The HRD Ministry has invited ideas from the public on the draft National Education Policy 2019. We have had commissions and committees, policies and programmes on education from time to time. The present Policy drafted by Dr K Kasturirangan, whose standing as a scientist and public intellectual is indisputable, presents a new vision to overhaul our education system. The draft addresses mainly issues of access, equity, quality, affordability, and accountability in the current education system. It covers the whole gamut of education from Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) to university and professional education.
A significant and much needed correction recommended by the Policy is to make ECCE an integral part of the school education architecture. The present system of schooling cognises only classes from 1 to 12. With the addition of ECCE, school education period will be 15 years, covering the ages from 3 to 18. The draft further seeks to redesign school education into four stages as 5-3-3-4. The first five years will be the foundational stage comprising ECCE and classes 1 and 2. This will lead to a three-level preparatory stage, equivalent to classes 3, 4 and 5. The next three years, will correspond to classes 6, 7 and 8 followed by four years of secondary stage (classes 9 to 12). The Right to Education Act also had sought a restructuring of stages (without the ECCE stage).
While independent India has made considerable strides in enhancing access to schools, the quality of education and the drop-out rates continue to be matters of grave concern. The thriving of unbridled parallel streams of education has led to the perpetuation of social and economic inequities. While this writer is convinced about the necessity of many (if not all) of the recommendations of the draft Policy, two critical dimensions need to be kept perpetually in focus if these recommendations should fructify.
The most important is that education is a concurrent subject. Any temptation to look upon this as a Constitutional technicality with the potential of political posturing should be resisted with statesmanship and unadulterated altruism. The fact that education has been brought under the Concurrent list by the 42nd Amendment Act in 1976 only underscores the stark diversity of situations, conditioned by social, economic, political, cultural, geographic, religious and historical factors. These factors have a direct bearing on the social attitude towards education and access to schools.
The appreciation of this diversity should lead to the inevitable recognition of the seminal role of the state governments. With all its political might and financial clout, the Centre is only a secondary actor though the most important facilitator. If the reforms contemplated in the draft Policy are being implemented by the Centre without all the states on board, it will be a skewed exercise limited to Kendriya Vidyalayas, Navodaya Vidyalayas and at best to CBSE and ICSE Schools. That will further accentuate quality gaps.
Why should the states not be party to the changes suggested? Unionism among teachers is a major factor which the state governments will have to reckon with. That will, no doubt, retard the reforms. Unless the Centre conceptualises novel financing arrangements, many state governments will find the additional financial burden unaffordable. That will make different states move at different paces, leading to patchy outcomes. It might be politically tempting for the states to criticise the policy and justify inaction.
The second critical dimension is the need to appreciate the extreme polarity of schools in our country. The draft Policy seems to be distressingly unaware of the wide disparities. These disparities are not only in the quality of education but also in infrastructure. On the one hand there are schools with state-of-the-art labs. Then there are schools running in ramshackle sheds with occasional appearance of teachers. Unequal quality of education inevitably leads to undeniable inequality.
While the recommendation to bring the ECCE into the formal school system can only be lauded, its operational imponderables and practical consequences should not be underestimated. The suggestion is to convert the anganwadies into the early classes. What is lacking is the realisation of the massive practical hurdles and the need for the ‘escape velocity’ to move out of the distressing and distorting atmosphere of ECCE. The thousands of pre-schools that have erupted in almost all towns and cities, charging huge amounts as fees, thrive in a policy vacuum, devoid of any regulation or controls. The academic damage done by untrained teachers in these pre-primary schools is a national offence that has gone unnoticed till today. Are the anganwadies better than these urban paid pre-schools? In some government schools in Kerala, the Parent-Teacher Associations have also been running pre-primary classes.
The proposal may be academically sound. But any attempt to restructure without gauging the gargantuan nature of the challenges will only lead to half-hearted reforms. Making the states equal partners in this national mission is far more important than adopting the Policy and providing financial support. Every state should have the liberty to draw up its own map towards the agreed destination. A nation that cannot agree on what to teach and how to teach its children cannot claim sanity, much less greatness.
K Jayakumar is an author, former Chief Secretary, Government of Kerala and former Vice-Chancellor, Thunchath Ezhuthachan Malayalam University