I remember manoeuvring through the potholed roads and gallis with open drains in search of the school where I was to spend my second year of the Teach for India fellowship. Google Maps opened in my hand and looking up and down the road in utter confusion, I could not imagine a school amidst the vast tin-roofed homes in the slums of Ghatkopar in Mumbai. But to my surprise and help from strangers walking by, I suddenly entered a gate that opened to a school.
Classrooms with broken black boards, leaking roofs and smiling students welcomed me. The school had a playground in theory, but it was just the concrete courtyard of the building, a computer lab with lesser computers than students in each class and a science lab that existed a few years back but was used as a library/store room/staff room now.
Teachers in the school were taking on subjects more than their share because enough teachers were not employed. Climbing the stairs to reach other classrooms would give a good view of the area right outside the school building, where there was an open sewer that miraculously did not smell much.
Despite all this, there was a sense of joy and happiness among the students and teachers. When I was teaching trigonometry or statistics, we would forget about things happening outside those four walls. There were only loud discussions, laughter and the continuous sound of “Didi, didi, come here and see if I solved it right!”
During those two years of my fellowship, I developed interest in policy and read the Right to Education Act (RTE) to observe differences between what was on paper and what I saw on ground. And there were many.
The schools I taught at didn’t have the infrastructure as was mentioned. There were no working science labs or the required student-teacher ratio or clean toilets for students and teachers. School management committees were not created nor was there any special training for students. However, RTE was implemented well in other areas such as free education, no detention for students who failed in exams and extra-curricular activities.
Recently, the government of India introduced the New Education Policy (NEP) 2020 and it was highly praised. But when I look at the condition of schools in a city like Mumbai and recall how RTE worked on ground, I cannot help but be skeptical about this new policy.
A multilingual approach has been proposed with focus on classical languages. Online learning is encouraged as an alternative and school complexes are proposed which can share resources. A total revamp of higher education is suggested where board exams will be based on knowledge application and subjects will be flexible for higher studies. The age group for access to free education was expanded from 6-14 years to 3-18 years. Vocational courses and internships for students and common college entrance tests were some other features mentioned. The proposed increase in budget for education to 6% of the GDP as compared to 3% must be the best news of all.
But is this a groundbreaking policy or just over ambitious? From my experience, I cannot help but lean towards the latter. There is hardly any mention of improving the current infrastructure of schools, and if schools in Mumbai cannot have working classrooms, potable water and well-maintained toilets, can we expect this from schools in villages or tribal belts?
The number of teachers is far less to be able to implement such a policy and English is still the preferred language for communication when it comes to the professional world. Will they be trained regularly to keep up with the needs of the policy?
The pandemic has provided enough proof that online classes have not been successful. So many students in villages and in underprivileged homes in cities cannot afford smartphones to access these lectures. Will those students be able to access the mentioned school complexes easily? And how will they attend online classes if the internet is banned for national security?
Vocational courses have been outdated for years. The changing markets need trainees that are aware of these changing trends. Will the policy be able to address these demands? And if private players enter the education sector, will resources still be free for all?
The RTE could not be implemented well enough in top-tier cities like Mumbai, Delhi and Bangalore for more than ten years. This makes me question if the NEP 2020 will be able to achieve all its features in the next two decades. The increase in budget will surely help if used correctly, but whether these changes will help in the holistic development of children is still in doubt.
Poorvi Bose is an Electronics engineer and a Post-graduate in Public Policy from National Law School of India University in Bangalore and specialises in technology policy.
Featured image credit: Mansi Thapliyal/Reuters