Diagnosing the problem is perhaps the first important step in any policy formulation. This should typically involve a review of existing policies with a view to assessing what has worked, what has not and why, and what can be done to bring about the required changes. Sadly, in the run-up to the New Education Policy it is hard to discern any credible strategy to assess the situation, or even a clear vision of where the government wants to go with its policy.
The task of finding answers appears to have been left to the tens of thousands of deliberations taking place in village education committees and district administrations across the country. Which is to say it has not been left to anyone at all.
Instead of engaging with problems of pedagogy and governance and making a systematic assessment of the problems in the school education sector, the Ministry of Human Resources Development and its minister, Smriti Z Irani have put in place a process that emphasises issues that are not concerned with education at all.
The only source of information on what the government has in mind is the official website of the HRD ministry, which includes a description of the consultative process as well as video clips of interactions between Irani and state and district officials. A close look at these is revealing. They suggest that the minister is either unaware of the conversations taking place in the education sector or has decided to disregard them and all existing knowledge.
Skilling, not schooling
The one thing that does stands out is the overwhelming focus on ‘skill development’. This is evident from the persistent enquiries of the state and district administrations on the level of industrialisation in their regions, accompanied by a “request” for mapping skill requirements and how schools can respond to those requirements. For instance, in the interaction with Goa and Gujarat the questions put to the education administrators focus on ‘tourism’ and how the state can leverage skills to cater to that industry. This as part of a process that is ostensibly meant to be looking at education across the board. In the case of Sikkim, the focus is on the state’s supposed identity as an “organic state” and how that can be the guiding light in aligning school curricula to promote its unique status. Even in Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand, the pre-eminent concern is with skilling tribal populations with a focus on local industry, and not educating.
The second area of focus is the use and promotion of technology. This is evident in ICT being a separate theme, but figures as a policy concern in other themes as well. The importance given to the use of technology appears in sharp contrast to the neglect of other issues concerning teacher-student interactions. In fact, neither the themes nor the ministerial interactions take cognisance of the multiple concerns that surround teachers. Where teacher education is mentioned it takes a narrow view, completely ignoring, for instance, the Justice Verma Commission  on teacher education.
The absence of major contemporary issues is evident throughout the deliberations. For example, quality, which has dominated the discussions on education in recent times, finds practically no mention in the consultations. While there might be different interpretations of what quality implies or how it should be measured or not, the minister’s neglect of the matter is perplexing. It appears as though technology and skills are expected to provide the solutions to quality education as well.
Among the areas that are completely neglected in the policy dialogues, two are worth mentioning: i) the Right to Education Act and ii) the social science perspective.
From the themes set out and the consultations held thus far, it would appear as though the RTE Act does not exist at all. No mention is made of the fact that schools continue to violate norms set out in the Act, even of basic infrastructure and teacher deployment or of the fact that budget cuts make it impossible for RTE compliance to be achieved in the near future. Is the government not willing to take cognisance of these failings and develop a roadmap for fulfilling its constitutional obligation? In light of the thrust towards privatisation that is being promoted by the present government, one has to wonder if it expects the private sector to take on, or share, that responsibility. And if that is indeed the case, it would be good to know how it plans to make the private sector accountable for what is now a fundamental right?
The second area that stands out as a back hole in the discourse is social science. There is absolutely no discussion of this area of study – almost as if education did not involve any learning from social science. Instead several themes have been dedicated to science, math and technology. As it is from social science that an understanding of social justice, democracy and critical thinking is inculcated, one has to wonder why it has been kept at the margins of the new policy discourse. This could be particularly pernicious in the long run.
Other notable absences from the government’s approach include: the child-friendly framework, financial implications in light of the increasing emphasis on fiscal federalism, the future of centrally sponsored schemes (Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan), early childhood education (referred only in the context of child health) and state capacities of frontline education officials, to name a few.
As the government proceeds with the process of policy-making, one cannot help concluding that not only is it haphazard and chaotic, it is also ahistorical and disconnected to any of the major concerns affecting the education sector.
Without a robust review of where we stand, and without aligning the diagnostic to the needs and demands of education, the only foreseeable contribution of the New Education Policy will be to produce a generation of Indians who are incapable of serving the cause of either the economy or the nation. One hopes that the newly appointed drafting committee will take note of these gaps and fill them rather than following the same course.
Kiran Bhatty is a Senior Fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi and a Founder Member of the Forum for Deliberation on Education