The long-awaited draft National Education Policy (NEP), 2019, evidently comes after concerted efforts from experts, making for a very comprehensive reading. Considering the long-felt need for reforms in the education system in order that India can break free from the archaic colonial structure, match up to the changing globalised trends, and also realise the aspiration of becoming an economic power, the NEP has not come too soon. Taking cognisance of the lacunae in the present education system, the authors have detailed the causative factors and have listed several reformatory measures, although some seem too ambitious and impractical.
Presently, India has the largest number of youths in the world, with 65% of the population below the age of 35 years. The average Indian is 29 years of age, as against 37 for Chinese, 40 for American, 46 for British and 48 for Japanese. The often-touted demographic dividend places an unprecedented onus on the country to channelise its youth through formal education and suitable employment.
The draft NEP has rightly expressed concern about a large number of drop-out and out-of-school children. The policy cites poor performance, low access and socio-cultural factors as causes. But almost 12% are child labour that is kept away from school, as per the 2011 census. Due to poverty, abandonment and government apathy, they lose their childhood to hard labour and are forced to live through stunted physical and intellectual growth.
This apart, large numbers of school drop-outs, many of whom I have interacted with, have had access, means and willing parents, but nothing convinced them to continue. They form the bulk of unorganised labour and unemployed youth. Severe punishment, regular humiliation, discrimination, wrongful detention, favouritism and vengeance robbed them of schooling.
Being first-generation learners, they perhaps lacked the tenacity to cope with such features regular in many schools even now. The teacher has been the highest common factor in these cases, due to lack of adequate training, incompetence, absence of professional pride, inability to handle stress or sheer frustration of being in the wrong job.
NEP suggests two basic initiatives to bring children back to school -- providing effective and sufficient infrastructure and tracking students, as well as their learning levels, in school. The idea seems too basic because these provisions are certainly necessary but not sufficient to make schools attractive for a child.
Despite the diverse backgrounds of children and individually different personalities, interest levels and temperaments, optimum learning can take place only in a non-threatening, happy environment. It is only the teacher in a classroom who has the power to create such ambience. Thus, selecting competent teachers and equipping them with necessary skills will largely ensure children attend school.
It is heartening to note that the policy recognises the importance of a developmentally appropriate curriculum and pedagogical structure to tone down the existing overload and sustain the interest levels of pupils. It brings promise of a transformation intended to minimise rote learning and encourage ‘holistic development’ by instilling certain behavioural components like critical thinking, creativity, rationality, collaboration, ethics and social responsibility.
Undoubtedly, education should be synonymous with all-round growth. Developing positive behaviour is as important, if not more, than cognitive progress. But to bring such a tall order to fruition would require a new brand of teachers, participatory classroom engagement, experiential learning and a very different examination and certification system.
Earlier, too, there have been several attempts at overhauling curriculum, changing the examination pattern, introducing life skills and moral education in schools and even colleges. Given the kind of bureaucratic set up and a top-down approach our education system is imprisoned in, the teachers were hardly involved or sufficiently trained to execute them, leading to sheer confusion. As a result, teachers were left to handle the changed curriculum in a manner they knew best, rather than the intended design.
A case in point is the ‘personality development’ and ‘life skills education’ courses introduced by Bangalore University in 2014-15. The curriculum framed by an expert committee, of which I was a member, was meant to encourage experiential learning through interactions, exercises and group discussions. With no thought or budget spent on trainings or workshops, it was taught like any other exam-oriented paper by part time teachers or those with the least workload, defying the very purpose of the much-needed education.
Thus, it is a matter of worry as to how these essential ‘21st century skills’ that NEP 2019 propounds will be imparted. Lessons learnt from higher education can well be applied to school education. As is the wont of the present stock of teachers to follow a set pattern of teaching, questioning and evaluating, it calls for an enormous country-wide exercise and ample budget provision to reorient them to the new thinking and revised pedagogy. Every single schoolteacher should receive adequate training, enabling them to bring about the desired outcomes.
While the policy understandably details the means of improving motivation and service conditions for teachers, it makes only a perfunctory remark on an important issue like teacher recruitment, which must follow a scientific process to gauge a candidate’s attitude, interest, integrity and skill, so that the right person is put on the job.
It is a pity that governments have habitually shown scant focus on education, evidenced by poor budgetary allocation, almost non-existent teacher empowerment and a large number of unfilled vacancies. Drafting policies is one thing, implementing it suitably is totally another. We hope that the government takes the draft NEP, which is a diligently drawn up document, seriously, lest it remains only on paper and gets archived for later generations to gaze at.
(The writer is a former professor of Psychology and Director, Eudaimonic Centre)