National Curriculum Framework 2023: Whom Will This Structure of ‘Student Choice’ Benefit?

Soon after the carefully chosen ‘deletions’ of the NCERT textbooks have framed what will be transacted during the academic year 2023-24, the National Curriculum Framework (NCF) 2023 has appeared as a draft for consultation. At over 625 pages it seems daunting for most readers trying to grapple with it. Almost like the 500-page Draft National Education Policy (DNEP, 2019), which was substantially trimmed when released later in 2020, during the pandemic.

What is a National Curriculum Framework meant to be?

Importantly, NCF 2023 is not what a ‘national curriculum framework’ is meant to be – a guiding document, for NCERT and the state nodal institutions to develop their own curricula, syllabi and  textbooks. Indeed as NCF 2005 (with 125 pages) had pointed out, the term ‘National Curriculum Framework’ can be wrongly understood as an instrument for imposing uniformity. It explained that a national framework as had been suggested by earlier policies, was expected to support a system of education to evolve into one that was capable of responding to India’s diverse geographical and cultural milieus, while ensuring the core constitutional values, with a focus on relevance, flexibility and academic quality.

Worryingly, NCF 2023 lays out an extremely detailed plan, through a micromanaged design for the entire spectrum of school stages – with details of the subject areas, the interdisciplinary areas and the cross-cutting themes it proposes. Spelling out a syllabus outline with sample lesson plans, it delineates learning standards, curricular goals and expected outcomes. Even time allocations for a school are indicated, “an assembly for 25 minutes with 05 minutes to reach the classroom”. This is not all; it declares that nine more volumes will follow, with greater details on specific matters, “to enable the implementation of the NCF, and its use by practitioners, from curriculum and textbook developers, to teachers and assessors”. These forthcoming volumes will be on each of the Curricular Areas – namely, Arts and Music, Languages, Math, Science, Social Science and Humanities, Sports, and Vocational Education, and a volume on School Culture and Processes.

This overly elaborate centralised curriculum design is precisely what NCF 2005 had warned against, of an instrument for imposing uniformity, contrary to the concurrent nature of education in the federal structure, and the role of states in ensuring cultural diversity and equity.

How will this major restructuring work in the system?

Another major issue that forms a thrust of NCF 2023 is a total restructuring of the secondary stage comprising of Grades 9-12. While there are problems with the overall pattern of restructured stages, especially with the approach to the foundational stage, here our focus is on the terminal stage of school.

The existing pattern divides students in higher secondary school, Grades 11-12, into three streams – science, arts/humanities, and commerce. NCF 2023 proposes to completely change this, claiming that the new design will enable breadth in Grades 9-10 through a broad spectrum of courses across streams, and depth in Grades 11-12 in certain areas according to students’ choice.

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The new ‘Secondary Stage’ (Grades 9-12) is proposed to be divided into two phases:

1. In Grades 9-10, there will be eight broad Curricular Areas. The Curricular Areas are: Humanities (that includes languages), Social Science, Science, Mathematics & Computing, Vocational Education, Physical Education, Arts, and Interdisciplinary Areas.

To complete Grade 10, students will need to complete two Essential Courses from each of the eight Curricular Areas i.e., a total of 16 Essential Courses. In Grades 9 and 10 there will be an annual examination, with the final certification based on the cumulative result of each of the examinations.

2. In Grades 11-12, students have to choose Disciplines (e.g., History, Physics, Language) from at least three Curricular Areas. For each Discipline they choose, they have to complete four choice-based courses in that Discipline. This phase of the secondary stage is divided into semesters and each choice-based course will be for one semester (presumably for six months). To complete Grade 12, students must complete 16 choice-based courses.

