New Education Policy - What is in it for Bihar’s government schools?
While much of the public debate has been around language formulas and board exams, what matters for the vast majority of children in Bihar are better government schools, i.e. schools that provide high quality education.
This blog will dive into some of the less discussed parts of the document, with a special focus on Bihar - a State in which the vast majority of children still visits government schools and in which more might join soon as the pandemic massively lowers disposable incomes of families.
The policy puts forward several good proposals, including the universalisation of Early Childhood Care and Education, the introduction of breakfasts in schools, the establishment of complexes as planning and implementation units, and a national mission on foundational literacy and numeracy.
At the same time, it envisions an institutional rearrangement, changing the long-term rules of the game. This rearrangement is clearly market oriented and biased in favour of “school choice” by heavy reliance on standardised assessments and a lighter regulatory framework, oftentimes with self-declarations, for private school operators. This illustrates a shift in the political economy: whereas earlier, teacher unions might have been the primary organised interest group, this role has now been taken over by private school interest groups and technology giants investing money and time to lobby decision makers in their favour.
For a State like Bihar, a high quality, democratic and public education system seems to be the need of the hour. While several pieces of the policy contribute to this aim, the document falls short on the specifics. Moving away from rote-learning will not be magically achieved by existing teachers watching some educational channel (which itself reproduces rote-learning by monotonously reading out powerpoint slides). School complexes will not become vibrant units for planning and implementation unless significant resources (both manpower and equipment) are allocated to them. Without revitalising and massive investments in DIETs, District planning units, BRCs, BEOs and CRCs, much of the visions laid out in the document will remain vision statements rather than become reality.
Missing in the document are controversial subjects such as contract teachers (a big topic in Bihar) and specific plans to revitalise crumbling units like SMCs, DIETs, BRCs etc. Instead, an over-reliance on ICT is prevalent, despite the sobering results of such efforts in the past.
Much will depend on whether the promise of 6% of GDP for education will be fulfilled and whether these funds will be allocated with equity in mind. If so, Bihar needs to receive a massive share given its extraordinary uphill task to ensure that its government schools provide quality education. Recent discussions within the 15th Finance Commission give hope.
Overall, the policy has some things to offer for Bihar’s government schools, but probably even more gaps. It is an acknowledgment of a changed political economy with new, well-organised and well-financed interest groups making their voices heard.
For Bihar’s government school students, much of this noise remains distant. What matters for them is not PR-speech, but well trained teachers, nutritious meals and a school building earning the name. Whether these needs will be satisfied by the New Education Policy remains to be seen.
Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE)
The policy aims to universalise ECCE in a phased manner, giving priority to districts and locations with socio-economically disadvantages sections. The policy takes a flexible approach, including upgrading existing Anganwadis (standalone and within school premises), pre-primary sections being added to existing primary schools and stand-alone preschools. This seems promising given the diverse contexts throughout India. All these ECCE centres, in whatever form, will be integrated in school complexes, a new administrative unit (see below).
A National Curricular and Pedagogical Pedagogical Framework for ECCE (NCPFEFFE) will be developed by NCERT. Existing Anganwadi workers/teachers will be trained through DTH channels and smartphones.
While the universalisation of ECCE is certainly a welcome move, the details seem less encouraging. In order to make this happen, massive investments in public infrastructure and qualified personnel will be required. The idea that ECCE workers and teachers will be trained through distance courses seems not promising. If the aim is high-quality, universal ECCE, Bihar should ensure face-to-face training and start a massive training mission for initial training and strengthen in-service training thereafter. Service conditions of (mostly female) Anganwadi workers and teachers need also to be revisited, given current salaries of 4,500 Rs per month.
National Mission on Foundational Literacy and Numeracy
In response to the “learning crisis”, a National Mission on Foundational Literacy and Numeracy will be started aiming at every student attaining foundational literacy and numeracy in Grade 3. This is pretty much in line with eradicating “learning poverty” as termed by the World Bank. Hence, global debates have left a footprint in the policy.
To operationalise this mission, State/UT governments will prepare implementation plans, identifying stage-wise targets and goals to be achieved by 2025.
