For better or worse, the new National Education Policy (NEP) is now official. Commendably, it emphasises on early childhood education, places unprecedented stress on the education of children with disabilities, and seeks to lay down a career path for teachers.
It offers a more humanistic vision of education, freeing students from the stresses of high-stakes examinations, tuition culture and an education system based on memorisation. On the flip side, it fails to address the structural inequalities in the education system that block India’s young citizens’ chance to receive the same high standard of education irrespective of their class, caste, creed or geographic location.
While the policy’s stated intention is to end commercialisation in education, it risks promoting privatisation of education by facilitating the opening of new “philanthropic” private schools, “alternative models of education” and “public philanthropic partnerships”.
While a debate rages over the pros and cons of the policy’s specific provisions, it is important to recognise that India has a fairly poor track record of implementation of its past policies. The vision needs to be converted into manageable steps, prioritising the most critical actions and gradually moving towards more complex changes.
Ensure that the policy is fully and equitably financed
The NEP’s success is predicated on the availability of adequate funding. The Kothari Commission over 50 years ago was the first to recommend spending 6% of the GDP on education. India is yet to come close to meeting this commitment made before most of its citizens were born. The NEP reiterates this commitment, but is silent on how and by when the additional funds would be ensured.
Significant additional central investments are particularly needed for India’s educationally lagging and poor states with a high share of marginalised communities. This has been estimated by the National Institute of Public Finance and Policy (NIPFP) to be around 10% GSDP for Bihar, 3.2% in Jharkhand and 3% in Odisha, 1.9% in Chhattisgarh and 1.8% in Uttar Pradesh.
Providing legal teeth for universal implementation
A policy document, by definition, is not binding.The commendable emphasis on Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) and secondary education would need to be also built into India’s legal framework through the extension of the Right to Education (RTE) Act to ensure policy and law are on the same page.
The NEP’s implementation will not happen without its good intentions being converted into instruments of governance through creating justiciable entitlements. The policy’s drafters themselves appear to lack faith in its complete implementation since they envisage the creation of Special Education Zones where “schemes and policies are implemented to the maximum through additional concerted efforts”.
The policy must be implemented everywhere, not just where convenient or where the population is most lagging. Without a legal universal obligation, there is a clear risk of the realisation of the broad humanistic vision of the policy being restricted to elite schools, while the reality in mainstream government schools remains unchanged or gets worse.
Avoiding administrative confusion
The NEP proposes the creation of a host of newly created layers of (potentially understaffed and under-resourced) government units that would be jostling for space during the early stages of the policy roll-out.
The single education department will be split to create a Department of School Education, a Directorate of School Education, and the State School Standard Authority (SSSA). It would be imperative to resolve anticipated turf issues between the ministries of women and child development, and education with respect to delivery of ECCE and national/state commissions for protection of child rights (not mentioned even once in the policy, but holding a legal mandate to oversee the implementation of the RTE) and the newly created school administrative bodies.
All newly created positions must be adequately staffed and their occupants sensitised to the new policy intent and supported; none of this has been spelled out in the policy.
Far from de-regulating the education system, the NEP could create new layers of bureaucracy.A much smaller adjustment in roles caused through the merger of elementary and secondary administration into Samagra Shiksha Abhiyan had reportedly contributed to policy paralysis as new officials struggled to understand their new roles.The splitting and re-distribution of roles should not result in administrative chaos as the 100,000 odd people working in the education machinery across India’s states struggle to understand their new roles and adjust to new ways of working.
Focusing on the two levels above the individual teacher to handhold change
The textbooks, curricula, the very stages of education will change over a 5-10-year period. The next five years are expected to see a re-grouping of schools and the expectation that all children will achieve foundational literacy and numeracy.
This cannot be achieved without strengthening the structures tasked with academic support of teachers like the CRCs, BRCs and DIETs. The NEP devotes little attention to their strengthening, but they need to be brought on board throughout the process of change.
With significant attention being placed on clusters of schools, school complexes as units of planning and support, it would be critical to ensure that they bring extra resources and not snatch already scarce funds from under-resourced schools. The process of change should bring something extra, not take things away.
Supporting citizens’ voice
The policy needs to strengthen the role of citizens in education. The watchdog role of civil society and statutory structures for community participation in education including PRIs, school management and school complex management committees must be strengthened. It will be important to bolster mechanisms of redress-, giving citizens a clear window where their complaints against non-implementation could be submitted and acted upon.
Towards accountability of the private sector
The NEP’s stated intention to address commercialisation in education but promote philanthropic non-state engagement means we need to apply higher accounting and auditing standards to private schools.
At present almost all private schools collect excessive fees and conceal profits. There must be zero tolerance of violations of recognition requirements and concrete steps to address screening, discrimination and segregation by private schools. An overarching legally binding framework to address regulation of private school fees and overall regulation of non-state education providers would be critical.
Garnering social and political will
The policy’s implementation would also be dependent on the political will for its implementation and the government’s capacity to enter into social dialogue with the state administrations, teachers and their associations, parents, and civil society.
To be successful, the policy needs to win the hearts and minds of India’s administrators, teachers, students, parents and communities at large who would then need to be supported throughout the process of its implementation. If doing so would require changes in some of its specific provisions, the government should be ready to do so as long as the NEP’s humanistic vision and the constitutional principles of equality are not compromised.
The NEP needs to be read, debated (in Parliament and otherwise) and owned by the administration, teachers and others working on education. The adoption of the policy by the cabinet is just the first step in a decade-long journey.
(Anjela Taneja leads the work on education, health and inequality at Oxfam India. She is one of the founder members of the RTE Forum, India’s largest education network, and coordinates the Fight Inequality Alliance in India. Views expressed are personal.)