Education, it may be said, is no rocket science. But, it has taken an astrophysicist and former head of the ISRO, as the head of a committee, to produce a refreshingly new draft education policy. Of course, there will be debates, and controversies. But, having worked for over two decades to improve the foundational skills of children, it is good to see a policy document that recognises the “severe learning crisis” and emphasises in no uncertain terms that it has to be dealt with.
To quote from page 64 of this rather elaborate document “..our highest priority must be to achieve universal foundational literacy and numeracy in primary school and beyond by 2025”.
“The rest of the Policy will be largely irrelevant for such a large portion of our students if this most basic learning (reading, writing, and arithmetic at the foundational level) is not first achieved.” The document says, “If action is not taken soon, over the next few years the country could lose 10 crore or more students — the size of a large country — from the learning system and to illiteracy.” Grim, as the warning is, the government will underscore the severity of the crisis and show its willingness to deal with it by adopting the policy.
An important part of this policy is its thrust on early childhood education. Policy documents over the past decades have listed all the familiar reasons why early childhood education is important to build a foundation. But the draft policy lists concrete steps to overcome issues of universal access to quality early childhood education beyond the ICDS network. It says, “…the availability of free and compulsory quality pre-primary education for all 3-6 year olds will be included as an integral part of the RTE Act”.
Further, the policy proposes to restructure the 10+2 education structure into a 5+3+3+4 structure so that the five years from ages three to seven or till the end of Std 2 are seen as one “foundational stage”. This is a welcome recommendation. The next two stages, of three years each, are “preparatory” and “upper primary”, first ensure the acquisition of foundational skills and then their development. These stages are not only consistent with the development of children, but they are also useful to meet the overall goal of ensuring basic learning outcomes stage-by-stage. Such stage-wise restructuring to achieve learning outcomes will be important if the government extends the RTE Act to children between the ages 3 and 18 as the policy proposes.
The policy recommends community and volunteer participation in collaboration with schools to overcome the current crisis. Schools generally work in isolation from the community they serve. Not making parents and the larger community partners in the child’s learning process aggravates the learning crisis, at least in the early years. Although, setting up of school management committees is mandated by the RTE Act, they are not expected to become a part of the teaching-learning process. This policy seems to encourage voluntary action. The document also talks about encouraging philanthropic initiatives to help mobilise resources. Together, these two create an interesting picture.
The chapters on early childhood education and elementary school education appear to be more concrete than the chapters on the next levels of schooling or higher education. Perhaps this is because desired outcomes for early stages of education are easier to pin down than those for the next levels of education.
The data on the learning crisis in higher educational levels is not well-defined. There is a need to understand the crisis in secondary and higher education beyond the percentage of dropouts, the gross enrollment rates or the failure rates in examinations. Examination and assessment reforms are referred to, but clearly, more on-ground experimentation is needed before these can be concretised.
Integration of vocational training and a general emphasis on “learning to learn”, along with lowering the burden by cutting out some parts of the curriculum, while focusing on the core, have been discussed for some years now. I am not sure we have enough experience to execute such initiatives. Though time is fast running out, we need to undertake a honest evaluation before initiating far-reaching changes. I recall reading the National Curricular Framework 2005 document, with similar enthusiasm, more than a decade ago. But, after a point you start wondering how much of this is really going to be feasible?
The context set in the early parts of the document is that India will be or aspires to be the third=largest economy in the world by 2030. “To do this, we will need a knowledge society based on a robust education system, with all the requisite attributes and characteristics in the context of changes in knowledge demands, technologies, and the way in which society lives and works”.
This need for a knowledge society has been often articulated over the last two decades but we have not been able to deal with the learning crisis. Do we have the will, the financial resources, and the pool of human resources to deal with it now?
There is an addendum to the policy called “Make it Happen”. It outlines the issue of financing in detail. In short, the projection is that the expenditure of the government on education, which is at 10 per cent of all public expenditure today, will need to be doubled. The “learning crisis” is very deep. The education system — public and private — has been deteriorating rapidly and has affected the quality of our human resources. If this trend is not reversed, the dysfunctional system will become more and more expensive but will not deliver the goods. It will require a huge commitment and conviction to make it happen.
The writer is co-founder of Pratham. Views are personal