The policy lays down various broad steps that shall be undertaken to achieve that goal:
Filling teacher vacancies, aimed at a Pupil-Teacher Ratio (PTR) of 30:1 in all schools and a PTR of below 25:1 in schools with a high number of socio-economically disadvantaged students
Increased focus on foundational literacy and numeracy in the curriculum
A 3-month play-based “school preparation module” for all Grade 1 students
A national repository of high-quality resources on foundational literacy and numeracy will be made available on DIKSHA
Roping in all other viable methods (including peer tutoring, literate community members, …)
Development of enjoyable and inspirational books
Providing a energising breakfast in addition to midday meals.
The idea of such a mission seems promising and the broad steps outlined in the policy are steps in the right direction. However, the reliance on DIKSHA for training seems less promising. Investing in DIETs, BRCs and CRCs seems the need of the hour if such a mission shall be successful. One major weakness of the NEP is its over-reliance on ICT and distance education for training purposes. There is no shortcut for a proper, human-resource intensive training and supervision structure.
Bihar has in the past had a similar mission, Mission Gunvatta. It is worth studying in detail what went well and what needs improvement in order for the new, national mission to become a success.
Critical Thinking and Experiential Learning
Much emphasis is put on the need to move away from rote learning. And indeed, this is probably one of the biggest hurdles in India’s school education. However, while the rhetoric resonates well with everyone, it is less clear how such a paradigm shift can be achieved.
Teachers themselves are the product of rote learning. Even national teacher training modules through distance education are of a strikingly poor quality, mostly consisting of monotonous speakers reading out powerpoint slides, oftentimes with highly outdated content (from the 1930s or 1940s!). Many DIETs have more than 50% vacancies, BRCs and CRCs lack the capacity required to support this paradigm shift.
This shift away from rote learning is a Hercules task. While a few elite schools in India have achieved this goal, the vast majority of schools, universities and teacher training institutes still follow the old, rote learning path.
The policy states the aim to revolutionise education, but remains silent about how this could be done. There needs to be a broader discussion of this crucial issue for India to truly become a global education hub.
Each student is supposed to revise a holistic progress card, including cognitive, affective and psychomotor domains which shall be communicated to parents.
A National Assessment Centre, PARAKH (Performance Assessment, Review, and Analysis of Knowledge for Holistic Development), will be set up. It will set standards for both, State Achievement Surveys (SAS) and the National Achievement Survey (NAS).
Regular assessments are useful to know where one stands. At the same time, such assessments do not provide a holistic view, nor can they serve as signals for parents about school quality.
First, assessments in the past have shown to be invalid, indicating major cheating.
Second, even if measurements were valid, the absolute numbers of learning would be a poor signal for parents to choose good schools. As household characteristics are an important determinant of learning outcomes, it would put schools with a high share of disadvantaged students in a bad light. In contrast, a government school where the middle class children go could be of low quality (in value-added terms), but still score well (given that its students receive help at home and tutoring.)
Third, and even worse, it provides an incentive for schools to push out children from poorer backgrounds or with learning disabilities as this helps in improving achievement scores.
The idea to use standardised assessments as a guidance for parents in a school education market has been tried in numerous countries before. Its usefulness is more than doubtful.
A large number of merit-based scholarships shall be instituted for studying quality 4-year integrated B.Ed. programmes.
Excessive teacher transfers shall be halted and reduced to exceptional circumstances.
The Teacher Eligibility Test (TET) will be strengthened and shall cover all stages (from Foundational to Secondary). Classroom demonstration or interviews shall become integral parts of teacher hiring at schools and school complexes.
School complexes might hire teachers that are shared across schools, e.g. for subjects like art or physical education.
A technology-based comprehensive teacher-requirement planning and forecasting exercise shall be conducted by each States to assess subject-wise teacher vacancies.
Teachers shall focus on teaching, minimising administrative tasks is therefore envisioned.
Teachers shall receive 50 hours of Continuous Professional Development (CPD).
Until 2030, teacher education shall move into multidisciplinary colleges and universities and a 4-year integrated B.Ed. degree shall be the minimum degree qualification for teaching.
The teacher education suggestions sound good, but again the question is of how this will be achieved. Current teacher education institutes are under-resourced (both, regarding equipment and manpower) and lack the high-calibre faculty required to make this happen. If there will be massive investments in teacher education, both for the B.Ed. degree and in-service training, this could be a game-changer. Yet, such announcements have been made multiple times in the past. It remains to be seen whether there will be put political will and financial means behind this bold announcement. If so, one can only congratulate the government for this step.
