The paradigm-shift the National Education Policy (NEP) 2020 represents for school education in the country was a long time coming. Education experts have long argued for a more holistic view on school education, one that doesn’t reduce it to merely preliminary training for white-collar employment, and the NEP 2020 seems to deliver. To be sure, school education can’t be summarily delinked from its role as the supply-line to higher education and the labour market. However, there are many fundamental changes, from the 5+3+3+4 curricular and pedagogical focus (foundational education and care for 3-8 year olds, preparatory schooling for 9-11-year-olds, middle-school education for 12-14-year-olds and secondary schooling for 15-18-year-olds) that does away with 10+2 system to vocational training and a focus on analytical learning, critical thinking and application-based evaluation for examinations, that could make school education deliver more meaningfully.
There are, however, certain aspects of the policy that the government needs to relook. Research shows having the mother tongue as the medium of instruction lets younger children understand academic matter in the early years of education better. But, the NEP making mother tongue/regional language the mandatory medium of instruction till Grade 5—even beyond if this can be done—ignores several realities. With inter-state migration for employment both in the informal and formal sectors, and India’s large diversity of languages, regional language will hobble some students’ learning. English is now the lingua franca of employment in a globalised, connected world—with nearly 800 million of the global population speaking the language as a first or second language. Students from vernacular-medium schooling have found it difficult to cope with higher education with the medium of instruction being English—indeed, this is a reason cited by IIT authorities to explain the high drop-out numbers at the country’s premier engineering education institutes. Critics of English as the language of instruction frequently point to the rise of Japan and China despite these countries having focussed on their native languages, but the fact is that India’s service-sector-led growth, especially in IT & ITeS, has been on the back of its English competence.
The government will also need to be careful on the planned shift in the evaluation of learning outcomes. While making the Boards ‘low stakes’ for college admissions is indeed a progressive step—this will take care of the grade inflation/scoring arbitrage—it needs to ensure that the common college entrance test it is proposing to “offer” becomes as widely accepted as the SAT is in the US. Also, while the Board exams—and schools exams in general—are expected to test the application of knowledge (to do away with India’s rote-learning infamy) the fact is that school learning has to be tested for outcomes on knowledge of concepts and theory as much as the application of these. Also, whether the exams in Grade III, V and VIII are a backdoor for no-detention policy remains to be seen; given how the states had nearly unanimously demanded its scrapping, the policy is one that shouldn’t be revived. The government—the Centre and the states—will, therefore, have to strike a balance. The move to include vocational education from Grade VI onward should help create skilled school pass-outs, which will be a big boost for employability. The government has to design this with skilling for the future—and the impact automation and AI will have on certain jobs—in mind. To that end, given schools will have to retrofit infrastructure, the government talking of fee regulation will be a major hurdle.