Primary education in the DNEP: What is in store for our children?


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There are a number of fantastic adjectives and phrases about activity-based fun pedagogy across the stages, about bi-lingual transaction, about higher order thinking, analytical skills, physical wellbeing, and about formative assessment. What do all these add up to?

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At the outset I begin with my overwhelming concern over the erosion of state rights in education that this Draft represents. That states have had minimal inputs in formulating the current Draft worries me as a citizen and as an actor in the school education sector for over 30 years.


There are certain concepts in political imaginations of a democratic society that are powerful in combination: equality and equity for example. Equality of opportunity for all its citizens is a hallmark of a democratic polity. When these concepts are articulated together, they offer hope for inclusive society especially to those who have been denied hope for centuries. Yet the Draft separates concepts such as universal access from right to access, right to quality education, right to participation and equity.


In a deeply divided society like ours, deprivations cross-cut and reinforce lack of opportunities in multiple ways: caste, class, gender, place of residence, disability and similar factors of marginalization combine together to create strong intergenerational cycles of underdevelopment for a number of people. Hence any national-level initiatives like educational opportunity require differentiated options: options that are politically and socially custom-made to a large variety of groups and regions. This draft, despite pious declarations about rich and varied traditions of Indian life, offers a forcibly unified education system, by ignoring the history of uneven development across regions and sections of society.


Why such a centralizing policy?

How does a single centralizing policy draft serve a diverse country like India with inequalities of tectonic proportions? The draft, on a first linear reading, expresses common sense notions about many aspects of education: the potency of mother tongue as medium of instruction, play-way method for 3 to 8 year olds, need for quality textbooks and learning materials in Indian languages, critical skills across the curriculum, formative assessment rather than rote examinations and bi-lingual teachers, to cite a few.  It also analyses the crises of various kinds in school education extremely well: in pre-school years, in educational outcomes at elementary stage, the stress induced by Board examinations and teacher education.


It is passionate about the urgency to change the status quo in our anganwadis/ nursery schools, classrooms, examination system, curricular integration of academic and vocational streams and in our teacher preparation and deployment. It also argues well about changing how we evaluate our education system. Its critique of teacher education institutions and regulatory system is spot on.


A critical analysis

Curiously it falls short on a vision for our children: if it is the right of a child to get quality education from age 3 to age 18, what does that mean for a child? There are a number of fantastic adjectives and phrases about activity-based fun pedagogy across the stages, about bi-lingual transaction, about higher order thinking, analytical skills, physical wellbeing, and about formative assessment. What do all these add up to?


Despite its concise and well articulated analyses of issues facing our children in our system, it has unexpected gaps in its presentation of what actually has worked in the past 70 years (in some parts of the country at least), solutions for many issues it mentions and in offering future direction.


Let us look at what it offers for child development in the most crucial years: the Draft is emphatic about the importance of these early years and mentions recent research in neuro-science and allied fields in support. Though the term Early Childhood Care & Development (ECCD) became more common since UN Child Rights Charter, the ideas have longer history as evidenced by putting child development right into the name of ICDS in 1975. There are states within India who have used the provisions of ICDS well for the benefit of children under 6 and post-natal mothers. Despite this long history, the Draft gives early childhood development a slip and takes up only Early Childhood Education (ECE).


There are nuances in early childhood care and development, which are glided over in this section of the current draft. Cognitive development is interlinked to other facets of children’s growth. One third of our under-five children are either malnourished or stunted. Stunting not only affects physical stature but brain architecture and subsequent overall development. It is precisely because of this that ICDS integrated health, nutrition and parental well-being under its programmes.


To have our child population thrive – not merely survive – we need parenting networks and information for birth to 5 years as part of family welfare measures. To give an example, in non-propertied classes and castes of India, young couples set up nuclear homes. Lower age at marriage/ pregnancy and child birth, migration of fathers to urban centres and increasing alcoholism of male members of families behoove family welfare services to be very much part of early childhood care and development.


