Jaipur: What the National Education Policy 2020 (NEP) says “contradicts the Right To Education Act”, Anita Rampal, professor and former dean of the Faculty of Education at Delhi University, told IndiaSpend. This policy was approved by the Indian cabinet on July 29, 2020.

Rampal said it took 60 years to make education a fundamental right through the Right to Education Act (RTE), which was passed in 2010. This guaranteed every child, up to the age of 14 years, quality education in a neighbourhood school. But the new policy calls the requirements of the RTE “too restrictive” and allows different kinds of schools to set up and function without meeting essential norms such as on pupil-teacher ratio, she said. “It [the new policy] has no commitment to children, equity, inclusion or quality,” she added.

Rampal, who has been the chairperson of the primary textbook development committees of the National Council for Education, Research and Training (NCERT), is especially interested in developing curricula and textbooks. We interviewed her on the major challenges facing India’s education system, where the NEP falls short and what the solutions could be.

Edited excerpts:

What are the biggest problems in the Indian education system?

One, that we have not yet been able to fulfil the commitment of the fundamental right [to education]. If, after 60 years of the Constitution, there had to be a major struggle, a major movement, to get education as a fundamental right for every child up to the age of 14 years, it shows that something was terribly wrong with the system. Even though the system kept saying that it was going to provide ‘universal access’, these words sort of felt hollow when what was happening on the ground was a major compromise both with universality of education as well as the quality of what passed as education.

Do you think the New Education Policy has some provisions to address these issues?

No. In fact, what it’s saying tends to even contradict the Right to Education Act. So that is really worrying. In every way, it’s trying to say the RTE is very restrictive and so what it calls a “multiple pathway” or an alternate model of education is, in fact, contradicting the very basic requirement of the RTE. It is unbelievable that the policy talks of open schooling for children even in elementary school. This is totally unacceptable as it goes against the right of a child which entitles good quality education in a neighbourhood school and ensures admission, attendance and completion. There is no question of saying only access [to schools is sufficient].

The policy is now fully endorsing just about any kind of organisation, even those organisations which today circumvent affiliating themselves with a board because then there are some requirements [to be fulfilled] such as the qualifications of a teacher, the pupil-teacher ratio, etc. [The policy is saying that now, along with gurukuls, madrasas and homeschooling, many other players can come in and start schools.]

We know that already the system is contending with a large segment of what is being aggressively pushed as low-fee private schools. This is being talked about in other countries as a billion-dollar industry which India offers [for instance, read this and this report]. That segment also circumvents all the essential requirements. Or, for instance, Ekal Vidyalayas, which have a single teacher and are affiliated to the Open School system, and don’t necessarily follow the norms of the RTE. This is anyway a matter of concern and if the policy says many more such schools will be welcomed with substantially less restrictive norms, then that is quite disturbing

What is the right model for funding, managing and running schools?

A good public education system. A model that has been held by all our policies and which the RTE was trying to strengthen, and make sure that there are no stratifications within the government system itself. The government system today is itself stratified. You can have a very well-resourced Navodaya Vidyalaya or a Kendriya Vidyalaya and you can have, right at the bottom, a very ordinary, poorly resourced government school where there aren’t enough teachers. Even in Delhi, you have six-seven kinds of schools with different kinds of qualifications and different kinds of teachers in them. This should not be the case with government schools. If there is a Kendriya Vidyalaya which is so well resourced, then we need the same kind of resources for any child in any school and that is what the campaign for RTE had demanded. But obviously that has not been fulfilled

What should the education policy have contained? What is your vision of an education policy?

[An education policy should be] telling us what were the kinds of problems in the years that have gone by, especially after 2010 [when the RTE was passed] and what is it that the system has tried to do. Why is it that we have only 12.7% schools compliant with the RTE? This is what the policy should have done, rather than giving up and raising their hands and saying that it is too restrictive; which of course tells you that it has no commitment for children, and equity, inclusion or quality. Ensuring that there isn’t a proliferation of private schools or teacher education institutions, for which the government gives permission, but instead telling us in what way they are really strengthening the public system.