A school complex will consist of one secondary school together with all schools offering lower grades in its neighbourhood, including Anganwadis, within a radius of 5-10km. The idea is to share resources and teachers within this structure.
Furthermore, school complexes shall become crucial planning units, preparing School Complex/Cluster Development Plans (SCDPs), covering both short-term (1-year) and long-term (3-5 years) plans.
There is a need for more decentralised planning and the idea of sharing resources in complexes is promising. Yet, the policy remains silent about resources. If complexes shall become vibrant units for planning and implementation, they need dedicated equipment and manpower. This includes full-time staff and digital infrastructure. So far, School Development Plans hardly existed and were usually ignored when the District Education Plan was put together. The reason being that the Block and District level is heavily under-resourced, hence it is not possible to implement the envisioned bottom-up planning. Therefore, if SCDPs shall become important planning foundations, there needs to be investment in the administrative apparatus, both at Complex level, but also above. Otherwise, it will be yet another piece of paper nobody will read or use.
Standard-setting and Accreditation for School Education
In line with demands by libertarian think-tanks and private-school interest groups, the policy aims to separate responsibilities and to set up an independent State School Standards Authority (SSSA).
Much of the regulation of private schools will be changed by focusing on outcomes (through standardised tests) instead of mandatory input norms (the policy talks about an “overemphasis” of inputs in the current framework) and self-disclosure by private school operators.
The changing regulatory framework shows that private school operators have become a powerful interest group. In a network of libertarian think-tanks and philanthropic organisations, they have lobbied for such changes for a long time.
It is questionable how this will improve the quality of education in both, government and private schools. What is worrying is the narrative of an “overemphasis” on inputs. Looking at Bihar’s government schools, there is no such overemphasis. Most schools still fail to comply with very minimum basic infrastructure (all-weather classrooms, toilets, boundary wall, …). The Right to Education Act describes a legal entitlement. In theory, if a school does not fulfil the basic minimum norms laid down in the Act, legal steps can be undertaken (e.g. by filing a PIL in the HC against the government). If these input norms are becoming more flexible, it is not clear how this enforcement could happen.
The idea of a SSSA seems not revolutionary, given that NAS and UDISE+ already exist. Yet, it is an instrument to create a market-like environment for private schools, hence the lobbying for this reform by their operators.
Taken together, the NEP’s guiding principles might be summarised as:
In the long run, a school education marketplace shall be established. “Independent” assessment agencies shall serve to diminish information asymmetries and guide parents in their “school choice”. The idea of a Common School System, i.e. a desegregated school system without fee-charging private schools, has been abandoned.
The Right to Education Act is weakened. Instead of a rights-based approach with enforceable entitlements, flexible input norms and self-declarations are promoted.
The “learning crisis” has been acknowledged and will be tackled by a national mission, reflecting global debates around “learning poverty”. This replaces a debate around de-segregation (with a distributional focus) in favour of one around “ending learning poverty” (with an efficiency focus).
Early Childhood Care and Education has become an integral part, an important step for a strong India in the 21st century.
Some important things the NEP has missed are:
Balancing voice and exit. Rather than solely focusing on standardised assessment for market guidance and “school choice”, the NEP could have put forward plans to revitalise SMCs and to strengthen bottom-up accountability by social audits, also with the help of accessible ICT (helpline numbers, mass-SMS information systems).
Creating enforceable rights. In order to ensure that legal entitlements to quality education are fulfilled, the NEP could have strengthened grievance redressal mechanisms and made them more accessible. It could have added outcome-orientation while leaving mandatory minimum infrastructure norms in place. There is a synergy between inputs and outcomes, not a trade-off.
Strengthening the administrative and academic support chain. Much of what is suggested, whether the literacy and numeracy mission or the move away from rote learning, depends on a high-quality training infrastructure, including for those teachers already in service. This requires investments in DIETs, BRCs and SCERTs. In addition, planning and implementation units, whether at complexes, blocks or districts, are heavily under-resourced and overburdened. If the policy shall become reality, there needs to be a massive investment and training mission of those units.
Smart regulation for technology. To ensure data privacy and to protect children, all software in classrooms should be free and open-source. Making this mandatory is crucial, given that learning data will become a valuable resource. Failing to regulate this sector properly will come with a heavy price in the years to come.