The 10 + 2 model of secondary education is proposed to be replaced by a 5+3+3+4 model. Under the new dispensation, a child will go to a pre-school/ anganwadi at the age of three years; after three years at the preschool/ anganwadi, the child will go to a primary school for grade 1 and 2. Grades 3 to 5 would be preparatory followed by grades 6 to 8 called the Middle Stage. There would be school examinations in grades 3, 5 and 8. Suffice it to say, that the new system would be the antithesis of the present system which does away with examinations till the board examinations in class ten. Moreover, eleven years of schooling till class eight may test the patience and financial resources of the poor and moderately well-off who want their children to be ready for employment or higher education after twelve years of schooling.

Annual Status of Education Reports (ASER) across the years had pointed out that the educational foundation of most children was extremely weak; most middle school children were unable to do simple arithmetical sums or even read and write in their mother tongues. The NEP proposes pre-schooling, to buttress the educational foundation of learners, but the anganwadis, that are to shoulder the bulk of responsibility for pre-schooling, are illequipped for this onerous task. Anganwadis were established as rural child-care centres under the Integrated Child Development Services programme, primarily to combat child hunger and malnutrition.

A typical anganwadi is manned by an Anganwadi Worker (AWW) assisted by an Anganwadi Helper (AWH); while the AWW is paid honorarium of Rs 4,500 per month the AWH is paid Rs 2,500 per month. Anganwadis also provide contraceptive counselling and supply nutrition education and supplementation, immunization, health check-up and referral services and are also used as depots for oral rehydration salts, basic medicines and contraceptives. Anganwadi workers are not qualified teachers; given the span of their multifarious duties, they may not be able to devote sufficient time to educating children.

Privately-run pre-schools are little better; most of them operate out of cramped spaces and have unqualified teachers but still charge a bomb for their services. Looking to the situation on the ground, the NEP should first have provided a road map for rejuvenation of anganwadis and pre-schools before entrusting them with the responsibility of educating young minds. Coming to education in grades 1 to 8, the majority of children study in Government schools in villages, almost all of which are plagued by grave shortages of infrastructure. Visit any village school and you would find a crumbling building where a single teacher may be teaching two or three classes of disinterested children in a single room.

Most likely the school would have no running water, electricity or toilets. It would be futile to expect better learning outcomes with such deficient human and physical infrastructure. In these circumstances, the goal of experiential learning in middle school would certainly be difficult to achieve. The NEP has the laudable objective of providing vocational education to 50 per cent learners, with all students taking a year-long survey course on vocational skills and crafts in Grades 6-8, followed by access to vocational courses along with academic courses, in Grades 9-12, with students having the choice to ‘mix and match’. However, with negligible infrastructure in terms of workplaces and teachers, the implementation of this provision would certainly take time.

Certainly, the educational system is illprepared for the wide-ranging changes that are slated to take effect from the academic year 2022-23, more so with all schools closed and the entire Government machinery focussed on combating the Coronavirus pandemic. Establishment of the National Assessment Centre, PARAKH (Performance Assessment, Review and Analysis of Knowledge for Holistic Development) for evaluating all school boards is a giant step forward. Hopefully, PARAKH would end the reign of education mafias that have eroded the credibility of most State Education Boards. Bihar Board achieved widespread notoriety when photographs of parents scaling walls to “help” their wards in Board examinations were published.

This notoriety was reinforced when videos of Bihar toppers fumbling to answer basic questions went viral. The once respected UP Board did not lag behind; one sixth of the examinees dropped out when the UP Government decided to go tough with the copying mafias. At the same time the full implication of the goal of the NEP to make tenth and twelfth board examinations ‘easier’ should be clearly spelt out. If the target is to award more marks to examinees then we really have had enough of it, with board toppers getting 100 per cent marks and lakhs getting more than 95 per cent marks. Awarding more marks may simply not be possible.

Examinations like the JEE-Advanced show the mirror to the stellar performance of board toppers. The number of eligible candidates after JEE-Advanced 2018 was much less than the seats available at the IITs. At the instance of Ministry of Human Resource Development, the cutoff was lowered by 10 per cent, which increased the number of eligible candidates by more than 80 per cent, even then only 33,000 odd students qualified for admission though lakhs had scored above 90 per cent in the Twelfth Board examinations.

Currently, educational standards at all levels have been deliberately lowered to conceal the rot in the educational system; only 7.5 per cent of the 8 lakh students could pass the UGC-NET examination of December 2019. Hopefully, the NEP would address this malady adequately. A major shortcoming of the NEP is that it is a document prepared by academicians that does not focus adequately on how to make education useful for business, industry and society. Ideally, our educational system should turn out well qualified individuals who would effortlessly slip into their assigned roles. This is the way the education system is designed in most advanced countries.

One hoped that our education system that churns out a crop of literate, but not educated, graduates and post-graduates would be reformed so that degrees would be accompanied by specific skill sets guaranteeing usefulness for some specific sector of society and we would be spared the unedifying spectacle of hundreds of post-graduates and MBAs vying for menial Government jobs. But in its present form the NEP would only delay the inevitable; children graduating after 19 years of education in non-technical disciplines would still have to search for a job.

Preferably, lessons in agriculture and entrepreneurship should have been made a part of the syllabus at the +4 level so that after passing out of school children would not depend on some job coming their way but would be capable of fending for themselves. Teaching agriculture would bridge the knowledge deficit about advanced agricultural practices that would be relevant for children of 45 per cent Indians who are engaged in agriculture. A disturbing feature of the NEP is that it proposes to abolish ‘stand-alone technical universities, health science universities, legal and agricultural universities’ which would sound the death-knell of the IITs, AIIMS and NLUs that stand out as islands of excellence in a sea of mediocre institutions.

It is sincerely hoped that there would be second thoughts on this step. The quality of schools and colleges varies immensely with elite institutions in metros at one end and schools in rural and tribal areas at the other. With the lockdown experience in mind, the NEP could have laid out a concrete roadmap for supplementary digital instruction to provide a leg-up to students of weaker institutions, that could make up for the shortage of teachers and infrastructure. The bottom-line is that educational reforms would be difficult to implement because of inadequate funding; Central and State Governments are spending only 2.6 per cent of the GDP on education, as against a goal of 6 per cent visualised in the 1960s and reiterated by NEP 2020. One hopes that instead of merely paying lip service, the Government would devote sufficient resources to achieve the goals set out in the NEP.

(The writer is a retired Principal Chief Commissioner of Income-Tax)