NEP 2020: Finally A Policy That Recognises Importance Of Private Schools And Doesn’t Treat Them With Contempt

NEP 2020: Finally A Policy That Recognises Importance Of Private Schools And Doesn’t Treat Them With ContemptPrime Minister Narendra Modi (Representative Image) (PMIndia website)
Snapshot
  • NEP 2020 is a rare policy which recognises the importance of private schools and doesn’t treat them as criminal entities.

    It may not be perfect but deserves two cheers out of three. One cheer is reserved until we see how well the government does in reviewing the RTE act and preparing new curriculum and textbooks.

One of the biggest developments in the 21st century India has been the shift in enrolments of students from government schools to private ones. Research by Professor Geeta Gandhi Kingdon shows that “the total enrollment in government schools between 2010-11 to 2014-15 actually fell by 11.1 million students, whereas total enrollment in private schools rose by 16 million students over the same four-year period.’

This was bound to happen. As economic reforms in 1991 helped broaden the middle class size and gave more money in the hands of people, demand for budget private schools skyrocketed. The market delivered and exodus of students from government schools followed.

While India moved forward, policymakers remained stuck in the past. The right to education (RTE) act was passed in 2009 to tame the rise of private schools that catered to ‘New India’. The RTE Act treated private schools as criminals which needed to be punished and heaped onerous regulations on them, snatched away their admission and management autonomy, forced them to reserve one-fourth of their seats for certain “disadvantaged groups“ at highly subsidised fees and what not.

It is in this light we have to see the new national education policy (NEP 2020) approved by the Union cabinet on 30 July. With refreshing honesty, the policy admits that ‘the current regulatory regime has not been able to curb the commercialisation and economic exploitation of parents by many for-profit private schools, yet at the same time it has all too often inadvertently discouraged public-spirited private/philanthropic schools.“

As opposed to the centralised approach that we have followed for decades, NEP 2020 advocates taking the pluralist route allowing schools more autonomy in setting curriculum, deciding pedagogies, and critically, in lessening the regulatory load as well as making it easier to start new schools.

NEP identifies some key problems with the current regulatory framework:

First, the present structure of governance of school system concentrates power in Department of School Education (DSE) as borne out by the fact that all main functions — provisioning, regulation and policymaking — are carried out by this body, which creates conflict of interest.

Second, NEP states that while the stifling and ineffective regulatory regime has not been able to stop commercialisation of education, it has managed to discourage public-spirited private schools.

Third, private and public schools are regulated differently, which has created an asymmetry.

To usher in a new approach to school governance, the NEP recommends the following.

First, decentralisation of regulatory powers away from the Department of School Education (DSE). Going forward, DSE will only handle policy-making. Its regulatory power will be transferred to a new body — a State School Regulatory Authority (SSRA), which will set basic and uniform standards for both public and private schools. All academic matters will be handled by the State Council for Education, Research and Training (SCERT), which will also set standards for quality assessment and accreditation of schools.

Interestingly, for accreditation, only basic parameters meeting safety and security need to be fulfilled. Infrastructure requirements won’t be uniform everywhere but will depend on local conditions. A great improvement over the current “one size fits all” approach.

The system will also move from the current inspectorial approach to an open disclosure approach, where schools make all relevant information public to help parents make better choices thus making them the de facto regulator.

Second, the NEP recognises the importance of private schools and intends to make it easier to establish new ones. “To make it easier for both governments as well as non-governmental philanthropic organisations to build schools, to encourage local variations on account of culture, geography, and demographics, and to allow alternative models of education, the requirements for schools will be made less restrictive.

Third, the NEP also talks about watering down focus on inputs for schools and having greater emphasis on outputs (say, learning outcomes).

NEP states that, “The standard-setting/regulatory framework and the facilitating systems for school regulation, accreditation, and governance shall be reviewed to enable improvements on the basis of the learnings and experiences gained in the last decade. This review will aim to ensure that all students, particularly students from underprivileged and disadvantaged sections, shall have universal, free and compulsory access to high-quality and equitable schooling from early childhood care and education (age 3 onwards) through higher secondary education (i.e. until Grade 12)”

This leaves little doubt that it is talking about the RTE act which, in all likelihood, be extended to cover education from age 3 to 18. But it will be a different act.

NEP says that input requirements for schools regarding land areas and room sizes, practicalities of playgrounds in urban areas, etc will not be overemphasised. “These mandates will be adjusted and loosened, leaving suitable flexibility for each school to make its own decisions based on local needs and constraints.” Further, it promises that ’educational outcomes and the transparent disclosure of financial, academic, and operational matters will be given due importance and will be incorporated in the assessment of schools.”

However, the NEP is silent on some of the most disastrous aspects of the RTE such as whether the act will be extended to minority schools which are currently exempt; whether private schools will be allowed admission autonomy in selecting 25 per students under the ‘disadvantaged groups’ quota (currently, the government selects those and sends them to schools); whether the reimbursements by the government will be made compulsorily on time, etc.

If these issues are not addressed in the upcoming review of the act, RTE extension will spell more doom for most of the private schools.

Fourth, while NEP draft had advocated for giving full freedom to schools to choose their curriculum or even develop their own as long as it is aligned with National and State Curriculum Framework (NCF 2020, SCF), the final NEP doesn’t go that far. Still, it says that ”where possible“ schools and teachers can chose the textbooks they employ (of course from among a set of textbooks that contain the requisite national and local material). This freedom is given so that the teachers can teach in a manner best suited to their own pedagogical styles and as per the needs of their students and communities.

Fifth, both private and public schools will be regulated within the same framework. This is significant because, as we have seen with the RTE act, the government had put such stringent criteria regulating private schools that even most public schools do not meet, sending a wrong signal that private schools are being targeted unfairly.

What more NEP could have done

Of course, it goes without saying that the NEP on private schools is not perfect. I have already highlighted above how it doesn’t address some of the biggest issues with the RTE act.

There are a couple more issues where the NEP could’ve been bolder.

First, it is not in favour of for-profit schools and vows to protect “parents and communities from arbitrary increases in tuition fees”. Most likely, this will be done via SSRA which will decide the percentage fee increase permissible (based on inflation, etc.) every three years, as was suggested by the NEP draft.

This will be a regressive move. Financial autonomy is one of the most important aspects of school autonomy and giving the power to decide permissible fee increases to a government body amenable to political pressures will inevitably make private schools a victim of electoral populism.

The better way is to allow both for-profit and not-for-profit private schools and give more financial autonomy to the latter. It’s not the case that private schools don’t make a profit but they do so using nefarious ways and exploiting loopholes. The government can rather tax them and it would be a win-win for both.

While one agrees that there is large information/power asymmetry between schools and students/parents and that the latter needs to be protected from arbitrary behaviour of some schools — but placing the power to control them into hand of state bureaucrats is hardly a solution. If the past is any indicator, genuine entrepreneurs will find it hard to invest in new areas and increase fees while the crooked will be able to “justify” their fee spikes by using their old ways.

Second, the draft policy could’ve also been innovative in allowing schools to hire the kind of teachers they need (rather than insisting on a B.Ed degree for all), suggesting to give them more freedom in admission autonomy, relaxing student-teacher ratio, and advocating for entrepreneurs to not just experiment with different kinds of schools but also different kinds of boards.

Nonetheless, we should not make good the enemy of the best. NEP may not be perfect but it deserves two cheers out of three. I am reserving one cheer until I see the a) government’s review of the RTE act and what it does to reform it; and b) how good a job it does in preparing the new textbooks and curriculum.

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