“Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high
Where knowledge is free
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments
By narrow domestic walls
Where words come out from the depth of truth
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way
Into the dreary desert sand of dead habit
Where the mind is led forward by thee
Into ever-widening thought and action
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.”
– Rabindranath Tagore, poem 35, Geetanjali, 1912
India’s long-awaited national policy on education rides on many expectations, millions of dreams of its children, hopes and aspirations of its young people, waiting for the promises made to them by none less than the country’s constitution.
For sixty years, despite all its schemes to ‘universalise access’, the country only ‘endeavoured’ to provide something it called education, reluctantly doling out poorly resourced, uninteresting and often inaccessible schools to the majority, and mostly dysfunctional colleges for the few who could resist being pushed out much earlier.
With effect from April 1, 2010, for children between the ages of 6 and 14, the constitution made it a fundamental right, no longer left hanging as a promise, at the behest of the state. The Right to Education Act stated that “every child of the age six to 14 years shall have a right to free and compulsory education in a neighbourhood school till completion of elementary education” (clause3.1).
Moreover, the Act laid down that ‘compulsory’ implied it was the obligation of the state to ensure admission, attendance and completion of good quality education, and ensure that a child belonging to a weaker section or disadvantaged group is not discriminated against and prevented from pursuing and completing elementary education on any grounds (clause 8).
In addition, it laid down in detail the quality of education every child was entitled to, including building up the child’s knowledge, potentiality and talent; learning through activities, discovery and exploration in a child friendly manner; making the child free of fear, trauma and anxiety and helping the child express views freely (clause 29). This right for India’s children was the path to the ‘heaven of freedom’ Tagore was praying for as early as 1901 (he later translated the Bengali poem into English, published in Geetanjali).
The National Education Policy 2020, unfortunately, does not seem to even acknowledge what the constitution mandates for all its children. It comes during an unprecedented pandemic, with over fifty thousand new cases being recorded each day, millions displaced after loss of livelihoods, children locked out of schools, deprived of their mid-day meals, even dying of exhaustion while walking or being dragged hundreds of kilometres back to their villages.
The economy is in a state of crisis and educational institutions have been shut for months, yet the NEP is now quietly approved by the cabinet, with no discussion in the parliament. It had taken its own time in the making, with different committees and reports; a five-hundred page Draft NEP (DNEP) was released in June 2019, with the names and signatures of the committee members, the drafting committee as well as the peer reviewers. After having taken over five years to be scripted, and coming over three decades after the last education policy, what was the anxious urgency for it to be ushered in under the present conditions?
Also, what was the reason for the confusion surrounding the ‘final’ policy? Among the various NEP documents doing the rounds on the day it was approved, there was one 60 page document (with the file name ‘For Circulation’ received by many through ‘reliable’ sources), the 71 page document given to the press in May 2020, or even the 484 page 2019 draft on the ministry site being confused as ‘the’ policy – but why was the actual ‘final’ 66 page document eventually released on the official website almost two days later?
On July 29 immediately after the cabinet approval, many media anchors and political commentators had confidently presented their analysis on the basis of other drafts, not the ‘final’ document. Yogendra Yadav, a leading political scientist actively engaged with education, physically displayed the 60-page NEP document, and lauded the extension of the Right to Education (RTE) Act from age 6-14 years to 3-18 years. He also commented on the Rashtriya Shiksha Ayog, a proposed apex body for overall governance headed by the Prime Minister, that was in the 2019 draft (23.1). He said the idea of RSA had been opposed by many and the policy now mentioned the education minister as chairperson. However, both these major facts were not true, were nowhere in the ‘final’ policy document which emerged two days later!
So what was happening? What could explain this lapse, considering there were significant differences in these multiple documents? Moreover, why did the final document not have any names, at least of the members of the committee, officially appointed by the government and always prominently displayed in policy reports? What about those who had drafted it, and those who may have summarised the longer 2019 document? Is it possible that the final document was still being finalised while it was being approved?
Also what was intriguing were the alternative drafts that seemed to have been strategically kept ready; after the strong protests in Tamil Nadu on Hindi being made compulsory in DNEP 2019, the clause was immediately replaced and another draft was released without the committee having to meet again.
There are clearly many unanswered questions that will in due course need to be explored as part of the long historic journey this document has traversed, through its ‘multiple pathways’, while perhaps internal negotiations between varied interest groups might also reveal the tensions of policy articulation. Insider insights can provide critical contributions to policy analysis, and a book we still refer to in our education courses is The Education Commission and After by the eminent educator and thinker J.P. Naik, twenty five years later reflecting on the Kothari Commission, of which he was the member secretary.
