By Piyush Prakash
Every few minutes Rani’s stomach would rumble, and she would look outside her classroom, even as the rest of her friends were busy listening to the ongoing science popularisation session. Eventually, her stares caught the teacher’s attention. “Subah se kuch khaya nahi hai, khane ke ghanti ka intezaar kar rahi hun. (I haven’t eaten anything since the morning; I am just waiting for the mid-day meal bell.)”
Rani’s reaction is unsurprising; around 100 million children in India are dependent on their school’s mid-day meals (MDM) for daily sustenance. India has 46.6 million stunted children under the age of five—and stunted children perform 48% lower in mathematics than their non-stunted counterparts at the age of 8, a study in Ethiopia showed. The National Educational Policy (NEP) 2020 has taken a remarkable step in recommending the inclusion of breakfast in the MDM. It enables students, like Rani, to concentrate in class and maximise their potential like their peers in private schools.
Nutrition, however, is only one of many factors correlated with a child’s learning. Studies have shown that school readiness, a combination of motor, cognitive and socio-emotional development, influences the learning curve of children when they enter school. Nearly 43% students in class 1 are unable to recognise letters in rural India. Therefore, the NEP’s recommendation to provide universal access to pre-primary education through anganwadis and balvatikas will provide a level-playing field to many and ensure they are ready for school.
As Nobel Laureate James Heckman’s work shows, the RoI for pre-schooling is as high as 7-10%, realised through better outcomes in education, health, social behaviour and employment—all key factors for socio-economic mobility.
Let us take the case of eight-year-old Persa from the Gond community in central India. Though in class 2, Persa is hardly able to read words or do addition. Students like Persa tend to accumulate learning loss over grades, hit a flat learning curve, enter ‘learning poverty’ (i.e. being unable to read and understand a simple text by the age of 10) and often drop out of schools. Only 70 students out of 100 complete schooling in India—the numbers fall to 30 in Jharkhand, 46 in Bihar and 55 in West Bengal. The NEP admits to this learning crisis and sets the goal of achieving foundational literacy and numeracy for all primary students by 2025, thereby setting these students on a path of sustained learning.
That said, learning and student achievements also depend on the language of learning. A 2017 study revealed that linguistically mismatched districts of southern India have 18% lower literacy rates and 20.1% lower college graduation rates, driven by the difficulty in acquiring education in an unfamiliar medium of instruction. A native speaker of Gondi like Persa would struggle to read books and comprehend school instruction, both of which use Hindi.
Such students are often marginalised within the classroom, with little space for self-expression and interpersonal communication. The NEP’s recommendation for instruction in mother tongue till primary school paves the way for millions of students, like Persa, to regain self-confidence and establish their identities. Another Ethiopian study suggests that learning in the mother tongue from classes 1-4 significantly increases students’ mathematics and literacy test scores when they transition to English instruction in class 5. The three-language formula also opens the door for learning of Hindi and English, facilitating Persa’s integration in his immediate society and job-readiness in the future.
The NEP’s recommendation to integrate vocational education in middle school is relevant for market-facing skills. However, students from marginalised backgrounds, like Rani and Persa, often drop out of schools and pick up odd jobs. It will have to be ensured that such students do not see vocational education as an exit route from the school.
The NEP’s vision to attain a GER of 100% across grades by 2030 has the potential to ensure such students complete schooling while learning job-relevant skills. An amendment to the RTE Act, 2009, to include education from the pre-primary to the senior secondary level as a fundamental right will allay fears of student dropouts because of vocational education.
The NEP vouches for introducing coding from class 6 onwards. One of the most sought-after skills in the job market and a ladder to socio-economic mobility, the ability to code could be a game changer for students from marginalised backgrounds. Its success, however, lies in political will, an equitable distribution of resources, and its implementation.
The National Educational Technology Forum, envisaged in the NEP, can play an instrumental role in ensuring digital literacy—a precursor to coding—among all school-going children, regardless of their social background or geography.
In many ways, the NEP is revolutionary. It demonstrates humility in accepting the unhappy state of school education in our country. At the same time, it demonstrates an audacity to dream big, to give voice to the unheard from the rural and tribal hinterland, and to facilitate their success.
The author is senior associate, NITI Aayog. Views are personal