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NEP 2020: Getting The Basics Right

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By Doug Johnson and Suvojit Chattopadhyay:

The National Education Policy, 2020 (NEP) lays out a compelling, ambitious agenda for education reform in India. Yet, as others have noted, without concerted action the NEP’s promise will remain unfulfilled.

The new policy is a wide-ranging document and therefore priority-setting is key. To realise the NEP’s vision, the centre should prioritise certain critical elements of the policy: expanding access to early childhood care and education (ECCE), raising foundational literacy and numeracy in primary school, and creating a regular, national sample-based survey of learning outcomes. An overarching point we also make is that as education is a concurrent subject, the centre should provide guidance and funding but leave details to the states.

In this article, we provide recommendations that can not only help governments prioritise, but also work together to tackle one of India’s most urgent priorities—helping its people realise their full potential.

According to the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER), in 2018, nearly half of all rural students in Grade 5 couldn’t read a Grade 2 text and two thirds couldn’t perform simple division. Representational image. Image Credit: Getty Images

Prioritise

Taking on too many recommendations could overload teachers, headmasters, and officials at a time when they have their hands full. Instead, the government should start with the most pressing and urgent objectives: expanding ECCE and raising foundational literacy.

A large body of research shows that improvements in early childhood education and primary school pay off far more, in terms of later life outcomes than improvements in secondary school or higher education. In addition, as the NEP itself points out, reforms to secondary school and higher education rest on getting these fundamentals right first.

According to the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER), in 2018, nearly half of all rural students in Grade 5 couldn’t read a Grade 2 text and two thirds couldn’t perform simple division. There is little point in having all students complete secondary school (as the NEP recommends) if many of them cannot even read a basic text. Further, hasty changes to secondary school or higher education would only make current secondary school students more stressed.

The government should also prioritise assessing learning outcomes as a means to measure the efficacy of its education system.”

The government should also prioritise assessing learning outcomes as a means to measure the efficacy of its education system. Measuring progress on ECCE and foundational learning will require high-quality data. The ASER survey, cited above, is an invaluable data source but is only available for rural areas. The central government’s National Achievement Survey (NAS) covers urban areas but does not include private school students and, as recent research by one of the authors and Andres Parrado shows, is likely inaccurate.

The NEP recommends implementing census-based exams (tests administered on every child in school) in Grades 3, 5, and 8. If implemented well, these exams may be a great source of data. But because they are administratively cumbersome to implement, it may be several years before data from these exams can be fully trusted.

To fill the gap, the central government should implement a sample-based survey—where a random sample of students is selected—of learning outcomes which include urban areas and private school students. In implementing this survey, the central government should learn from the experience of the NAS to ensure that the data is of sufficiently high quality to track progress at the state level.

Use Evidence To Guide Decision-Making

Whatever its faults, the NEP cannot be criticised for lack of ideas. The document is full of detailed guidance on everything from book clubs to classroom activities. As a source of inspiration, this level of detail is admirable but as policy guidance, it is overbearing. State governments need to develop detailed implementation plans customised to the nature of gaps in their respective education systems, the resources available to them, and considering the latest knowledge and evidence in the sector.

Fish in water_Aseema Charitable Trust
The centre needs to focus on expanding access to ECCE and raising foundational literacy and numeracy in primary school. Picture courtesy: Aseema Charitable Trust

In addition, many of the NEP’s detailed recommendations go against existing evidence. The NEP recommends a pupil-teacher ratio (PTR) of under 30:1.

And, in order to increase access to ECCE and improve foundational learning, it recommends hiring more teachers in primary schools, introducing a new cadre of ECCE teachers with rigorous qualifications, and investing in infrastructure in anganwadis and primary schools.

Yet, official figures show that in most states, the majority of government primary schools comply with these PTR guidelines already.

While in a few states such as Bihar, Jharkhand, and Uttar Pradesh, a substantial share of government primary schools does not comply with PTR guidelines, the problem, for the most part, is one of teacher assignment rather than the overall number of teachers.

For example, the overall PTR in Jharkhand government primary schools is 25, which is better than the recommended guidelines. Yet 50 percent of Jharkhand’s primary schools do not comply with the PTR guideline. This tells us that we need to ensure a more even distribution of teachers across schools.

Research shows that teacher qualifications and improved school infrastructure on their own have relatively little effect on student learning outcomes.”

Research also shows that teacher qualifications and improved school infrastructure on their own have relatively little effect on student learning outcomes. By contrast, additional contract workers, who are more accountable to their supervisors and may deviate from the official curriculum, can have huge effects.

Pratham’s Read India program, which relies on relatively low-paid staff who undergo only a short training, has been shown to dramatically increase foundational literacy in a short timeframe. Similarly, a government programme in Tamil Nadu in which anganwadis were provided with an additional assistant who received only a short training resulted in large increases in both learning and nutrition.

a group of school kids reading from a single computerSimilarly, to implement the sample-based survey, the central government should seek outside help rather than do it on its own.

For the past 15 years, the ASER Centre has collected regular, accurate data on basic literacy and numeracy on a shoestring budget. In addition to the ASER Centre, organisations such as the Centre for Science of Student Learning and Educational Initiatives have deep experience in developing and carrying out student assessments.

By contrast, the government’s own effort to collect learning outcomes data has been marred by errors. One of the authors of the article, along with Andres Parrado, recently showed how the 2017 NAS data contains little information on actual student learning.

We compared NAS to a variety of other datasets including ASER, India Human Development Survey (IHDS) learning outcomes data, and Reserve Bank of India (RBI) data on state income and find little correlation between NAS state rankings and rankings based on these other datasets.

The fact that the NEP provides little guidance on assessments—only stating that NAS will continue until the National Assessment Centre is established—is worrying, particularly because the assessment is an area where the centre ought to provide detailed guidance.

Turn A Crisis Into Opportunity

Bold experiments are the need of the hour to improve learning outcomes in India. In the past, efforts to improve foundational learning were often hampered by the requirement that teachers complete an over-ambitious curriculum which leaves most kids behind. With so many students way behind the official curriculum, attempt to ‘catch up’ is nearly impossible. And since the NEP has recommended fundamental changes to board exams, the fear that deviating from the curriculum will leave students ill-prepared for the boards is muted.

States should seize this opportunity by suspending the requirement that teachers complete the official curriculum, and take bold steps to refocus teaching on foundational learning. One such step could be to integrate Pratham’s tried and tested ‘teaching at the right level’ approach into the syllabus.

We see NEP 2020 as a policy document that has several laudable goals. And while it has generated some political heat, much of the document is ambitious and forward-looking. However, to go beyond nice-sounding policy prescriptions and achieve tangible gains on the ground, it will require the centre and states to work together.

This article was originally published on India Development Review.

About the authors:

Doug Johnson is an independent researcher based in Bangkok, Thailand. Previously, Doug was a director at IDinsight where he led a portfolio of projects focused on education and innovative methods for data collection. Doug has held positions at USAID, the World Bank, Abt Associates, and Accenture. He has a BA in Political Science from Rice University and an MPA in International Development (MPA/ID) from Harvard Kennedy School.

Suvojit Chattopadhyay works on issues of governance and development in East Africa and South Asia. His interests are in the field of policymaking, implementation issues that affect development and studying the politics of development. Suvojit has an undergraduate degree in economics from Shri Ram College of Commerce, Delhi and masters degrees from Institute of Rural Management, Anand, and Institute of Development Studies, Sussex, UK.

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Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

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The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

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Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

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With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

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As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

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biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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