The wordy ‘New Education Policy’ is full of catchy phrases, but can it work?

Resources and shortage of teachers have hampered education for ages. Can a new policy overnight and magically change the grim reality with ‘holistic, multi-disciplinary and inquiry-driven’ education?

Representative Image (Photo Courtesy: IANS)
Representative Image (Photo Courtesy: IANS)
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Ranjona Banerji

The new National Education Policy has at least got us talking about education. However, the cynical mind says that this means nothing and soon we will be distracted by celebrity lives and of course the more pressing issues of trying to survive between the machinations of the virus and the oscillations of an incompetent and malicious government.

“Good in parts” is what the curate replied when his boss asked him at breakfast what his egg was like. And thus, in its wide sweeping range the NEP 2020 has much to offer. Examinations will no longer be the end all of school life, the strict partitions between the arts, sciences and commerce will be broken down.

Lovely words like “holistic”, “experiential”, “multi-disciplinary” “discovery-oriented”, “inquiry-driven” are sprinkled everywhere. In keeping with the zeitgeist, climate change is discussed and the need for a new skilled labour.

I quote: “Indeed with the quickly changing employment landscape and global ecosystem, it is becoming increasingly critical that children not only learn, but more importantly, learn how to learn”.

Obviously, this is the abstract where grand outlines are stated.

But where it comes unstuck is in its language policy. At the best of times, this is a contentious issue. Add to that a government whose belief system runs on slogans like “Hindu Hindi Hindustani”, has disdain for English and western education in general and a stated desire to take India back to some mythical golden age, and there is widespread suspicion.

The NEP has been put together by a range of experts many who know from experience that children who speak different languages at home and are forced into English have severe problems of both comprehension and progress. Because this problem is not clearly stated, it is read as the intent to either remove English learning at the government school level or impose Hindi in areas where it is not commonly spoken.

Part of this mistrust arises because it is not possible to distinguish between expert-speak and political intent within this policy. And ground realities usually have little match with grandiose talk. Across India, parents want their children to be proficient in English because they want both upward mobility and widespread job choices for them. This problem has not been addressed.

And if a wordy, long policy cannot specify its language objectives in clear terms, then we’re in trouble even before we start. We currently have a three-language system. The problem is in the implementation. There is nothing to suggest that using a word like “multi-lingual” will substantially change what is currently going on. Would the solution not be to augment rather than change?

Education is on the concurrent list and the major brunt of the cost will be borne by the states. The proposed increase in education outlay from 4 % to 6% in the Union Budget is peanuts. The NEP 2020 is an extraordinarily ambitious idea and the mind boggles at how it will deal with ground realities.

For instance, village schools which have only one teacher for four classes and two rooms with no working toilets. How will these problems be resolved? Does “multidisciplinary” mean that from classes 5 to 8 (or as the NEP calls them “grades” because, apparently, we are now American) children of varying ages learn the same thing at the same time?

If a village anganwadi is lucky enough to have two teachers, one often spends all day cooking the mid-day meal. Since a nutritious breakfast has now been added, will the other teacher cook that? Beautiful acronyms like ECCE (early Childhood Care and Education) mean nothing unless huge amounts are money are pumped in at the smallest, forgotten level.

These two examples come from my personal experience of village schools in Uttarakhand. There is a massive shortfall of teachers, and we’re not talking quality here. Payment levels are skewed and often even paying teachers is lowest on the list of government budgetary priorities.

Money remains the biggest problem. Or lack of it. The Indian education system is stuffed with high-level commissions and reports, all gathering dust. Because of the quality differences between public and private schools, already existing social divisions are magnified.

And within that, lies the biggest fear of the language policy in people’s minds. That the rich will stick to English and the rest will be left out of a global system. The NEP only adds more fuel to that fire.

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