Central Square Foundation
Central Square Foundation

We must ensure that efforts to eliminate FLN crisis are not hollow:
Dr Kasturirangan and Prof Behar

The EDge Editorial Team August, 2020

Dr K Kasturirangan, the Chairperson of the National Education Policy Committee, and Prof Anurag Behar, the CEO of Azim Premji Foundation, talk about the highlights of the recently released National Education Policy (NEP) 2020 in an email interview to Central Square Foundation.

Dr Kasturirangan and Prof Behar emphasise the importance of equipping young children with Foundational Literacy And Numeracy skills. They talk about the need to ensure we eliminate the root of the learning crisis for long-term impact instead of opting for quick fixes.

The new National Education Policy (NEP) 2020 can be a game changer for education in India. It has reconfigured the curriculum structure to take young children into the fold of schooling — Early Childhood Education is an important investment. How do you envisage its effective rollout?

The NEP 2020 is a comprehensive approach to transforming India’s education and through that the country itself. So, each of its strands of action, must be seen and executed in tandem, and in an integrated manner.

Having said that, we would say that in a ‘forced choice’ situation, which is often there in the context of considering investments, investment for early childhood should be given the top priority. The criticality of this phase of development of the child on all subsequent outcomes in life: cognitive, social, emotional, and physical, is so well established, that this prioritization becomes obvious; particularly in our country, where we have as yet paid woefully inadequate attention to this matter till now.

We would like to point it out that we must treat this as ‘Early Childhood Education and Care’ (ECEC), not narrowly as ‘Early Childhood Education’ – the ‘care’ part is equally, if not more important at that age of a child. Particularly for millions of children who come from disadvantaged homes, who despite all the love of their parents and families, just don’t have the resources to receive the kind of care that children from more privileged families do. Also, we should remember that for all these matters we must consider the entire Foundational stage as the NEP calls it, i.e., ages 3-8, as well as the specific measures of support for children below the ages of 3 that must be provided at home.

For an effective roll-out, each state does need to develop its own micro-implementation plan, responding to each geography. This would require close collaboration between the departments of education, woman and child development, and health.

Some of the crucial aspects that we see are:

  • The NCERT needs to develop the National Curricular Framework 2021 with a vibrant ‘play-based’ pedagogical part for the Foundational stage, which seamlessly integrates into the next stage. The States must develop their own curriculum on this basis. Most of the other actions below need not wait for this to be completed since there are existing guidelines and frameworks, including from the NCERT.
  • Anganwadis must get a substantial part of the attention, including during planning -- since these serve some of the most disadvantaged children. They will need significant addition of resources and overhaul of facilities – to make them vibrant and inviting. There must be continued budgets made available for their maintenance.
  • The micro-planning should determine the institutional structure for each village and locality: primary schools could add younger age groups, Anganwdis can be co-located or run separately etc. The planning should also address the current problematic situation where many (mostly private) ‘pre-schools’ have mushroomed, and they behave as though they are ‘coaching classes’ to prepare these little children for school admission – which is deeply detrimental to the child.
  • Most importantly the Anganwadi worker must get adequate support and training. Over time the role at the Anganwadi must have the same status as teacher in the other stages of schooling – including receiving appropriate teacher education. This aspect will be central to ensuring that the Foundational stage is truly strengthened. There will also be a requirement of appointment of more such teachers.

In the end it is of concern for us that ECEC should not fall in the trap of narrowness. It should not be seen or developed as ‘school readiness’. It must be seen and treated as the most important intervention for the overall holistic development of the child and central part of our national efforts to bring equity into our society.

The policy prioritizes Foundational Learning and Numeracy (FLN) in mission mode and in a time bound manner. How did you arrive at the need for this urgent prioritization?

If a child can’t read and write fluently, and/or, does not have basic mathematical capacities and knowledge, he/she will be deeply disadvantaged not only later in life but throughout his/her entire education. It makes all of his/her education ineffective, very often leading to other issues such as dropping out of school or social alienation.

Given that millions of our children are still struggling in this situation – this is a natural priority. We must do everything to eliminate this problem in the next 5 years, and such that it never recurs.

But we must express a word of caution: we must not adopt simplistic quick fixes for this – then the problem will reappear soon. We must address the fundamental issues of the pedagogical approaches in class, adequate nutrition for children, adequate number of teachers, due attention for children with learning disabilities, the importance of the use of mother tongue etc. We say this because we have a history of converting execution of anything into a mechanistic exercise which shows results in the short term but turn out to be hollow. Basic literacy and numeracy must be based on genuine and deep comprehension, real language capacity, and sound mathematical learning, and must not be reduced to ‘packaged learning exercises’ that only lead to superficial rote learning.

NEP makes a progressive shift towards learning outcomes. Key-stage assessments for Classes 3, 5, and 8 can prove to be comparable and reliable indicators to assess how schools perform on learning outcomes. How do you see this empowering stakeholders like parents and strengthening the regulatory framework of school education?

