Covid-19: A historic opportunity to redefine the Indian school system
Respected Dr Ramesh Pokhariyal ‘Nishank’ ji,
I write to you not just as the education minister of Delhi but also as a citizen and parent concerned about the future of millions of children of our country. After a prolonged closure of schools due to the coronavirus disease (Covid-19), it is heartening to know that ministry of human resource development is devising basic guidelines for reopening schools. The Delhi chief minister, Arvind Kejriwal, said some time ago that “we need to learn to live with corona” and reopening of schools with reasonable precautions is a welcome step in that direction.
While the pandemic has created an unprecedented challenge for humanity, it also offers a unique opportunity to re-imagine our schools. In the new way of life post-corona, we need to think afresh about the role of our schools. We can transform schools from being a mere implementers of directions from the directorate or district headquarters to having a central role in our society. And, it would be a historical blunder if we miss this opportunity by not entrusting our schools with a bigger and bolder role to prepare children for a better life and not just for lessons from their textbooks.
In this regard, here is what I would like to suggest. First, we need to assure every child, irrespective of age and social class, that they are important to us and all of them have an equal right to the physical and intellectual space of their respective schools. The clamour of online teaching or older children coming to school first and not the younger ones should be put to rest. Online teaching can only complement the learning in school, not replace it. Similarly, in being mindful of ensuring access with equity for all children, students of secondary grades should not be prioritised over primary-grade children. Learning at all stages is important, whether it is preparing for board exams or learning to read and write.
Here, I envision two distinct approaches for children of different age groups.
To learn to live with the virus, what better place than the school to learn that lesson and which better grades than the early grades from nursery to Class 8. Children of this age group (with reasonable distancing and supportive supervision norms) are among the least likely to be infected and this needs to be communicated to parents. Parents should be taken into confidence and should not be hurried or compelled to send their child to school. Further, the emphasis for children between three to 14 years should be on establishing the foundation of lifelong learning. The focus should exclusively be on the child’s happiness, support for responsible behaviour (without preaching) and building foundational learning skills instead of just completing the remaining syllabus. The goal should be that our children “learn to learn”. The only thing for which a teacher be held accountable is to ensure that every child stays connected with the school and enjoys the new teaching-learning format.
For secondary and senior secondary grades, my suggestion is that National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) and Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) be asked to remove the stranglehold of syllabus and rote-learning oriented examinations from the academic life of a child. To begin with, NCERT should reduce the syllabus by at least 30% across all grades and subjects. Let there be more depth in learning and understanding rather than spreading the curriculum far and wide. Similarly, CBSE should move away from the one-time high-stakes exam of class 10 and 12 towards a model of continuous evaluation and anytime exam.
In this context, I have another suggestion about redefining our approach towards teachers’ training. We cannot expect a fundamental change in education and examinations unless our teachers are prepared for it. This would entail international level training with exposure to innovative practices across the world. Apart from training, emphasis should also be on research so that new techniques of teaching-learning can be understood and implemented at the school level. We can learn so much from Singapore’s model of teacher training, and the approach of the International Baccalaureate (IB) board towards assessments.
With a broad framework in place, we should let the schools re-imagine their role, by taking their context and resources into account, and propose their plan of reopening by consulting with their key stakeholders. In the process of learning to live with the coronavirus, there will be major changes in schools across the world. It is for us to decide whether we reorganise our schools based on the need of our society and learnings from our nation’s great history or that we wait for other countries or some other societies to do something and then we copy-paste those solutions here. In my view, we need to take decisive steps now to place the school right at the centre of the community. I am fully aware that this is not easy, and schools will require a lot of support but just like children, our schools, education systems and policymakers like us also need to learn, grow and be responsible.
I hope you will consider my suggestions and together we will give back a better and more caring school to all our children.