Table: Secondary Stage Curricular Areas and Disciplines

 Curricular Areas     Disciplines (four courses within each discipline)
1 Humanities Languages, Literature, Philosophy
2 Social Science History, Geography, Political Science, Psychology, Economics, Sociology
3 Science Physics, Chemistry, Biology
4 Mathematics & Computing Mathematics, Computer Science, Business Mathematics
5 Arts Music, Dance, Theatre, Sculpture, Painting, Film-appreciation, Script writing, Set design
6 Vocational Education Aligned to the National Skills Qualifications Framework (NSQF)
7 Sports Courses on specific sports/games/yoga
8 Interdisciplinary Areas Commerce, Sustainability and Climate Change, Health (Public, community health), Media and Journalism, Family and Community Sciences (current form of Home

Science), Knowledge of India/Indian Knowledge, Traditions and Practices/Indian Knowledge Systems, Legal studies. List may be enhanced continually.

The NCF states that students have a ‘choice’ in selecting specific areas and disciplines (see Table), which they will decide based on their interests and future plans after school. However, this issue of ‘choice’ is most misleading – even in the existing streams the majority of students cannot choose – it depends entirely on which streams their school offers, and how teachers perceive their abilities along with their marks in school tests and the Grade 10 board examinations.

Serious problems show up at the point where NCF mentions ‘implications for secondary schools’. For all students to complete Grade 10, all secondary schools will need to offer Essential Courses in all the Curricular Areas. NCF acknowledges that many schools might not be in a position to offer the entire range of disciplines at Grade 11 and 12.

The catch and the conundrum of choice

In order to allow students to have “a reasonable choice”, NCF proposes that secondary schools, to begin with, must offer at least one Curricular Area from each of the following categories:

Category 1: Humanities or Social Science or Science or Mathematics and Computing
Category 2: Inter-disciplinary Areas
Category 3: Arts or Sports or Courses on specific sports/games/yoga.

Here lies the catch, where the pedestal of ‘choice’, of so-called varying breadth and depth at the secondary stage, falls flat. This minimalist clause above will allow schools to function with an extremely narrow and problematic curricular spectrum. For example, schools could offer the following three Curricular Areas:

1. Humanities: either of these Disciplines – say Languages and Literature

2. Inter-disciplinary Areas: any of these Disciplines – Knowledge of India or Indian Knowledge; Systems, Family and Community Sciences (new form of Home Science)

3. Sports: Disciplinary Courses on any game, or yoga.

This inventive structure seems to open its doors to low-cost private institutions offering permutations of questionable quality, and also those that may come under the rubric of Indian Knowledge Systems (IKS) favoured by the ruling dispensation. In fact the National Credits Framework (NcrF) recently released by the University Grants Commission has included Indian Knowledge System and now added a list of Vidyas or theoretical disciplines, and kalas or applied sciences and vocational crafts that will be counted to earn credits during school education.

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The NCF accords legitimacy to a structure of courses of carefully differentiated status, to sort students from disadvantaged backgrounds into constricted curricular silos. The notion of flexible ‘interdisciplinary learning’ and the rhetoric of ‘choice’, popularly imagined as available in elite IB school curricula, allows NCF 2023 to judiciously administer a feel-good dose of wishful credence to the middle classes.

Without rigorous appraisal of our existing school systems, with studies on the preparedness of the present teacher education system, one wonders how such a major shift has been propounded. For instance, several years after the introduction of integrated ‘general science’ for Grades 9-10, teacher educators do not feel confident to teach the pedagogy for this course, claiming they have studied either biology, chemistry or physics. Textbooks too contain chapters from either of these disciplines, since developing creative ‘interdisciplinary’ pedagogic material is not as simple as it is portrayed.

At a glance: The status of a current Grade 12 inter-disciplinary course 

Tarun (name changed) has just finished his Grade 12 board examinations and says he hopes to pass, even in Hindi and Sanskrit, which he did not find interesting in school, and in which he has not answered well the examination questions. However he says his ‘Home Science’ paper was easy, since most of the information he had memorised.

During the entire year they never entered what was meant to be the laboratory, and did no practical work. Even the board practical examination was easy; they were asked to bring from home something they were supposed to cook, and submit a piece of batik cloth, which friends had shared. Before the external examiner came in, their school teacher asked them to copy some portion from the textbook, and that was all for the viva.

Despite this almost farcical situation of the interdisciplinary course he was taught, he hopes it will allow him to study hotel management at college. The prospects of that possibility however need further examination, of his eligibility, the affordable programmes available, since he belongs to a poor family with working parents who manage to earn around Rs 16,000 between them.

