The five futures that the New Education Policy promises

India's dismal human development levels
India’s efforts to scale up investment in nurturing human capital and capabilities are far from satisfactory.

By Vijayalakshmi Balakrishnan

In late July 2020, the government of India unveiled a new education policy, the first in 34 years. Praise for the policy was muted, often sounded grudging, and yet, even the government’s harshest critics seemed to accept that this was not a false step. One thing the critics seemed to miss was the timing. The committee turned in its report in December 2018, calling it the 2019 draft policy and the final policy went through the Union cabinet in July 2020.

Eighteen months is a long time in politics and administration. And of those 18 months, six involved, a tectonic shift in the way school education was experienced by both students and teachers. And yet other than four references to the ongoing virus pandemic in the 2020 policy, (the 2019 draft has no reference to disease or a possible pandemic disrupting education forever) there is no analysis of this infection as a possible future.

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First, a walk through history. In 1981, 40.76% of all Indians were literate and 43.3% of girls in the 15-19-year age group who lived in rural India were literate. Clearly progress was being made, even if the pace of change was slow. Female literacy has been the lodestar of educational progress, as getting girls into school and keeping them there has been among the more difficult tasks educationists have faced. Female education required challenging of powerful forces such as the clergy and the institution of family. The only real ally in this fight has been the Constitution. The 15-19-year age group is pivotal as all of these girls would have been eligible for basic schooling in the past decade. That more than half the girls were not literate in 1981 means the school education system did not yet reach those who needed it. The 43.3% number meant that more than half the girls had no engagement with the education system.

Shorn of interpretation and mind-numbing numbers, the Census of 1981 showed that the Constitutionally guaranteed school education system did not reach children, especially girls. In 1986, the then new National Education Policy was crafted to turn the Constitutional vision of education for all into reality. The census of 2011, revealed, the literacy rate for girls in the 15-19-year age group in rural India was 89%. (India Literacy Rate 1981-2020). In one generation, family dynamics had been transformed.

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In 2011, soon after the Right to Education Act was operationalised, a man not given to hyperbole would acknowledge the role schools and the education system had played in his life. “Education gave me a new life… it is a magic wand that can help us meet any challenge.” Former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh got his initial education in Chakwal tehsil of undivided India, which today has a 100% literacy rate. Clearly the now old education policy of 1986 was a resounding success as it gave India’s children access to the yellow brick road to a better future. The new education policy architecture was built on this foundation.

The 400-plus pages draft national education policy, crafted by a committee of experts, was submitted to the ministry of human resources development of the Narendra Modi government in December 2018. What the Union cabinet approved in the summer of 2020 was a shorter succinct 60-odd page version. Both documents, underline that it is only seeking to complete the unfinished agenda of the earlier policy. So clearly staying on the yellow brick road was the agenda.

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Here are the five outcomes that the new education policy promises:

  • Expect the private-public divide to soften. When schools will restart, there will be a spike in admissions in government schools, and those aided by the government. This would be primarily because of the lower fees with no hidden costs. Parents, will make pragmatic decisions. They will supplement the inadequacies of the government sector with supplemental teaching. A public-private partnership will emerge, but it will be nothing like what was originally imagined.
  • In both urban and rural India, a majority of children will work and they will attend school in their spare time. Earlier, work supplemented schooling. Now schooling will supplement work.
    All children must be in school, not at work, was a public argument that became government policy after hard fought battles. The policy was, paraphrasing Jawaharlal Nehru, not successful wholly but very substantially. Children went to school most of the time and also worked alongside adult family members. For some years, stories of children as young as 12 years rushing home from school, wolfing down a meal and then running, cycling to work either at a store or a small unit have been common currency. With schools shut down, and adult earnings down by 70% to 100%, children are out to work in large numbers.
  • Teaching will become a team activity. Hybrid learning involving smart phones, text books, paper and pen will mean teaching will evolve into distinct strands. A new cadre of facilitators, those who interpret and facilitate learning, will emerge. The class teacher will become a facilitator, a generalist, comfortable in brick and mortar group interaction. In contrast, the subject teacher will become a specialist able to engage with groups across time and language barriers with the help of technology. This division of responsibilities, usually seen in higher education, will now percolate to school education.
  • Expect social distances to grow. The school was a site of change where the Constitution was experienced. It was normal for complaints about teachers, anganwadi workers, helpers and cooks who belonged to particular ethnicities to peak soon after they were posted. Ensuring the Constitution was adhered to required deft administrative handling. Within months, competence would be experienced. Usually by the end of the school year, the complainants would be the first to protest, transfer orders. Now with smaller classes, often held within a home, dry rations delivered at home, substituting for common kitchen and shared experiences, the role of the school in advancing Constitutional values will diminish.
  • Both family and the state will evolve newer forms of financing education. Blended financing will become the norm. The 2020 education policy has focused almost equal attention on philanthropic investments, as state investments.

These processes were already evident below the surface, yet to find reflection in government statistics. What the national education policy has done is to surface them. If the 1986 National Education Policy (updated in 1992) was testimony to the ambition of the Indian state, the 2020 policy is an acknowledgment of its limitations. We are veering off the yellow brick road.

(Vijayalakshmi Balakrishnan is a New Delhi-based public policy analyst and commentator. Views expressed in this article are personal.)