We need to focus on foundational learning. Today’s primary school-going students will join India’s workforce by 2030, and to reap the benefits of our demographic dividend, we need to start with building a strong foundation. We know that if we fail on this, we fail on everything: We fail on poverty reduction, human capital, GDP, and so on
The draft National Education Policy (NEP) 2019—the first update in almost three decades—is potentially a game changer as it aims to bring some long-awaited shifts in the education continuum and offers a clear pathway of reform. The draft NEP has identified issues of ‘early childhood education’ and ‘foundational learning’, which are at the core of the learning crisis, and it has the right set of ideas when it comes to giving importance to the liberal arts model for transforming higher education.
There has been an overwhelming response to the draft document, and the committee has done an outstanding job in synthesising diverse viewpoints. The government must now act quickly to finalise the document and pass it through the legislature. The focus must shift to its implementation, as it is going to be a complex task requiring sustained and concerted efforts. There are many steps that the education ecosystem will have to take at both national and state levels before this document can make its desired impact. The big ideas in the document will need unrelenting focus by the government, and various organisations and individuals who are committed to education reform are willing to come forward to support the government on ideas, innovations and funding.
Here, I will focus on one of the big ideas mentioned in the draft policy that needs to become a national priority—i.e. foundational learning. According to the draft NEP, India’s learning crisis is rooted in foundational learning, and it rightly states that “our highest priority must be to achieve universal foundational literacy and numeracy in primary school and beyond by 2025. The rest of the policy will be largely irrelevant for such a large portion of our students if this most basic learning is not first achieved.”
A World Bank report that was released last month shows that 53% of all children in low- and middle-income countries suffer from learning poverty, which means that they are unable to read and understand a simple text by the age of 10. To galvanise this progress and to meet the Sustainable Development Goal on education (SDG 4: Quality Education), the World Bank launched a new learning target to cut the learning poverty rate by at least half before 2030. This ambitious goal can only be achieved if India—which has the maximum number of primary school-going children—can show a massive improvement in foundational learning and cut its current learning poverty level of 54.8% by more than half in the next decade.
Universal attainment of foundational learning is of paramount importance. And since we do not have the resources to focus on so many things at the same time, my one advice to the government would be that they should maintain the sharp focus on foundational literacy and numeracy, and then phase in other priorities, as needed.
To translate this goal into real action, there are some critical ideas that will help operationalise the focus on foundational learning.
*First, a strong thrust by the Centre in the form of a national mission backed by technical and funding guidelines will catalyse demand for critical reforms at the state level. In the current financing structure, foundational learning is largely dependent on the Union government’s schemes, but the central government can ring-fence funding to states for early grade interventions; in turn, states could be mandated to share a three- to five-year plan on how they plan to achieve universal foundational learning.
*Second, clear goal setting and alignment of sharp metrics. In primary schools, a teacher’s daily dilemma is to figure out what to teach and to whom. To complete the curriculum, teachers usually choose to focus on the ‘top of the class’, leaving others to catch up on their own. This can be solved by identifying and communicating well-defined indicators or competencies such as alphabet and word recognition, oral reading fluency and comprehension of short stories. Setting these expectations amongst teachers and parents, and socialising them at district and block level by introducing competition, will ensure action in the classrooms.
*Third, the central government will also need to ensure availability of independent, reliable and comparable data to all the actors on a regular basis to create an environment where there is both an urgency towards achieving the critical goals by 2025 and providing incentives for improvement at all levels. Put together by independent organisations, this will help both the Centre and states identify the gaps that need to be addressed and customise solutions.
All this calls for a sense of urgency. Today’s primary school-going students will join India’s workforce by 2030, and to reap the benefits of our demographic dividend, we need to start with building a strong foundation. We know that if we fail on this, we fail on everything: We fail on poverty reduction, human capital, GDP, and so on … there is a lot riding on bridging this critical gap in our education system. The NEP, once implemented, can play a critical role in the transformation of our education system and ensure that today’s primary school students become productive and empowered citizens of India who will drive the country towards its $10-trillion ambition. To put the policy into action, I am confident that the state departments, educators, NGOs, parents and students will bring the sum of their considerable talent, commitment and resourcefulness to bear so that we see meaningful, measurable progress.
The author is founder & chairman, Central Square Foundation