NEP promises reforms, but constraints remain
The draft New Education Policy 2019 (NEP) has already received a record amount of feedback, both in print and directly to the human resource development ministry (HRD). The process has been through many rounds, and one has to commend the ministry for the deep and varied range of consultations it has done — from a district-level teacher programme, to a YouGov portal that gave access to the public, and then to the draft consultations. Such a massive exercise would inevitably present challenges, not only because it was a first, but also because the voice of the frontline of teaching was sought for policy. This already is a win for education in India, where the policy-practice connect is rare.
The draft document is a daring one, seeking to transform structural and cultural mores that have stymied the sector for decades. In calling for primacy to foundational learning, it has already sought a major shift in policy, and thus a shift in resources. In seeking choice at the high school level, breaking through the barriers of streaming, the partitions of curricular and co-curricular, and the divide between vocational and academic, the policy has finally slashed through hierarchies that held students behind. In seeking critical thinking and problem-solving skills, it cuts past the rot of rote learning and opens up avenues for more learners to succeed. Signalling the importance of liberal education at the higher education level, it brings India into the next century not because other countries have liberal education universities, but because after the fourth industrial revolution, it is this continuum that will decide the future of work and mankind. It prepares India for the future in ways that the country is not prepared for, yet.
In making this leap to the future, it faces two kinds of criticism. One, by those who cannot see how the current structures will be able to change and think this document may fall by the wayside possibly because it aims too high, and is impractical. The second, where the principles are supported with constructive criticism and additional suggestions to strengthen the elements of the policy.
The policy itself is incredibly comprehensive, progressive and forward looking. Most issues in the current education ecosystem find mention (some, for the first time), new institutions are suggested, and clear reforms are indicated. This renders it open to a wide range of suggestions. If the policy continues its inclusive journey and takes into account the support it is receiving, then the way forward to pragmatic implementation may be found.
There are still some gaps in the policy, and these are made even more visible by the four boxes for suggestions on the feedback portal. This is precisely where it falls: in building bridges between the silos it inherits. The gentle patronising of the private sector in education, and the lack of mention of budget private schools do little direct harm, but other gaps such as the underserved link between schools and higher education can undermine both the intent and need of the hour. Despite a large number of organisations mooted, there aren’t enough mechanisms for students to discover their next level opportunity, and this extends to higher-order lifelong learning.
Technology, the backbone of learning in this century, is more a reference than direction. There is little cognisance of much work already done on pedagogies, including the recommended computational thinking. Other great ideas in the document, such as clusters, remain limited to old thinking. This remains confined to government schools, and misses out on creating a shared resources mechanism for all schools. Similarly, the potential for local learning hubs via community colleges that engage peer learning, employer and practitioner linkages are barely there.
Opportunities have been missed in this document, thus limiting its potential. It steps up, but not enough; it attempts depth, remaining just short of grassroots connect. For example, it misses out on seeking to build local and global communities of learning, in line with India’s need to raise the value-add of an average employment. It calls on all the elements of online learning, internationalisation of education, and collaborations, but fails to use these to create continual circles of learning across levels, each intersecting with the others to provide platforms of discovery.
For all the excellence and progress in the draft NEP 2019, it remains constrained, where it needed to be grounded. The shifts required are small but significant, and unlocking the potential of this document remains the best hope for education in India. As it stands, the policy offers a challenge to both planners and practitioners in education, and it is only when this gets converted into a partnership that it can gain momentum.
Meeta Sengupta is an adviser, writer and speaker on education policy and leadership practice who curates conversations for sustainable solutions and impact
The views expressed are personal