However, the present committee did not seem to have any educationist who could provide critical perspectives, which is also probably why the document is bereft of a socio-historical analysis of past policy interventions, the challenges for the current policy as well as a coherently articulated vision for education.
Unlike other policy documents that elaborate on a transformative vision of social justice as embedded in the constitution, this document hastily states its intention (p6): “An education system rooted in (the) Indian ethos that contributes directly to transforming India, that is Bharat, sustainably into a vibrant knowledge society, by providing high quality education to all, and thereby making India a global knowledge superpower” ….with ‘truly global citizens’.
The policy begins by stating upfront that the ‘lofty goals’ of the 2030 Agenda of Sustainable Development adopted by India in 2015, especially Goal 4 (SDG4) to “ensure inclusive and equitable quality education for all”, will require the entire education system to be reconfigured to support and foster learning (p 4). However, the reconfiguring threatens to lead to a deeply stratified and exclusive design, which in fact, even goes against the existing constitutional mandate of the RTE, with no commitment to extend it.
The constitution and its values are invariably prefaced, their import in a way effaced, with the terms such as fundamental duties or ethical and human values, so that the more mundane ‘respect for public property’ can precede equality or justice. In the long list of the fundamental principles that are meant to guide NEP (p. 5), one of the bullet points says it all:
“- ethics and human and constitutional values like empathy, respect for others, cleanliness, courtesy, democratic spirit, spirit of service, respect for public property, scientific temper, liberty, responsibility, pluralism, equality and justice.”
Interestingly, the 60p document ‘for circulation’ says (4.23) that while students will have the flexibility to choose their curricula, “some subjects and skills must be learned by all to become good, … adaptable and productive human beings in a rapidly changing world” (incidentally, many countries adopting a neo-liberal discourse are shifting their aims of education from those that call for ‘transforming society’ to adapting to a fast-changing world).
An interminably long list of ‘subjects and skills’ breathlessly flows out in one sentence – scientific temper and evidence based thinking; creativity and innovativeness; …….. sense of aesthetics and art, knowledge and practice of human and constitutional values (such as patriotism, sacrifice, non-violence, truth, honesty, peace, righteous conduct, forgiveness, tolerance, mercy, sympathy, helpfulness, cleanliness, courtesy, pluralism, responsibility, justice, liberty, equality and fraternity); etc. However, in the final document, the bracketed twenty values are incised from this section.
There is a serious move towards greater centralisation – through existing or proposed national institutions, such as the NCERT, the National Research Fund, the National Assessment Centre (now named PARAKH), National Testing Agency, National Educational Technology Forum, Higher Education Commission of India and many others – which departs from the constitutional concurrent status of education, where states make their policies, develop curricula, assessments, teacher recruitment norms, etc. as part of the federal structure of governance. In fact, on the same grounds, legal experts had opined that the RSA should not be proposed and many states had objected to it.
It is crucial that closer legal scrutiny is made regarding many of the major proposals made in this policy for what it calls the restructuring of school education. Firstly, NEP regresses to the terminology of providing ‘universal access’, not ensuring participation and completion as a right. More damagingly, it legitimises compromising with quality and calls for ‘alternative models of education’, through ‘multiple pathways’ which also include non-formal and open schooling (courses A, B and C equivalent to classes 3,5 and 8) by the national or state institutes of open schooling.
While the policy explicitly mentions gurukuls, madrasas, homeschooling, etc. it chooses to remain silent about the plethora of substandard low-fee private schools and the many Ekal vidyalayas run by right wing organisations. These can conveniently fall under ‘alternate models’ which circumvent compliance with the RTE, are not affiliated to any board, and get their children to appear only for the Open School examinations at the primary level. Sadly, this has been happening even before the policy legitimises them with new euphemisms. Indeed, the institute of open schooling has become a safe refuge for government school systems, such as in Delhi, to shunt out their ‘weak’ students, make them invisible after class 8 or 9, because their marks in the board examinations do not show up in the CBSE results and sully the advertisements the state government places on the front pages of newspapers.
The policy repeatedly insinuates that the regulatory framework (of RTE) for opening new schools is very restrictive and will be loosened “to ensure that all students, particularly from underprivileged and disadvantaged sections, shall have universal, free and compulsory access to high-quality and equitable schooling from early childhood care and education (age 3 onwards) through higher secondary education (i.e. until Grade 12)”(section 8.8).
