The recent National Education Policy 2020 (NEP) has brought about a monumental change in our education system. In doing so, it has also placed high priority on children’s health and their nourishment.
Health and education are strongly interconnected. While healthy individuals are more likely to have better education outcomes, right education can improve the health status of a household. The recently released National Education Policy 2020 (NEP) proposes to bring a paradigm shift in Indian education. In doing so, it recognizes the need for proper nourishment and good health to aid optimal learning, and proposes certain health-related interventions.
The following are the key approaches and interventions on health proposed in the NEP.
Holistic education with sports-integration
Multidisciplinarity and holistic education are part of the key principles of the NEP. Along with subjects like the sciences and social sciences, the curriculum must contain courses that make education well-rounded, useful and fulfilling, including games, sports and fitness.
At the school level, the NEP proposes sports-integration, or utilizing physical activities in pedagogical practices, to increase the students’ cognitive abilities, while promoting their physical and psychological well-being. Sports-integrated learning will help students achieve fitness levels envisaged in the Fit India movement, and adopt fitness as a lifelong attitude. It will also develop their skills like collaboration, self-initiative, teamwork and responsibility.
The NEP also proposes other ways to increase school students’ exposure to sports and other activities. It offers increased flexibility and choice of subjects, allowing students to choose physical education as part of the curriculum. The Policy also proposes ‘bagless’ days to allow students to engage in local vocational and other activities, such as sports and gardening. The NEP further encourages formation of clubs, including for sports, yoga, and health and well- being, at the levels of schools, school complexes, districts and beyond.
Higher education institutions will also have departments in subjects like sports, art and music, to provide a multidisciplinary and stimulating environment. Credits will be given for such subjects in undergraduate programmes.
For adult education, the policy proposes development of an education curriculum framework. Along with basic literacy, numeracy and education, the framework will include critical life skills (including healthcare and awareness, childcare and education, and family welfare); and continuing education (including sports and recreation).
Expansion of food programme
India’s mid-day meal programme exemplifies the convergence of education with a food and nutrition programme. Currently, mid-day meals are provided to children in Classes 1 to 8, studying primarily in government and government-aided schools. The NEP proposes provision of early child childhood care and education to children below 5 years of age in Preparatory Classes in primary schools, and extends the mid-day meal programme to these students.
Further, NEP proposes provision of breakfast for school children in addition to mid-day meals, so that children can benefit from the increased productivity during morning hours after a healthy breakfast, especially for the study of demanding subjects. Where serving cooked meals is not feasible, breakfast may include simple-yet-nutritious foods like groundnuts/chana with jaggery and/or fruits.
To reduce teachers’ time spent on non-teaching activities, the NEP recommends not requiring teachers to spend more than a rationalized time on mid-day meal related work. It is not however clear how this will be implemented, especially considering the expanded food programme.
Noting the importance of health education in schools, the NEP includes health and nutrition, physical education, fitness, wellness, sports, sanitation and hygiene as some of the key subjects, skills and capacities that must be learned
by everyone. Accordingly, the NEP proposes the inclusion of training in health, including preventive health, mental health, good nutrition, personal and public hygiene, disaster response and first-aid, and detrimental effects of alcohol, tobacco and other drugs, as part of the school curriculum.
Considering the increasing prevalence of non-communicable diseases and intake of poor diets, this is an important reform that may lead to behavior change towards healthier habits. However, the NEP does not provide any roadmap or
framework for inclusion of health education in the curriculum, and much will depend upon implementation efforts towards the Policy.
Healthy learning environments
The NEP proposes some other measures for promoting physical and mental health. This includes regular health check-ups in schools, especially for 100% immunization, and health monitoring through health cards. Health check-ups and growth monitoring under Anganwadi system will be extended to Preparatory Class students. The NEP also recommends reducing the weight of school bags and textbooks. For mental and emotional health of children, the NEP proposes introduction of social workers, counsellors and community involvement into the schooling system.
For implementation of some of these reforms, the NEP proposes the concept of school complexes, which will involve sharing of resources like teachers, counsellors and sports equipment and facilities. Further, special shorter teacher education programmes will enable eminent persons to teach at schools for local professions, knowledge, and skills, including sports.
The NEP also proposes ensuring medical facilities and counseling services within higher education institutions.
Taking a forward-looking approach, the NEP highlights the need to develop an education system that enables India to address its key challenges, including in health. This will require high-quality studies in science, social sciences and humanities, interdisciplinary research, and other advancements in the education system. India should also focus on cutting-edge areas, such as artificial intelligence, big data and genomic studies. These studies can have important applications in critical areas, including health.
The NEP further notes the need to improve professional education in certain fields, including agriculture and healthcare. Agriculture education should be able to develop professionals who can address issues such as food sufficiency and declining land productivity. Healthcare education should be re-envisioned to make the programmes more useful, and to focus on preventive healthcare and community medicine.
Although providing a healthy environment to a child can include other aspects, the NEP takes a step towards integrating education and health to enable children to learn and grow as healthy individuals. Being a policy document, it merely provides a framework, leaving a lot to implementation. While implementation can be challenging, it can go a long way in improving both education and health of the children of our country.
(The author is a lawyer and co-founder of Foodshaala Foundation (www.foodshaala.org), a non-profit organization working towards enabling people to choose and access healthy food.)