The Justice Verma Commission told us that 85% of teacher education institutions are in private hands, most of them substandard, and hundreds that need to be closed. [The policy should be] telling us why that didn’t happen, why now there are even more such commercial substandard institutions and why there isn’t enough talk about public investment in teacher education. Why does there continue to be a major shortage of qualified teachers in schools? Where are new institutions going to come up and how? How are existing institutes going to be strengthened?

[Here is our story on how the teacher training budget had fallen six years to 2019.]

The model which the policy talks about is completely pushing for centralisation and that, in fact, goes against the constitutional framework of federalism, against the role of states. Education is a concurrent subject, states have to make policies, states have to make recruitment rules, and develop curricula. This policy is overruling that by saying that the national body, NCERT, will develop curricula, and under their guidance states will work. Not only that, it says that there will be an essential national core component of the curriculum, which is of national importance and that states will garnish it with local flavour and content of desired nuances. Even the way it is written sounds quite condescending about the role of the states in education. It does not say how the national body there can play a role to help capacity enhancements, with sharing across states and making sure that education is done at the state level, at a decentralised level, as the constitution mandates.

This centralisation thrust goes right up to the higher levels of education where it clearly says that national research funding will closely be tied with industry and the government to decide what areas are of national importance. That doesn’t give any confidence to existing research institutions. In fact, social science research institutions are already facing major problems. The kinds of committees that come there for appraisal, they push for their agendas, or question agendas that are constitutional, or question them [researchers] about the communities they choose to research and work with.

You had mentioned equity and inclusion in education. How does the NEP look at equity and inclusion and what should it be doing to achieve that?

Equity is tied to quality and quality is tied to equity. Our founding vision for education is for it to be addressing inequities in society. Democracy will be strengthened if education plays that role of promoting an understanding of each other, ensuring inclusion of people from diverse backgrounds. The Kothari Commission had even said that if you think that you are going to buy quality by segregating your child in some private school then that is a seriously tainted notion of quality. Just as the Supreme Court had defended the quota in private schools for children from economically weaker sections (EWS), and also mandated the midday meal, on the grounds that this is to strengthen the social fabric of democracy because it gives an opportunity to all children of different socio-economic backgrounds, castes and religions, to be studying and eating together. So that is what the role of a school was envisioned as. That is also the role of a school that the RTE is calling for.

This policy [NEP] is showing us that it is not going to promote children coming from diverse backgrounds, those from poorer homes and from disadvantaged and deprived backgrounds to be really studying together right from school to college. Once it says that small suboptimal schools will not be functioning, it’s already taking away access from those in remote, small rural habitations. It’s saying teachers will [also] be recruited to school complexes, thus promoting merger and closure of schools in the name of making them optimal larger systems. Using the economic notion of scale and efficiency, it is completely giving up on its commitment to equity. The notion of school complexes, or colleges, with a minimum of 3,000 students, under the name of consolidation, is giving up on equity and inclusion.

It is also promoting segregation in schools. It says there are some children who can do with other children as tutors. It says this in the context of ensuring that there are no drop-outs. Rather, we call them push-outs because children don’t drop-out on their own, they are pushed out of the system. It says that there can be a community volunteer who can teach them, there can be a child tutor from the same school. This is shocking, to say the least. To talk of tutoring...for one, we don’t use that word… that word shouldn’t come in a national policy on education. Tutoring is not education, especially for the children who deserve more attention, care and resources from the system. To say that a child tutor will do the job under the supervision of a teacher, this is quite unheard of. Anganwadi workers, other volunteers… allowing anyone from the community to come and teach young children?

These are the kinds of things that tell us that it has completely given up on the right to equitable education for children who are already disadvantaged. We know who they are… we know which community, which religion or caste or geographical areas these children might belong to. Clubbing them all together… not even using the word Dalit, tribal or a Muslim child. It clubs all of them together to call them SEDG--socially economically disadvantaged groups. In the draft last year, it called them URG--underrepresented groups. It still cannot decide which acronym to use. It just shows a lack of commitment and a complete, a very conscious neglect of these issues. The system refuses to have a special lens to look at how these kinds of deprivations and disadvantages have to be stopped and addressed because the system itself then reproduces inequalities.

