Central Square Foundation
Central Square Foundation

“Important to remember that implementation rests with states”

The EDge Editorial Team June 2019

While commending the draft National Education Policy (NEP) for calling out foundational learning as the highest priority for the education system in the coming years, Ashish Dhawan, Founder and Chairman, Central Square Foundation, also talks about how the Centre and state can work together for its implementation.

CSF: What is your initial response to the draft NEP? If implemented, how do you see the impact of the policy on our education system?

Ashish: The draft NEP was a long time coming, but it has made some bold and welcome recommendations to shift the focus of the education system towards quality and improving student learning outcomes. It takes a long-term view in terms of the emphasis on flexibility and skills to ensure that our children are equipped for a rapidly changing job scenario.

When I read it, my immediate thought was that we now have a policy document, even though it’s a draft, that explicitly recognizes that we are currently in a severe learning crisis, and that this crisis starts in the early years. This is significant. If we were to focus and get this one thing right, i.e., ensure all children have foundational literacy and numeracy skills, this in itself would have a tremendous impact on the education system.

CSF: What, according to you, are some of the important areas highlighted by the policy?

Ashish: I would pick two things. One, as I already said, the draft clearly states that our highest priority should be achieving universal foundational literacy and numeracy. Research and evidence have been telling us this for years – if children lack basic literacy and numeracy skills, they gain very little from additional years of schooling and their learning curve flattens. The policy itself acknowledges that all other initiatives are bound to be largely ineffective unless children acquire a minimum level of proficiency in reading, writing and arithmetic. Linked to this is the fact that the policy views learning as a continuum from the early years (ages 3 to 6) to classes 1 and 2, calling it the “foundational stage.”

Two, the policy takes a progressive view towards private schools, wherein it recommends regulating public and private schools on the same criteria and benchmarks. We can debate the details, but this move is a step in the right direction, especially given that nearly 40% of children are studying in private schools in India today.

CSF: What are some of the key steps the government can take for the successful implementation of the policy? How can the policy translate into real action?

Ashish: The NEP proposes several new ideas for reforming and improving the quality of school education. However, the challenge is that current state capacity to deliver quality education is weak, and we do not have the resources to focus on so many things at the same time. My one advice to the government would be that they should almost ruthlessly prioritize – they should first focus on ensuring that all children achieve foundational literacy and numeracy, and then phase in other priorities, as needed.

Separately, I think it’s important to remember that implementation rests with states. The Centre’s role is primarily one of catalyzing demand for critical reforms with the states, setting broader policy goals, providing funding to states, and so on. The Centre cannot be too prescriptive in terms of ‘how’ states need to implement. In fact, it needs to give states the autonomy to choose the most cost-effective pathways, while maintaining accountability for the right outcomes. The Centre should also think about enabling states to develop 3-5-year plans, and not annual plans.

CSF: How do you see the role of the Centre vis-à-vis the states in terms of implementing this policy?

Ashish: As I mentioned earlier, the Centre’s role should be to set the reform agenda and ensure accountability to related outcomes through monitoring. In a country as large and diverse as India, it is unreasonable to suggest or think of uniform implementation. In fact, there is evidence to show that the same intervention may have different results when applied in varied contexts. Hence, the program design and implementation model need to be contextualized at the state or even at a district level. This would allow for more innovation to also take place at state/district level.

CSF: What, according to you, are the big misses of the draft NEP, if any?

Ashish: One of the key concerns with the draft education policy is that, like many other policies, it may be attempting to do too much. As a system, we first need to focus on getting the basics right – ensure that all our children achieve foundational literacy and numeracy by class 3. Without this prioritization, the system will continue to grapple with multiple competing priorities.

We cannot hope to achieve foundational learning for all our children if we don’t measure it correctly. Therefore, one of the biggest areas of reform in this regard, which is not adequately addressed by the policy in its current form, is the need to ensure independent and reliable learning data to measure early grade learning outcomes. While the NEP does call out regular adaptive assessments, there is a need to have a large-scale, independent, household-based, government-backed assessment which measures outcomes for children attending public and private schools. This survey must be housed in and administered by an autonomous institution, which is at arm’s length from the delivery ministry, ensuring there is no conflict of interest. This learning data is critical for the government to meaningfully hold the system accountable and keep us honest. It should be used for monitoring the quality and equity aspects of the education system, measure the effectiveness of existing education policies, and inform the design and target population for specific interventions.

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