The Union Cabinet approved and launched the National Education Policy 2020 on 29th July 2020, paving way for transformational reforms in school and higher education sector in the country. It aims to overhaul the country’s education system making “India a global knowledge superpower”. The COVID-19 pandemic, due to its unprecedented scale and unique response strategies, had a critical impact on students’ education, particularly of those from marginalized sections. Lockdowns to contain the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic have posed many challenges for school education globally, and India is no exception. A detailed introspection is needed in terms of inclusion of NEP amidst Covid-19 and ‘new normal’ situation.
In a significant shift from the 1986 policy, some of the biggest highlights of the NEP 2020 are a single regulator for higher education institutions, multiple entry and exit options in degree courses, discontinuation of MPhil programs, low stakes board exams and common entrance exams for universities. It brings early childhood education (also known as pre-school education for children of ages 3 to 5 years) under the ambit of formal schooling including mid-day meal program to pre-school children. The NEP indicates that students until Class 5 should be taught in their mother tongue or regional language. The policy also proposes phasing out of all institutions offering single streams and that all universities and colleges must aim to become multidisciplinary by 2040.
Every child to learn at least one vocation and exposed to several during Grades 6-8 is one of the key focus areas of the policy. Thus by 2025, at least 50 percent of learners through the school and higher education system shall have exposure to vocational education including holiday periods. Vocational courses through online mode will also be made available. Children with disabilities will be enabled to fully participate in the regular schooling process from the foundational stage to higher education, with support of educators with cross disability training, resource centers, accommodations, assistive devices, appropriate technology-based tools and other support mechanisms tailored to suit their needs. Every state/district will be encouraged to establish “Bal Bhavans” as a special daytime boarding school, to participate in art-related, career-related, and play-related activities. Free school infrastructure can be used as Samajik Chetna Kendras.
A comprehensive set of recommendations for promoting online education consequent to the recent rise in epidemics and pandemics in order to ensure preparedness with alternative modes of quality education whenever and wherever traditional and in-person modes of education are not possible is part of the NEP. The new academic session will begin in September-October; the delay is due to the unprecedented COVID-19 outbreak.
The COVID-19 pandemic in India is part of the worldwide pandemic of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) caused by severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2). The first case of COVID-19 in India was reported on 30th January 2020. India currently has the largest number of confirmed cases in Asia and has the third highest number of confirmed cases in the world after the United States and Brazil, with the number of total confirmed cases breaching the 100,000 mark on 19 May reaching to 10,00,000 confirmed cases on 17 July 2020.
With schools being locked down due to COVID-19, educators across the country are moving to virtual classes to ensure learning never stops. Teams not only enables teachers and students to connect over video-enabled remote classrooms but also provides a host of interactive and collaborative tools on a single platform. “Education systems responded with distance learning solutions, all of which offered less or more imperfect substitutes for classroom instruction,” said the UNESCO report, noting that while many poorer countries opted for radio and television lessons, 55 per cent of low-income, 73 per cent of lower-middle-income and 93 per cent of upper-middle-income countries adopted for online learning platforms for primary and secondary education. India has used a mix of all three systems for educational continuity. Even as governments increasingly rely on technology, the digital divide lays bare the limitations of this approach. Not all students and teachers have access to adequate internet connection, equipment, skills and working conditions to take advantage of available platforms.
Besides the disruption in the school year, there is a risk that prolonged out-of-school learning may lead to alienation of children from school systems and exacerbation of existing inequalities. We could see disruptions in continuity of schooling for girls and children of those who migrated back from urban to rural areas after losing livelihoods, post the abrupt imposition of the lockdown.
The extent of impact of the lockdown on schools, community and children is proportionally very high. India has 1.4 million schools, 2.01 million children enrolled in government schools from Standard 1-8 and an additional 3.8 million children enrolled in Standard 9-10. More than one-fourth of India’s population are children, and 19.29 per cent is in the age group of 6-14 years being entitled to education under the Right to Education (RTE) Act, 2009.
As an Indian, we always needed a strong public education system incorporating a holistic vision to achieve universalization of education while also establishing a discrimination-free education system. However, this didn’t receive adequate attention from policy-makers. Now, the pandemic has magnified inequalities like never before. Previous health emergencies also demonstrate that the impact on education is likely to be most devastating in countries where there are already low learning outcomes, high drop-out rates and low resilience to shocks. Despite increase in public awareness and aspiration to get children educated, as well as increased enrolment of children in schools post RTE Act 2009, India’s learning crisis remains grave. The National Sample Survey of Estimation of Out-of-School Children Report indicates that poverty/economic reason has been reported by 23.76 per cent respondents. This reason is quoted by more dropouts (28.52%), and never enrolled (23.45%), than those who enrolled but never attended school. ‘Child not interested in studies’ has been reported as a reason for 27.7% dropouts.
A look at previous emergencies in the country reveal direct and indirect impacts of natural disasters on school education. Direct impacts include destruction of school buildings and damage to roads connecting to schools, resulting in uncertainty of reopening and irregular attendance. Indirect impacts include long-term closure of a school due to temporary conversion of school building to a rehabilitation center, silent exclusion of children belonging to families in distress through displacement or migration, resulting in child labour, child marriage and child trafficking.