The NEP 2020 changes the school structure from a 10+2 (class 10 + classes 11 and 12) to a 5+3+3+4 structure which combines three years of anganwadi or ‘pre-school’ with classes 1 and 2 in the first five years. How does the restructuring change things on the ground as to how and what children are taught?

It lowers expectations when it clubs classes 1 and 2 with three years of anganwadi, which we know is not functioning satisfactorily in terms of education. It has not been designed that way. It is predominantly a nutrition programme and it was hoped that they [children] would be able to get some early childhood education there. We call them [anganwadi workers] workers or instructors, they are not teachers. If we are serious about children who don’t get support from their homes then we really need a professional approach to even early education which is not pre-school. Using these words, ‘school-ready’, ‘pre-school’, is very damaging. Then we know what happens...terribly unprofessional ways of teaching by focusing on alphabets or rote memory of numerals. That is what primary school gets reduced to and then that comes down to even pre-school. We have seen how private nurseries function. Just counting and doing alphabet is not what children should be doing at that age. Just calling it playway or fun doesn’t give us any confidence that the policy understands what education in this foundational age group should be. Moreover, terming it a foundational numeracy and literacy phase is worse because then you are narrowly focusing only on literacy and numeracy and that is not what the child should be doing at that age.

What should be the foundational learning for a child?

There is a whole body of work on how we look at children that age [three to eight years; children in kindergarten and classes 1 and 2] and how learning happens. What kinds of activities, what stimulating materials, in what way language is learnt. Not through staring at alphabets and learning how to say ka, kha, ga or A, B, C, D. Or even enumerating numbers because children need to develop a numbers-sense, not just recognise or say out number names in a sequence. There is a lot of research whether it is in early numeracy or emergent literacy, but that does not reflect in what is written here [in the NEP]. Five years of just literacy and numeracy is not what you expect a child to be doing. This is dumbing down and trivialising what a child can learn. Children can do so much more, their concepts get developed, they start making observations, predictions, forming their own intuitive explanations, they explore and actively improvise with their hands, they learn to establish relationships with the world and with people. They have a nuanced social and environmental understanding, especially those whose lives are closely engaged in relationships with diverse people, different kinds of work and nature. Given a stimulating learning environment and not forced to memorise information or definitions that do not make sense, offers a sound scaffolding for their own processes of meaning-making. We have struggled to provide space for diverse children to learn together and meaningfully, even while developing the primary school curriculum and textbooks for NCERT.

You have spoken about education as being transformative rather than upholding the status quo. How do you think that can be achieved?

Education is transformative in many ways, in trying to understand society, in terms of the pedagogies we were using as part of the NCF [National Curriculum Framework], etc. Whatever you do, you do from a lens of social justice and for transformative agency. Even when you are doing mathematics, you are not just doing it as some algorithms--decontextualised, removed from life. At most, what the school traditional algorithms talk about is buying and selling something. But that is not it.

You look at even mathematics through the life of a junk seller--there is a chapter in the primary textbook of NCERT which is ‘Kiran, the junk seller’. It’s a true story of a woman who runs a junk shop in Patna; there is another thematic chapter on fish and fishworkers. Mathematics through the lives of people--living close to the environment, the forest, the mountains, the sea; this gives a sense of people’s relationship with the environment, for they don’t look at the forest as a resource to be exploited or as something to be mined. Allowing other children to look at the world through the eyes of people who are in some way striving to sustain and have a sustainable relationship with it. That is something we bring either through education for sustainable development or through critical pedagogy, which forces us to use a lens of social justice.

Social justice does not come only in political science or social science. It comes in science, in mathematics, in language. That was the perspective that we have built on and have worked on, either in a state or at the national level.

That is completely forgotten when the policy reduces it to just literacy or numeracy or when it lists out in one breath 30 values or 40 values, where justice is the last one. What comes early in that list might be as mundane as caring for public property or cleanliness or even patriotism, way before equality or justice. Every time constitutional values have been mentioned right through the document, they have been marginalised by what is put in the name of ethical or human values, deliberately, consciously, to marginalise the notions of justice and rights and equity. That is a clear enough signal as to what is being undone--what has already been envisioned in past policies or done in education from a transformative social justice lens.

The NEP mentions vocational education. You are a proponent of education through productive work. Will vocational education achieve this?