There is no recognition of early intervention for different groups of children in the draft: (as usual in any official document, there are shunting yards for difference: all “others” who are not “mainstream” are dealt with in Chapter 6). The same sources of research quoted earlier to bring urgency to ECCE also point to the crucial nature of early intervention for all children whose developmental trajectory deviates from the norm for various reasons (developmental delay/ defects or abandonment by parents)


Another case in point is teacher preparation for all the stages of schooling: we do need child-friendly humans capable of speaking in two or three languages in early years. We do need teachers who can harness the potential of students and local community in primary schools, subject teachers in middle and high school. We do have such human resources in our villages, towns and urban centres. But do we have systems to certify them to lead our children in learning? There have been projects like Siksha Karmi in Rajasthan, which managed to harness these resources. Yet, the Draft falls back on pen and paper tests like Teacher Eligibility Test (TET) and four year courses for teacher preparation.


While the Draft rightly points out the academic burden placed on children throughout our school system and castigates the examination system, it piles on more senseless examinations like census examinations in grades 3, 5 and 8 in addition to modular Board exams (including 24 subject Board examinations) at secondary level and a national test for entrance to post secondary education. National Curriculum Framework (NCF) had initiated a child and learning-friendly Continuous and Comprehensive Evaluation (CCE) for elementary level with school-level autonomy. CCE enabled children to show their talents in academic and co-curricular and extra curricular areas. This system has been dismantled in favour of pen and paper tests and examinations, leading back to rote teaching despite phrases like activity-based learning in the past few years.


Language Learning and proficiency

The most confused parts of the Draft concern language learning. Children do learn languages better than adults but such “learning” is hinged on emotional and meaningful usage in their daily lives. This capacity to learn in early childhood does not mean we impose learning the scripts of three languages before they are 10 (P4.5.5.). Learning through meaningful articulation and socialization has not happened in early years in our institutions even in home languages or local languages. Blaming our craze for English medium does not hide this reality.


We have failed huge number of our children in our schools (both private and public) through various misconceptions about language and learning. Despite the di-glossic nature of many Indian languages, there has been no attempt to bridge the gap between the home/ semi-formal version and the taught version of these languages. Regional dialects and tribal languages are ignored in our teacher preparation, in-service training and learning materials. Complete neglect of this reality is part of the reason for failure of literacy and numeracy in early years across the country.


Despite our rich traditions of story-telling and other linguistic arts, we have very little understanding of transferring oral fluency to literacy and formal articulation in any language. As a result even NCF and similar well-thought documents offer very little insight to teaching of languages in formal classrooms.


This Draft is no exception: it has multiple paragraphs about language (see P4.5 in DNEP) and an entire section on “Multilingualism and the power of language” (p 81 to 85). Immersion is cited by the Draft as an effective strategy without any reference to the working conditions required to make it successful. Bi-lingual dictionaries are mentioned with reference to tribal languages. Learning science bilingually is also mentioned (P4.5.8) citing complaints of “many scientists have complained about their inability to think and speak about their subject in their mother tongue, and how this has hindered both their own thinking and their outreach capabilities in their communities” (page 84). A huge number of scientists do engage in popularization of science in Indian languages as well as in English unheard by the Committee!


Middle grades are chosen as a stage for a “fun course” (P4.5.12) to “learn about the remarkable unity of most of the major Indian languages, starting with their common phonetic and scientifically-arranged alphabets and scripts, their common grammatical structures, their origins and sources of vocabularies from Sanskrit and other classical languages, as well as their rich inter-influences and differences.” (page 86). Again the reasoning for this as well as for learning of Sanskrit and other classical languages is bafflingly vague.


Way Forward

There are other problematic areas which I have not included here such as loosening of current Right to Education (RTE) norms for schools especially for drop-outs and push outs, regulatory mechanisms for private and public systems, funding for education, administration and academic support systems, Rashtriya Siksha Ayog and its attendant boards and councils.


We do need to insist on broadening the options under this policy taking into account the developmental trajectories of different states and regions of this diverse nation. State and local autonomy in educational matters is imperative for social justice and equality of opportunity. The further away the decision-maker is, the less democratic our educational and social provisions will be. For holistic development of our children we need devolution of powers in social sector not centralized control over our institutions for children.


Aruna Rathnam is an activist in the education sector and based in Chennai.


The other articles in this series can be found here.

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