Having brokered a bargain to do away with RTE, it assures that the emphasis will be on ‘outcomes’, not inputs. Requirements “will be loosened, to allow suitable flexibility for each school to take its own decisions based on local needs and constraints”. Its invitation to non-government philanthropic organisations (section 3.6), through “public philanthropic partnership” – a new twist to the acronym PPP – is a way to piously avoid the term private, to show that education remains ‘not-for-profit’, which it must by law, while openly pushing to expand the market.
In devising a Foundational Literacy and Numeracy Stage (age 3-8 years) by combining three years of Early Childhood Care and Education (age 3-6 years under the anganwadi workers) and grades one and two of primary schools, it offers a minimalist curriculum and, worryingly, opens the space to minimally trained volunteers, community members and also child-tutors from the same school. Not only is the term ‘tutoring’ out of place in a national policy document, having primary children ‘tutor’ others is quite unheard of. Educational theories recognise that learning is a social constructivist process where children construct knowledge not individually but while interacting with each other or with adults, but peer-learning is not ‘peer- tutoring’.
Its centralised focus on state examinations even in grades 3, 5 and 8 in addition to the board examinations in grades 10 and 12 runs contrary to the RTE which had banned children from being subjected to any board examination till grade 8, and even its modified section 16 allows a regular school examination. Similarly, it pushes for “national textbooks with local content and flavour” (section 4.31) where textbooks contain “the essential core materials deemed important on a national level, but at the same time contain any desired nuances and supplementary materials as per local contexts and needs”.
The notion of deciding ‘essential core content’ at the national level and allowing states to only garnish with ‘local nuances or flavours’, problematically impinges upon their constitutional role to develop their own curricula. It also goes against principles of curriculum development which demand that it is culturally rooted in the experiences and environment of learners.
Moreover, the record of the same national institutions in tinkering with textbooks or deleting crucial chapters under the pretext of reducing curriculum during the pandemic crisis or otherwise, does not inspire confidence in the quality of such academic adventure.
One can only hope that this iconic poem by Faiz, Subah-e-Azaadi from Chapter 1 of the NCERT grade 12 textbook “Political Science in India Since Independence” will indeed remain among the essential national core content:
The Dawn of Freedom
This scarred, marred brightness, this bitten-by-night dawn
The one that was awaited, surely, this is not that dawn.
Teacher education, which has been an area of serious concern, is being sought to be restructured, but the track record of policy interventions in this area is not encouraging. Over 90% of teacher education institutes are run by the private sector and most offer very poor quality programmes at commercially high costs. With no serious commitment for investing in high quality public education, poor regulatory mechanisms, and little evidence of recruitment of good teachers at all levels in the past, the rhetoric of a robust culture of autonomous, innovative and motivated teaching faculty fails to convince.
On the other hand, the introduction of a tenure track, longer probations, multiple levels of a salary scale, performance appraisals through peer, student and community review, ‘flexible’ modular on-line choices for professional development point to more possibilities of good people feeling harassed and constrained in the profession. What is happening to some of our best teachers who strive and stand up for justice for their students or for others in society is now before us.
Reading a new policy happens in a given context, and for this one, we have had some years to see where it is coming from and which direction it is taking. Thousands of schools have already been closed or merged in the name of efficiency; NEP justifies school complexes where teachers will be assigned and shared, and large colleges to house 3000 at a time.
Enrolments in higher education will be enlarged through open and on-line courses, and half of school and college enrolments will be diverted to vocational education, which is more ‘skills’ than ‘knowledge’. Crafting newer hierarchies through the education system, the policy remains in denial of the socio-historical underpinnings of disadvantage, deprivation and exclusion, and fumbles with acronyms to merge and blur the identities shaped by these realities.
What it means to be a Dalit or a Muslim child today, how teachers and other students look at a physically challenged girl or a poor tribal boy is mirrored in the expectations the system has from them, and traces their trajectories within and beyond school. In the policy, they all lie clubbed under the acronym SEDG – socio economically disadvantaged groups (the DNEP 2019 had baptised them as URG – underrepresented groups).
Knowing that many, many students may have already been pushed out during the pandemic, or hurled into the deepening digital divide, let yet another celebration of independence not snatch from our children the small tickets to the heaven of freedom our constitution has given them.
Anita Rampal was a professor and dean at the Faculty of Education, Delhi University.