This also takes from the 1938 Zakir Hussain Committee which was the first vision for a national elementary system in the country even before Independence and was based on Nai Talim [new pedagogy]. Schools were set up across the country in many states...hundreds of schools were set up under Nai Talim. It was meant to be education for life, from life. This meant that your entire curriculum was centred on the medium of a craft or some productive work. Professor K G Saiyadain, the education secretary, had looked at schools in Jammu and Kashmir and said that these were running ration shops, or even a dispensary as part of the learning process of children. This is what productive work was. Not only do you grow food for yourself but you also grow it with the community and for the community. That’s why it said it is ‘education through life’. Even today, a school like the Sevagram school in Wardha--which has been revived--follows this. Even while doing the Maharashtra school board curriculum, they [students of Sevagram] have many crafts, including agriculture, where they grow their food, cook it and even sell vegetables to the community, as part of the timetable, as part of the curriculum.

Not focusing on vocation, which is still tied to caste, Nai Talim worked against the model of caste, insisted on everyone cleaning their toilets and all children doing the same kind of work. We say ‘work in education’ and not ‘vocational education’. Whereas this policy [the NEP] is trying to push for vocational education at grade six, seven, eight and trivialising a serious issue by calling it a fun course. They will do a course in middle school and an internship for 10 days. There are again questions--what would these internships be and would they be again tied to caste? Depending on where the school is and who the children are, where will they get these internships? In the village, even now, whether you are doing carpentry or leather work or something else, these are strongly entrenched in the caste system. This does not seem to be of concern to the system [as seen in the NEP], you do not find the word caste or the challenges faced by Dalit children. These issues give a sense of the direction the policy is taking.

They want to push for vocational education, earlier than what the previous policies did. Earlier, before grade 10, the policy mandated equivalent courses for all, not even advanced mathematics for some and lower mathematics for others. The principle was to push the system to develop a curriculum which works for everyone, which is truly inclusive. It is not meant to segregate early or say you are the bright ones so you will do advanced mathematics. That was also a purpose of democratising every subject and ensuring that it allows diversity of interests and dispositions and is inclusive. You know mathematics is known as a ‘killer’ subject and most people fail or begin to dislike it, and that’s the way it’s taught and that’s the way it’s designed. My own work has been to change that. Similarly in all courses, if it’s English, design it in a way that it’s from life and it makes everyone feel that they can be included in it. Don’t keep it more advanced for the privileged as you are creating hierarchies within the system. The task of education should be to break hierarchies, not create fresh ones. Unfortunately that is what the government school system is today doing.

Delhi government schools have two classes: nishthha and pratibha. I know children who have left school when they were put in nishthha--supposed to be for ‘weaker students’ and their friends stopped talking to them. This boy said: “I go to the water cooler and my friends don’t talk to me because now they are in pratibha and they look down on me” and he was so demotivated that he left school. The curriculum is dumbed down for the so-called ‘slow learners’, even the examination is different. The system is supposed to break hierarchies and now these school systems are using all kinds of means--a separate school or even no school at all--only open, distance or online education, separate sections in school, a separate label, a separate examination, to actually create many more hierarchies and that is totally unacceptable, [is] even against a child’s fundamental right.

What kinds of resources would be required for the changes you mentioned and how would those resources come by?

There is no acknowledgement of that. For years now we have been hearing this totally hollowed out statement of 6% of GDP, which means nothing, so I don’t even want to comment on that. We know that this government is clearly saying that so-called ‘public philanthropic partnerships’ will come in. So it’s not even making a commitment of its own. Till now there are schemes of scholarship for students at higher-secondary level and students in colleges funded by the government. Now they are saying that philanthropic bodies will fund that. You are even absolving your own responsibility. The government is calling for autonomy for colleges, which includes financial autonomy, that means raising your own funds. That is why even the top colleges in Delhi, through their teacher unions, had a couple of years back, refused to apply for autonomous status. They said that will come with having to raise funds and raise their fees. Colleges also realise the need to remain part of a larger network, to discuss and develop curricula, to share in solidarity their resources as well as challenges, rather than become completely isolated.

[Here is our story on how India’s education budget would not be able to fund the draft education policy of 2019.]

(Khaitan is a writer/editor with IndiaSpend.)

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