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Is The NEP Doing Justice To The Special Needs Of The STs?

The New Education Policy (NEP) has been seen from different prisms by various sections of society. But, one of the most striking ones is that the policy has not looked at the special needs of certain communities like the Scheduled Tribes.

The Scheduled Tribes (STs) have been bracketed along with the Scheduled Castes, the OBCs and minorities as one mega disadvantaged group without offering solutions for the unique set of problems that each one of the communities faces, say experts.

The surprising aspect is that the NEP acknowledges that the dropout rates for ST students are relatively higher than even the SCs (Scheduled Castes) in terms of medium of language, location of schools, and the economic conditions that make it difficult for tribal children to access education.

Yet, the policy has introduced three standardised exams in Classes three, five and eight when it has been seen that after every exam the number of dropouts has shown an upward trajectory.

The ostensible reasoning is that holding exams would help improve the quality of education.

SC Nataraj, director of Sudar, an Erode-based NGO, which runs a special training centre under the National Child Labour Project or NCLP, quotes the example of a Government Tribal Residential School in Kongadai, a tribal hamlet in Erode district of Tamil Nadu.

In 2018-19, the school had 49 students in Class nine. The following year, only 25 students enrolled in Class 10. “Out of the 25, only 14 remained until the end of the year to receive hall tickets for public examinations. Luckily for them the TN government cancelled exams. Guess how many of those students are in class 11 now? Two,” Nataraj told The Lede.

Dr Sthabir Khora, Associate Professor, School of Education, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai, points out another reason why the frequent exam policy does not help.

“You can’t have too many exams. The moment any exams are introduced, the teacher and students would prepare only for them. This not related to the pass/fail system. These exams are related to the schools, not the students, getting scores,” he said.

According to Dr Khora, one exam at Class five would be adequate for diagnosing the performance of schools. NEP’s plan to improve quality of schools by assessing student performance may not work well for schools in tribal areas. “We shouldn’t spend too much energy measuring teaching,” he said.

Prince Gajendra Babu, General Secretary, State Platform for Common School System – Tamil Nadu (SPCSS-TN), said: “Such assessments would push a child from a marginalised community out of schooling.”

Vocational Training In What Areas?

Dr Bipin Jojo, Professor, Centre for Social Justice & Governance, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, also pointed out that studies had shown that there was “huge dropout after Class 9 and 10. When there is an element of employment, parents might also think: What’s the point of studying?”

Dr Jojo pointed out another aspect of the latest NEP which has brought back the concept of vocational training, originally introduced in 1962, but which went out of the policy framework in the last few decades.

The NEP has recommended “bagless days” and opportunities for internship from Class six to 12 for 10 days during an academic year. The policy emphasises upon training under local vocational experts according to the local skilling needs.

So, the question arises whether children from tribal hamlets would have to do the same work to acquire “local skilling needs” or go beyond that.

K Mahalakshmi, a teacher at Government Tribal Residential School, Arasavalli village, Jawadhu Hills, said children from surrounding tribal hamlets weave baskets with their parents. “So will basket weaving be vocational training? Or will children from Nilgiris area pluck tea leaves as training? That’s what they would do otherwise too.”

It takes a lot for tribal families to continuously keep their children in school. With 47.3% of people below the poverty line in 2011-12, even a small additional income through a child could be a matter of day-to-day survival for a family.

Nataraj said that tribal children from his region go away for two to three months with their parents to harvest sugarcane in the middle of an academic year. “Sometimes, we travel 30 to 40 kilometres to talk to the family and convince the children to come back to school.”

In short, the policy is not clear as to what vocational training would be provided to children from tribal hamlets and whether it would differ with training given in urban areas such as industrial training.

Are Tribal Languages Protected?

The NEP has also not looked at the issue of protecting tribal languages in a holistic manner. “Two of my school children want to take up Malayalam and Kannada because their parents go to neighbouring states for work. Will teachers who know those languages be really deployed here?” asked Mahalakshmi.

The policy, per se, has proposed mother tongue as the medium of instruction until Class five. The question that people like Mahalakshmi are raising is whether a tribal language would be taught as a medium of instruction.

“The logic behind having mother tongue as the medium of instruction is that they can understand concepts better,” Dr Khora said.

But, in the case of tribal children, the situation is quite different. Dr Khora referred to Kurumba, a tribe from the Nilgiris region of Tamil Nadu who have a different dialect from the commonly-spoken Tamil, and said, “If they could have their own language, Tamil, and English as their three languages, it would be good for them. But Kurumba is not there [in schools].”

Tribal languages being the medium of instruction in schools is not unusual. “In Jharkhand’s Gumla district, Oraon tribal schools teach students in their tribal language. And they also talk English.”

Dr Khora said that, for using mother tongue as medium of instruction, language cannot be looked at in isolation and it is important that a curriculum and pedagogy be contextualised along with it.

The question is whether the government would look at issues like education for the tribal families in a more pragmatic manner.

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