(Editor’s Note: The views are that of the authors’. For the writers’ other interests, read the credit line at the end of the article.)
By Dr Pranav Kumar and Dr Tapan Kumar Bihari
Declining Gross Enrollment Ratio through the primary and secondary stages has proven to be an indomitable challenge for India’s education system. Close to 10 per cent of enrolled children do not complete their elementary education.
Of those who do, nearly 30 per cent drop out after Class Five and of the remaining, 44 per cent drop out before Class Eight. This means that more than 30 million children in the six years to 17 years age-group are excluded from the education system.
A large majority of them are children from marginalised communities including Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, religious minority groups and differently-abled children. Girls are the worst affected across these categories and literacy data from several reports have underlined this.
As per the 75th round of National Sample Survey Office data, female literacy rate in India was 70.3 per cent compared to 84.7 per cent male literacy rate among persons of seven years of age and above. The provision to create a ‘Gender-Inclusion Fund’ for capacity building towards providing equitable and quality education to all girls and transgender students is a historic step towards a more inclusive learning environment.
A vast body of international research has conclusively shown that 90 per cent of brain development in a child occurs before the age of five. Modifying the existing 10+2 structure of school education and introducing the Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) programme, the National Education Policy 2020 (NEP 2020) has responded to this impending need with a strong commitment to universalising preschool foundational learning.
The NEP 2020 envisions that every child under the age of five will be included in foundational learning process. A large percentage of children entering primary education in India, especially in government schools, do not possess the ability to read and comprehend basic texts, meaning they are not school-ready.
Preschool foundational learning will ensure that children are school-ready as they enter Grade 1 and will significantly reduce dropouts at the primary school level. Many research studies have shown that preprimary education is of tremendous importance as it gives children a solid foundation to begin an efficient and more productive educational future.
While children from privileged and mostly urban households have the benefit of attending preschools, children from marginalised families, rural and remote areas are left out. To mitigate the exclusion of such children, the NEP also commits to give priority to areas that are particularly socioeconomically disadvantaged.
Setting up of the National Mission on Foundational Literacy and Numeracy to achieve universal foundational literacy by 2025 will ensure a focused and time-bound implementation of the mentioned strategies.
Foundational education in a child’s mother tongue has been recommended by several research studies. The UNICEF reports from across the world support mother tongue education for a more efficient and inclusive learning environment.
Children learn best if they learn in their mother tongue in the early years. The challenge of coping with a medium of language that is not used in and around the households is greater for children from marginalised communities and from Scheduled Tribes in particular.
Ones who can afford supplementary training in an unfamiliar language gain a significant advantage over their poorer counterparts. The NEP recommends that the medium of instruction until at least Class Five to be in the local language or mother tongue or home language.
This initiative would be a great leveler for all those children, will improve their learning and reduce the drop out ratio after Grade Five.
Offering a wide range of choices of subjects to secondary school students would lead to a more holistic learning environment for the children. Streams like music and arts have been undervalued in the educational system for far too long.
Although private educational institutions have realised their importance, making them integral to their curriculum, government schools have continued to neglect them, dubbing them as ‘extra-curricular’. Underprivileged children in government schools have not been exposed to a whole new world.
The NEP 2020 has also recognised the huge educational potential of Anganwadis in India. There are close to 1.4 million Angawadis in India, but they have been predominantly looked at as nutritional supplement centres till now.
This policy realises their potential as foundational teaching spaces. As Anganwadis are largely used by children from marginalized communities, envisaging them as centres for foundational learning is a significant step towards a more inclusive preschool education.
Strengthening of scaling up of infrastructure of Anganwadis would yield dual results; improved nutritional status of children and providing them with foundational learning.
Research shows that under-nutrition is one of the biggest impediments in the path towards education of children from underprivileged households. Inadequate food and lack of nutrition not only compromises their immunity but also impairs their learning ability.
Several studies have found clear association between school meals and educational performance. Introduction of breakfast in schools is a great step towards eliminating classroom hunger and universalisation of primary education.
A vision of an inclusive education system towards achieving universal education is one of the biggest highlights of the NEP 2020. It sets the goal to achieve 100 per cent Gross Enrollment Ratio in preschool to secondary level by 2030.
Having a cohort of well-trained teachers is a precondition for achieving this. Other than the obvious measures of improving teachers training and increase in recruitment, the NEP recognised critical gaps like urban-rural divide in the availability of teachers.
Recruiting teachers from local areas, providing them housing facilities and discouraging frequent transfers would lead to a more sustainable teacher-student relationship in rural areas.
Making a provision for ‘special educators’ for differently-abled children at the middle and secondary level grades is another novel step towards a more inclusive and equitable education system.
Providing barrier free access to school infrastructure, providing them with appropriate technology assistance tool and creation of accommodation facilities for these children on school premises are all steps recommended in the policy towards creating an enabling ecosystem for differently-abled children.
The NEP recognises that socioeconomic marginalisation and exclusion is multidimensional, and that children from Socioeconomically Disadvantaged Groups (SEDGs) have been underrepresented in the education system.
Categorising their exclusion on the lines of gender, sociocultural and geographical identities, disabilities and vulnerabilities that include victims of trafficking, orphans including child beggars in urban areas, and the urban poor the policy has broadened the framework of looking at exclusion from a class-caste-gender lens.
The recommendation to create ‘Special Education Zones’ that are areas with large presence of SEDGs would ensure that the intensity of inclusive actions in most in these areas.
The NEP substantially lays the critical foundation for a more inclusive school education. However, there are innumerable challenges ahead in terms of its implementation. The implementation of the provisions will essentially depend upon a harmonious cooperation between the units of the federal structure.
(Dr Pranav Kumar is Assistant Professor at the Centre for the Study of Social Exclusion and Inclusive Policy, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi. Dr Tapan Kumar Bihari is Assistant Professor at the Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi.)