Retrofitting schools and other institutions like hospitals comes with a cost post-disaster. It is astonishing that dialogue between different stakeholders on building a Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) plan is still not a development priority in India. Even though COVID-19 is different from previous emergencies on many counts, it is disturbing to see no preparation despite its outbreak in China in the two months before it fully hit India. The lack of resilience and a DRR approach in the country will lead to catastrophic outcomes, some of which are already becoming visible.
School teachers have also been impacted immensely. India’s school education system includes 10,93,166 contractual teachers at the elementary level. These teachers, in many states like Bihar and Delhi, were not receiving their salary for several months even before the pandemic broke out. The coming of the pandemic has made their situation bleaker. This has made contractual teachers uncertain about continued employment. Despite all these difficulties, teachers are playing a significant role during the lockdown. Wherever schools have been used as a relief distribution centre, all teachers irrespective of position are providing services from morning till night.
Lack of infrastructure in schools is another major challenge in these COVID times, which will impact continuing school education. The RTE Act brought a normative framework to ensure quality and equity in elementary education. However, even after 11 years, less than 12% schools are RTE-compliant. Lack of safe drinking water, toilets, hand-washing facility, electricity and cramped classrooms means schools don’t have the prerequisites to reopen. Further, due to closure of many government schools in several states, as part of a consolidation policy, numerous government primary schools do not fall within the RTE Act requirement that they lie within 1 km from the habitation of all students, which also forms one of the basic principles for reopening schools. Lack of schools, infrastructure and teaching and non-teaching staff including sanitation workers will impact children’s education immensely, during and post-COVID19. Further, participation of community, school management committees and local institutions needs to be increased so that local needs and voices are well-represented. Physical distancing, sanitization and other guidelines for prevention of infection, should be strictly followed for their safety and of others.
Schools are more than learning centers for poor children. They provide social protection, nutrition, health and emotional support to the most disadvantaged, and this applies in all countries, from low to high-income. About 9.12 crore Indian children are not receiving their mid-day meal during school closure. These meals served as an important safety measure, as economists estimate that 75% of poor families’ income is spent on food. Access and availability of sanitary napkins to adolescent girls at their schools is causing for a health hazard too. The big changes to school education in the COVID-19 scenario that the government has announced – digital and online education, attendance of 30-40 per cent children after reopening of schools, subsidy to private schools, to name a few, is another concern which will have a huge impact on children coming from vulnerable sections.
The pandemic and lockdown has impacted 14 lakh migrant workers as well as others working in the unorganized sector (90% of India’s population is engaged in unorganized work). It has impacted the poor adversely across the globe. In such a situation, blatant emphasis on technology-driven education will exclude many children in this country from continuing school education. Besides infrastructural challenges, India is a diverse and multilingual country. Various dialects, various contexts and diverse lived experiences are what a classroom in India brings together. The one nation, one channel or one digital framework needs to be re-conceptualized to ensure equity and quality in education.
The return of children to schools in the above circumstances will bring a new normal, set by the outbreak of the pandemic. Social policy and response during the pandemic will mark the lives of children. On one hand, the school ‘space’ was used for the benefit of the whole community/‘public’, blurring the gaps between the community and school, and on the other hand community participation was reduced by social/ physical distancing and limited movement from the close precincts of homes. On one hand, the country came together on several occasions to show solidarity and, on the other, fellow villagers were attacked in their own village after painstakingly reaching home, often on foot.
In this ‘new normal’, changed behavior of people and changed centralized norms and guidelines could lead to a situation where forms of governance and participation may change. Virtualization of teaching may impact the social relation between peers, teachers and school and community on the whole. The social class gap between the teachers and students may widen after the school reopens post-lockdown.
What would be the everyday experience of children and their response to these changed realities?
The latest New Education Policy (NEP), certainly requires revision in this context. If the ‘new normal’ becomes the norm, the policy will need to situate equity, inclusion and diversity in the new frame of things. A one nation, one channel or one digital framework will not be able to translate the goal set by the NEP into action. Further, this will also create barriers to India achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), particularly SDG4 on quality education, which now ever more than before needs to be looked at along with SDG1 (no poverty) 2 (zero hunger), 3 (good health and well-being), 5 (gender equality), 11 (sustainable cities and communities) and 17 (partnership for the goals).
Is it doing a balance in terms of ‘new normal’ and New Education Policy in place for universalization of education for all or is it the same pattern as before whereby the policies are in favour of the advantaged population? Is it ‘inclusion’ in all terms and we as practitioners look forward to the ‘good times’ ahead?
NEP should pay heed to some of these aspects
The NEP requires revisions to address the following concerns: Strengthening of the normative framework of the RTE Act instead of restricting it; access, equity and diversity of language and lived experiences so that all children are well within the school education system; trained and permanent teachers whose agency is recognized; adequate resilient schools and infrastructure; and, most importantly, participation of local authorities and community so that children coming from vulnerable families, particularly SC/STs, Muslims and girls are not left out.
This will also prepare school systems to face such pandemics in the future more efficiently and without prolonged disruption, as well as move towards building a strong public education system in the country. COVID-19 did teach us how schooling is not equivalent to merely learning, but encompasses a social space, a social process, to learn to live, think and act for one’s self and the collective good.
(The author is Research Director, Ipsos Public Affairs, India, Views Expressed are personal.)
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