Draft NEP recognises the ‘learning crisis’ in schools

Educating India: With draft NEP 2019, the Centre has a chance to transform education at all levels.

Smitin Brid

The Draft National Education Policy 2019, released by the government recently, is based on the guiding goals of access, equity, quality, affordability and accountability. It is open to public discussion and comments until the end of June.

It is well accepted that exposure to good quality early childhood education can be a key contributor to children’s later growth and learning. Previous policy documents mention the importance of early childhood education, but this draft document takes this discussion further firmly in several ways and lists concrete ideas on how to deliver quality early childhood education to all children. The draft document underlines the need for cognitive stimulation in early years and states that the age group 3 to 8 should be viewed as a continuum, the Foundational Stage.

At a conceptual level, integrating the preschool/anganwadi layer with Std 1-2 in school is a welcome move. But as policy and in practice, this convergence between Education departments and the Department of Women and Child Development, all the way from the Centre to the state to district to community, could pose a major challenge and will have to be worked out in great detail.

Private schools, even in rural areas, prefer that children enter their institution earlier than Std. 1. These schools already have pre-school segments like Lower and Upper KG classes. However, in this sector, preschool education is treated as a downward extension of the primary curriculum and practices tend to be “school like” and narrowly academic. A recent Ambedkar University-ASER Centre-UNICEF study has shown that as far as quality is concerned, neither the government nor private preschools are offering developmentally appropriate practices. 

The study shows that both in anganwadis and private preschools the maximum time is spent either in no activity, or in formal teaching of the 3Rs (Read-wRite-aRithmetic) or routine activities like recording attendance or in organizing or distributing meals. Developmentally appropriate practices like planned outdoor, indoor play and storytelling are missing. It will be essential to ensure that the integration of pre-school with primary school does not mean that “school like” content, curriculum and teaching-learning practices prevail in the early years.   

The draft NEP talks about preparing children for school but does not discuss how schools are to be prepared for the children. Most early childhood curriculums and pedagogies are very colourful in nature, where children have the freedom to play, to express themselves freely, to work in groups. Socio-emotional growth and development has high priority. In contrast, the school curriculum, even in early grades like Std 1 and 2, is formal, linear, subject-oriented. The transition from one to the other is not easy for most children. Our school curriculum and pedagogies also do not equip teachers with how to deal with children who are at different levels in one class.

In terms of delivery, the focus in this policy is only on capacity building of Anganwadi workers (frontline workers) and not the levels above them. Mentoring and handholding of these workers are also important. Therefore, strengthening the system of training and monitoring of these preschools is important. While the document does state that Std 1 teachers need preparation and training, here too, there is not much of a mention of the importance of aligning the entire system of monitoring, movement, mentoring to support the interaction of teachers and children on the ground.

Educating and nurturing the children is not the job of only the government. This is a joint responsibility of society and governments. The draft NEP rightly stresses the importance of the community’s role in supporting children’s growth and development.  

School readiness needs to be defined concretely so that the transition of young children from preschool to Std 1 is smooth. If it is defined clearly and made simple enough for everyone to understand, then everyone, especially parents, can support children to become school-ready, irrespective of their social background or economic conditions.

Based on our long experience in the early childhood space, we know that the mothers of children who attend anganwadis are also young. These mothers are the most important resource available to prepare them for learning. Given that the draft NEP has brought up the need to bring in community members into the early years space, this may provide the right opportunity to bring mothers more centrally into the child’s learning journey. 

The draft new education policy document recognises the “learning crisis” in India. We are far from becoming an educated nation. If we have to take an educational quantum leap, then we need to decide how and in how much time. Or, should we continue on the path of linear improvement of the system? India is huge and so everything has to happen on a massive scale. The success of NEP 2019 will depend on careful planning and a well-thought-out implementation strategy, consistent with ground realities.  

(The writer co-heads the early childhood initiatives at Pratham Education Foundation)

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