On 30th July 2020, the Indian government’s Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) was renamed the Ministry of Education as it announced the new National Education Policy (NEP) 2020.
The National Education Policy is an in-depth framework outlining the future and development of education in India. It’s recommendations guide what the priorities and goals of educational institutions should be in the coming years. The first NEP was passed in 1968; while it gets revised occasionally, a new NEP has only been passed two times since then, in 1986 and now in 2020.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s and the government was hailed by RSS-affiliated educational organisations for the NEP as a step to connect the education with the roots of India. They reportedly had quite an influence during the drafting of NEP, even going as far as to say that “60-70 percent” of their demands have been met.
On the other hand, NEP received criticism from the opposition parties like Congress, the Communist Party of India (Marxist), and political figures in West Bengal and Tamil Nadu. The criticism was primarily for bypassing Parliamentary discussion, and its ill-fittedness in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic and the ever-growing digital divide left in its wake in the education sector.
The NEP’s ambitious claims and propositions are divided into two broad categories: school, and higher education.
NEP at School Level
At school level, perhaps the biggest change is the move away from the 10+2 structure to a 5+3+3+4 one, signifying four stages of school education across ages 3-8 years (Foundational), 8-11 years (Preparatory), 11-14 years (Middle) and 14-18 years (Secondary). This new structure claims to be based greatly on the cognitive development of children and prioritising areas of focus through these ages.
The new structure also talks about the Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE), which aims to include pre-schools and aanganwadis (government sponsored rural child care centres in India) in an effort to impart play and activity focused learning, and train aanganwadi workers to achieve the same.
However, the treatment of the aanganwadi program is already under question from the governance and child right watchdogs and activists . This program is poorly funded and workers are poorly paid which makes the promise of training the workers for implementing the NEP goals seem quite wishful. This means rural students are likely to continue to be many steps behind urban students from the ECCE i.e ‘Foundational’ stage itself.
National Assessment Centre
NEP proposes the establishment of a National Assessment Centre, PARAKH, to set norms and guidelines for evaluations across all school boards. Report-cards are also to be redesigned and include self, teacher and peer assessment. However, the details of what will entail in these, especially peer assessment, are vague and do not take into cognizance the rampant prejudice and bullying experienced by students at the hands of peers as well as teachers on bases of weight, religion, gender, caste, class, sexuality and more. Such discriminatory practices will hurt the students from marginalised communities in both disguised and explicit ways.
The 3 Language Formula
A more controversial change comes with the 3-Language Policy, which essentially asks that “wherever possible,” the regional language or mother tongue of a student be adopted as the medium of instruction “until at least Class 5, but preferably till Class 8 and beyond.”
All schools will teach three languages, of which at least two must be native to India. The draft NEP, in fact, mandated that one of these languages be Hindi; after protests against this ‘Hindi imposition’ such as by the southern state of Tamil Nadu, this provision was removed and it has supposedly been left to the state, school and student to decide which languages would be taught.
The so-called flexibility of the policy comes at the cost of uniformity. Since the colonial era, English education has served as a means of upward social mobility for castes and tribes that had historically been denied education under Brahmanical hegemony, this progress is threatened by making English ‘optional’ in any form.
There are also unaddressed and obvious scenarios of parents who migrate or get transferred to different states, parents who speak another language at home than the regional language, and children who grow up in multilingual homes, all of which are commonplace across India. How likely is it that every student in a classroom speaks the same mother tongue or is from the same region?
Promotion of Sanskrit
The NEP desires that the rich ancient languages of India be brought back to the forefront and be given more focus as languages that can be taken up by students. In this regard it shines a spotlight on Sanskrit, a classical language rooted in Hinduism which was for centuries only accessible to Brahmins and some other upper castes. The pedestal upon which Sanskrit has been placed is being seen as discriminatory towards the large population of India who either do not have historic ties to Sanskrit or were denied access to it.
While the NEP does mention other languages that have had a strong foothold in India for a long time, such as Persian and Prakrit, it notably omits mention of Urdu and seems especially driven to ‘promote’ Sanskrit.
The NEP points out that a very small portion of the Indian workforce in the age group 19-24 is exposed to vocational education, and therefore recommends that it be integrated in schools and higher education in a phased manner over the next 10 years.
A focus on vocational education starting from ages as young as 14 is also questionable, since non-formal education, often valued less than degrees, might hinder the education of poor children. This may contribute to deepening the class divide in India since receiving Undergraduate or Postgraduate degrees often guarantees poverty alleviation for such students.
Additionally, vocational education will likely form a vicious cycle with the entrenched caste system in India, reinforcing each other and the inequalities therin.
It has been repeatedly asserted by experts, citizens and politicians alike that the NEP caters more to the corporate interests over the needs of underprivileged students, and has brought much uncertainty around the question of language.
It becomes vague at key points, falling back on the argument that it is only a ‘guiding document,’ which only makes its stances seem weaker, in both theory and practice.
Whether the NEP as a whole manages to turn the tide of education in favour of those who need it the most, and is able to mobilise it as a tool for progress, presently seems more fantastical than plausible.