The Cabinet finally approved the National Education Policy (NEP) on Wednesday, more than a year after the Kasturirangan Committee released the Draft National Education Policy. 

The final policy hits the mark on many points. Its most important proposal is on separating the role of the government as regulator and service provider. 

At present, state governments hold three roles in school education. They set policies, regulate private schools and operate their own schools. The NEP vests these functions of the government into separate independent bodies. But what is going wrong with the current system? 

Suppose there is a cricket match between you and your neighbour’s family. Usually, you choose random strangers to be the umpire. But for some reason (perhaps due to COVID-19), no one else is on the street. You have no one else to sub in, so your neighbour asks his mother to be the referee. Would it be a fair match? 

This is the current state of the school education system in India. The government runs schools while also regulating private schools. There is a clear conflict of interest, concentration of powers and lack of focus on who does what.  

Consider an instance from Telangana. When the state Education Department raided all schools in Hyderabad following the collapse of one school building, an education inspector first told a newspaper reporter: “if any schools are found running in dilapidated conditions or constructed of poor quality material, notices will be issued and [private schools] may face action including demolition”, adding later, “we have proposed repairs in few government schools”. 

The attitude of the officer and the punishment for violating the same standards are different for government and private schools. This is true across India and is not isolated to geography or politics (CCS forthcoming). 

It is not only a personnel problem. CCS (forthcoming) analysed education laws for five states, Maharashtra, Delhi, Haryana, Jharkhand and Uttar Pradesh. Even the legislative language used for both schools is starkly different. 

Private schools are slapped with phrases like take over, debar, and cease to function. And what language is used for government schools? Monitor, develop, and undertake

India is a growing economy. It needs its youth to enter the market in large numbers but equipped with quality education. Private schools can and have been facilitating this. Yet, state governments often treat them as villains. NEP corrects this impression. It acknowledges the significant contribution of the private sector and attempts to ease its operations in two ways. It asks states to set up an independent regulator and raises the need to shift regulatory focus towards outcomes. 

The constitution of the State School Standards Authority is a significant measure for multiple reasons. Education is a concurrent subject in India. Both Union and state governments can regulate it. But for years, the Central government has been taking charge, leaving states with little freedom. Asking states to form a State School Standards Authority changes this dynamic. 

States finally have the power to exercise true competitive federalism. We will be able to see who regulates and enforces norms better. Will it be the Centre, trying to control everything from afar? Or will it be the states, closer to home and better aware of the on-ground situation? 

More importantly, the independent State School Standards Authority will finally treat public and private schools equally. Central government schools remain an exception. But the remaining schools will be governed by the same criteria, benchmarks, and processes. 

NEP separates other roles of the state government into different bodies. The Department of School Education, the apex state-level body in K-12 education, will be responsible for overall monitoring and policymaking. It will not be involved with service delivery or regulation of education. The Directorate of School Education will handle the service delivery for the public schooling system of the whole state. This separation removes the issue of conflict of interest. The match now has a neutral umpire. 

NEP does not stop there. It prods the public to think deeper about the regulatory environment for schools by raising the need to revisit the existing regulations. One big challenge has been the Right to Education (RTE) Act, 2009. 

RTE has served well as a vehicle for ensuring access to education. But it has come at the cost of hindering many schools from entering the education sector. 

RTE’s emphasis on input-heavy recognition norms for private schools have posed many challenges to running schools in dense urban neighbourhoods. Norms such as playgrounds or minimum classroom size have made it difficult for budget private schools to operate. NEP recommends making such requirements “more responsive to realities on the ground.” 

There is urgent need to move towards outcomes-based recognition. Regulations must not deter private schools. Instead, they should encourage all types of schools to participate and work towards the same goal: that of providing quality education. The NEP attempts to do so through its “light but tight” regulatory framework where all schools, public and private, must follow a minimal set of standards. 

School education in India has been suffering for long. NEP recognises its root ailments and lays out strong structural reforms. All that is left is thoughtful implementation of its recommendations. 

We have revised our article on the basis of the National Education Policy published on the MHRD website. Our earlier version argued that the NEP explicitly recognises the need to revisit RTE Act.

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