The CBSE Grade 12 home science (theory) examination paper

Some of the questions Tarun had to answer, as part of his Home Science (Theory) paper (bilingual) for the CBSE Grade 12 board examination are as follows:

Q.  ———- provides hospitality to people who go hiking, undertake adventure sports, etc.

a) Lodge; b) Resort;  c) Furnished camp;  d) Motel.

Q.  Match the following:

(i)  Food and Beverage department                1. Receptionist

(ii) Front Office                                              2. Accountant

(iii) Housekeeping department                       3. Chef-de-partie

(iv) Support service department                     4. Room attendant

Q. Identify the methods of washing clothes in a top-loading washing machine.

a) Research Scholar; b) Tumbling; c)  Calendering;  d) Pulsation.

Options are given as of pairs of combinations.

Q. Give full forms of the following international organisations dealing with food standards, quality and trade.

a) CAC; b) ISO;   c) WTO.

Q. a). Which five knowledge and skills are required by a recipe development professional involved in Food Processing and Technology industry? Elaborate in detail.


b) Define Toxicity and Hazard. Explain three types of hazards in food with examples.

Q. How are phytochemicals different from medical foods?

Q. a) List four pillars on which the science of ergonomics is set.


b) Why are social entrepreneurs called ‘social catalysts’? Write any two characteristics of an entrepreneur.

Q. Mandeep wants to buy a readymade pant and shirt. Explain two ways by which he can bring harmony in it.

Q. Name the colour harmony scheme where only neutral colours are used.

a) Split complementary; b) Monochromatic; c) Achromatic; d) Triadic

Tarun has answered the questions in Hindi, where in some cases the terms used are uncommon and difficult. We must remember that these questions would have been given to a large number of poor students who would not be familiar with many of these contexts.

The NCERT textbooks of ‘Home Science’, (earlier named ‘Human Ecology and Family Sciences’), were revised in 2016, and have units on five domains – namely, Food and Nutrition, Human Development and Family Studies, Fabric and Apparel, Resource Management, and Communication and Extension. The introduction to the textbook states that each of these domains was included and named in a way that aligns with specialisations offered in various colleges and universities, and the expanding horizons and needs of families, industries and society. It claims these domains provide interdisciplinary perspectives and opportunities to work in industry/corporate sector, teaching, research and development, and in various cadres in the public sector, as well as in regional, national and international organisations. More importantly, it states that “the practicals have been designed to enable learners to gain insights and also have a bird’s eye view of the tasks and challenges inherent in the various professional careers and avenues. Considerable emphasis is laid on ‘construction of knowledge’ through field exposure and first-hand experiences”.

We have seen how Tarun was taught without ever having done any practicals. He studied at a school run by the Delhi government, which pats itself on the back for an ‘Education Revolution’ and uses discriminatory ways of sorting students and pushing them out to the Open School System, to flaunt its board results. Some students who last year got a compartment in the Class 12 board, though technically eligible to reappear in the supplementary exam after two months, were pushed out and enrolled in the Open School. As far as ‘choice’ goes, a reply to a Right to Information question had shown that in Delhi less than one-third schools offer science at Grades 11-12, as there are no laboratories for each of the science subjects, no adequate facilities or teachers, and students have to get 50-55% marks in Grade 10 to be eligible for science.

Policies and frameworks may present promises on paper, but the demeaning quality of education and the ‘paper’ certificates doled out to the precariat, even in well-resourced urban environments, are of deep concern. How far are these new course structures mandated to address the ‘choices’ and aspirations of all our students, especially the disadvantaged thrown out early, sacrificed to the glossy facade of ‘excellence’? Worryingly, our education system is on a precarious roll, brazenly abandoning concerns of quality and equity, embracing commercial ‘content creators’, with courses that increasingly tend to align with the precarity of the gig economy.

 Anita Rampal taught at the Faculty of Education, Delhi University; was Chairperson of the NCERT Textbook Development Committees at Primary Stage, under NCF 2005.

Featured image illustration by Pariplab Chakraborty.