurukula system was peer learning. The cohort played an important role in the learning and cognitive development of kids. We have heard stories of how a senior student would handle classes for juniors in this ancient Indian system. This arrangement helps a senior student reinforce his/her learning and connect with juniors. The National Tutors Programme (NTP) is a similar model where the best performers in a school will be drawn as tutors (5 hours a week) for (generally younger) students who need help. This also addresses the reinforcement needed for teachers to give the required additional attention to weaker students. Another suggestion is to involve the community in such teaching efforts. The Remedial Instructional Aides Programme (RIAP) recommends especially women in the community be formally inducted to help weaker students during school hours.
This helps such instructional aides to look at taking up teaching as a career. There is an interesting recommendation of NEP which suggests that in the foundational stage the age-wise segregation of grades need not be mandatory. Also suggested is a mandatory ‘school preparation module’ for the first 3 months in Grade 1—to ease into the more formal and structured curriculum.
NEP touches upon what we seemed to have lost in the past decades—Physical Education (PE) and well-being as a part of education. While NEP emphases on making it available, it should go beyond that passive stance. Sports and PE are not to be treated as extracurricular or even co-curricular activities. There should be no ‘hard separation’ here. They should be seamlessly integrated with the curriculum. Both for physical and emotional well-being, sports are important. Arts, including fine arts, should also be smoothly included in a similar fashion. It is emerging as a key vocation—competing with STEM, linguistics, social sciences, law, etc. A well-defined curriculum for sports and PE, leading all the way to specialisation such as STEM, commerce, etc, needs to be in place.
NEP is a golden opportunity to bring Vocational Education (VE) into mainstream. It makes a mention of removing the ‘hard separation’ of ‘vocational’ and ‘academic’ streams. Learning and training should be considered as parallel aspects of education right from foundation schools. Introducing VE right from the foundational stage is the key to removing the taboo attached to VE.
It’s time we look at education from a modern and futuristic dimension. Is learning still happening inside classrooms? Why are we not integrating all the experiential learning that happens outside into the curriculum? The future generation will be exposed much earlier and exponentially more than ever in the past, to multiple subjects. The access to content is going to be much easier and almost at zero cost. What is going to be in short supply are softer aspects of learning such as teaming, emotional intelligence, communication, application of knowledge, higher-order thinking such as innovation, curiosity, reasoning, etc. This, in my view, should be the focus of NEP. We are at a juncture where we can bring in a whole new education system that can help build a modern India.
NEP could be a medium-term agenda, but a great opportunity to define history. In the upcoming Union Budget, we expect teachers to get maximum attention. If we want to make our education system effective, one of the most important stakeholders is teachers. A thorough programme right from policy level to redefine the role and development of teachers needs to be undertaken. It should include a one-time reorientation for all existing teachers also. This investment will go a long way in ushering in new formats in schools. Another aspect is utilisation of existing infrastructure. We have 12-lakh-plus recognised schools (Educational Statistics-At a Glance-2018, MHRD), but how many of these are effective? Can we identify and rebuild those that have not been effective, rather than build new schools? Also, a nationwide study to identify essential infrastructure for schools such as labs, playgrounds, sports facilities, convention centres and teacher development centres should be undertaken to develop a heat-map of these facilities. We should bring in changes in terms of governance of schools by creating local school management structure that includes the civil society and industry at a school-unit level. Apart from bringing autonomy and innovation, this can help in developing local ownership of schools.
We are living in exciting times. We have a big demand, an opportunity to define the future of the youth and, in turn, the fortunes of this great nation. Our government has the right intent and ability to make it happen. Changes happen only when the society is willing and actively participating. Let us seize the opportunity.
The author is National Leader for Education and Skill Development, KPMG in India. Views are personal