Assessment as an integral part of improved curriculum and pedagogy is a key part of the NEP 2020. The Policy has significant focus on assessment being transformed on three key inter-related dimensions – at all stages of education:

  • Away from the current, almost ritualistic testing of rote learning, to real assessment of learning and development of deeper capacities, including social and physical capacities.
  • Assessment being used and seen to be used for constructive and developmental purposes – not for judgmental, or punitive purposes. This also implies more formative assessment and less summative assessment.
  • Assessment (or examinations) not being ‘high stakes’ – which has been the bane of our education system, impacting detrimentally the well-being of children and institutions.

This fundamental background is necessary to be able to respond to your question.

Thus, the examinations in classes 3,5 and 8 are to be only for developmental purposes. That is explicit in our statements in the draft NEP and in the NEP 2020. These examinations have no relationship or implication on regulation. These exams are not to be used for comparing schools or the reductionist notion of exam score based ‘school accountability’. These kinds of approaches have damaged other school systems deeply, the Policy is acutely conscious of that. These examinations are to be used at the aggregate level for the school system and within the individual school community, for feedback and understanding of the progress of the system.

Nearly 50% of India’s school-going children study in private schools. Couple of reforms like introducing key-stage assessments and establishing an independent State Schools Standard Authority apply to the private school sector. How do you see those impacting student learning specifically in private schools?

The NEP 2020 is explicit that it will treat both private and public schools in an even-handed manner. The State Schools Standard Authority and other mechanisms are envisaged to ensure such a transparent and fair regulatory environment, which the Policy calls the ‘light and tight’ approach -- based on a culture of trust and empowerment.

The ‘lightness’ of the approach will take away the current regulatory over-load and let schools focus on improvement, and on their students. It would also decrease opportunities for graft, which is unfortunately quite prevalent currently.

The ‘tightness’ of the approach is to do with not having any compromises on the few important parameters that regulation will be based on namely, safety, security, basic infrastructure, number of teachers across subjects and grades, financial probity, and sound processes of governance. Also, as explicitly stated in the Policy the schools must be truly not-for-profit and must not exploit parents commercially through arbitrary fees and its increases.

The reason we state all this in detail is that private schools that are genuinely public spirited, not-for-profit and are truly focused on the learning and well-being of their students will find a highly supportive and encouraging environment. But this environment will also weed out those private schools which are nothing more than shops, which we feel are unfortunately too many in our country currently.

So, this governance and regulatory environment will be energizing and empowering for the truly public-spirited private schools while at the same time stopping commercialization. The other key measures in the Policy, such as requirement of private school teachers also to be TET qualified, overall Teacher Education reform, and examination reform, would also support the quality improvement of all schools, including private schools. As we are familiar – considering the educational outcomes of either of these categories i.e. private schools and public schools - the entire system requires these improvements.

As an aside, you mention that 50% children go to private schools, we think you are adding the ‘aided school’ number to the private school to arrive at that number. Given our own understanding and experience of ‘aided schools’, we don’t think they are the same category.

In conclusion, we must also add that Policy clearly states that a strong public education system is really the foundation of a vibrant democracy. And it commits emphatically to strengthening the public education system in every way.

What role can EdTech play in improving student learning in schools? What are the key provisions in the NEP that will ensure its effective deployment?

Let us say three things, in a preamble to our response.

First, technology is transformative. We have experienced this certainly in the Space sector, but not only there; in agriculture, in healthcare, in construction, and almost everything else. Today, we think technology mediates almost everything.

Second, nothing can replace or even partially substitute the centrality of human relationships and interactions in the life and development of people. Education is fundamentally a process of human relationship between the student and the teacher. Thus, things such as technology can help with this process, if used thoughtfully, but can be detrimental if seen as even a partial substitute.

Third, over the past twenty years, it has become quite clear that the usefulness of technology in education is nowhere near the kind that many technology enthusiasts had imagined and despite much evidence to the contrary continue to push for. We sense that this is partly because of an inadequate grasp of or weighing of the complexity of the human process of learning and education.

The NEP 2020 is deeply informed by all these realities – and to address each of these together, it makes an explicit commitment to ensuring the effective use of technology (including advanced technologies like AI and VR) in all spheres of education – the teaching-learning process, in education administration and planning, and in assessment. It does this while equally explicitly committing to the centrality of the teacher in education – and considering technology as an aid to the teacher. It is also cognizant of the persistent digital divide – which has come out so sharply with the unfortunate pandemic today.

To enable this necessary, fine, and effective balance, it establishes the National Educational Technology Forum (NETF), with the mandate to provide independent evidence-based advice to Central and State Government agencies on technology-based interventions; build intellectual and institutional capacities in educational technology; envision strategic thrust; and articulate new directions for research and innovation.

In our view the NETF will play a key role in ensuring that we put technology to the best use in education.

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