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Data: Is flexibility in the choice of subjects at the Secondary level a workable idea?


The NEP 2020 offers many novel ideas. One of them is to empower students through flexibility in the choice of subjects at the secondary level. But is this a practical & workable idea? What does the available data tell us?

On 29 July 2020, the Union Cabinet approved National Education Policy 2020. This policy would replace the existing Nation Policy on Education, 1986. The aim of the new policy is to bring in transformational reforms in school and higher education systems in the country. 

Source: Press Information Bureau, Government of India

Various opinions have been expressed regarding the NEP-2020. There has been appreciation and support from certain sections in respect to some of the innovative ideas put forth in the policy, which could provide the much-needed fillip to the Indian education system in tune with the times. At the same time, there are apprehensions also, especially regarding the implementation of NEP-2020. 

The policy has put forth many propositions which provide a different dimension to the prevailing education system. One such is providing flexibility to students in choosing subjects of their choice at the secondary level. This is proposed to be a hallmark feature of Secondary School Education, where in the students will be able to design their own courses for study, without having to confine to the rigidity of silos like – arts, humanities, sciences etc. 

Source: National Education Policy 2020

While this is a step in the right direction, the implementation poses a challenge. There are various factors that influence the flexibility of choice – systemic challenges, preferences, trends, perception of career opportunities etc. Furthermore, while NEP- 2020 proposes flexibility in choosing subjects, it ought to be noted that a varied choice of subjects already exists even for the current set of students studying Classes XI & XII in various boards.  

We take a look at data related by CBSE , which reflects the prevailing situation and offers the much-needed insights around choice of subjects among students at the Class XII level. The analysis of this data might also help us approach the implementation this plan in the right way.  

Around 1/3rd of the Subject options in CBSE XII Standard was chosen by less than 100 students each 

As per data released by the CBSE, the XII standard CBSE students attempted examinations from around 160 subject options in 2018. Out of all the subjects, only 3% i.e. 5 subjects were attempted by more than 5 lakh students. Among these, was the compulsory language option of ‘English Core’ for most of the English medium students and the Co-scholastics option of ‘Physical Education’. 

Another 9 subjects i.e. around 5% of the subjects had students between 1 lakh-5 lakhs.  Nearly 84% of these subjects had less than 5 thousand students each and around 68% of the subjects had less than 1000 students across the country. In fact, 1/3rd of the subjects have enrolment of less than 100 students each.  This trend is prevalent even in the preceding years. 

Even for the years 2014-2017, the percentages more or less remain the same, in line with that of 2018. During 2015 and 2016, the share of subjects that have an enrolment of less than 100 was 42% and 40% respectively. This drop-in percentage in 2017 & 2018 is not due to increase in number of students taking other subjects but due to the fall in number of subjects which had at least one student enrolment.  

For example, subject ‘Store Accounting’ had no student in 2016 & 2017. Same is the case with other subjects like ‘Business Data Processing’, ‘Introduction to Financial Marketing’, ‘BPO Skills’ etc. The total number of subjects which had at least one student in 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017 & 2018 were – 175, 180, 184, 159 and 164 respectively. 

Mathematics, Physics & Chemistry are the most sought-after subjects 

CBSE students have the option to select subject electives (apart from the two language subjects) for Classes XI & XII, unlike IX & X where there are no elective options for the subjects. 

Review of the CBSE examination data for Class XII in 2018 shows that, among the subject electives, the highest number of students were for Chemistry with over 6.2 lakh students, closely followed by Physics and Mathematics with 6.1 lakhs and 5.9 lakh students respectively. 

Even during the earlier years, the number of students enrolled for these three subjects is the highest. In 2014, students for Mathematics were highest followed by Physics & Chemistry  while during 2015-2017, Physics had the highest number of students. 

Among the non-science subjects – Economics, Business Studies and Accountancy have  higher enrolment but the numbers are only around 50-60% compared to the enrolment for the 3 science subjects. 

Political Science, History & Geography, categorized under Social Sciences/Arts had comparatively fewer of students. In 2018, Political Science & History had 1.7 and 1.5 lakh students while Geography had slightly less than one lakh students. 

Numbers for other electives drop rapidly with Sociology having chosen by around 38 thousand students and Psychology by around 17 thousand students. This numbers are a far cry from the number of students enrolled under the top 3 science subjects. 

With slight variance, the trends are similar even in the earlier years. While, there has been a comparative increase in the number of students opting for Chemistry and Biology, the number of students for Political Science, History, Computer Science & Geography remained nearly the same, in spite of the increase in the total number of students appearing for CBSE XII exams year on year. 

Among the languages, English and Hindi were the most preferred options. Punjabi is the highest among the vernacular languages with around 16 thousand students. 

For classes IX & X, Mathematics, Science and Social are among the compulsory subjects and hence students do not have flexibility to choose among these. However, there are other subjects from which the student can choose from.  

Analysis of students data for CBSE X class exams in 2018, indicates that  an overwhelming number ( 5.36 lakhs) of students have opted for ‘Foundation of IT’ compared to other optional subjects available. It is followed up with other Computer related subjects such as – ‘Information Technology’ that had around 82 thousand students. 

Few of the other available options like – Introduction to Tourism, Dynamics of Retailing, Home Science, Automobile Technology, Security, Food Production etc. had less than 10 thousand students each. 

Even from the perspective of language choices, English, Hindi & Sanskrit are the most opted languages by a large margin. French, the highest opted foreign language has chosen by around 16 thousand students, followed by German at a distant 2.5 thousand. 

Numbers indicate lower real-time flexibility in the choice of subjects 

The data for CBSE Class XII indicated that the enrolment of students into various subjects’ skews into a limited set of subjects, with majority of the subjects chosen by a very small number of students. The same would be true even in various state boards.

The reasons for this skew could be many. As highlighted earlier, among the optional subjects available for classes IX & X, ‘Foundation of IT’ is the most chosen option. This could indicate the preference towards Information Technology compared to other subjects, in context of its present and future importance. However, questions also arise if students have any realistic option of choosing any of the other optional subjects. It is very much possible that this is one of the limited options made available to the students by the respective schools. 

A similar case can be made for the languages. The higher number of students enrolled for Sanskrit (highest after English & Hindi) compared to other options like French, German etc. points to a lack of real-time choice or influence on the choice. 

The curriculum provides a greater choice of subjects for XI & XII class students. However,  the choice of subjects is largely skewed towards the Science subjects even here. This signifies a known trend of preference for Engineering & Medicine as the preferred choice during under-graduate study. Comparative increase in enrolment for Biology indicates an increasing preference towards these fields. 

Economics, Accounting & Business Studies are the other preferred options beyond the sciences albeit with far fewer numbers. These choices indicate preference to other professional career options in accountancy and management. 

Few of the other subjects which could provide other professional career options like Psychology, Mass Media, Hospitality etc. do not have higher enrolments. Humanities and Arts, although comparatively higher, seem to be the preferred option only after Sciences & Business management related subjects. 

Even in the case of XI & XII, the choices are either influenced by career option or the lack of options made available to the students. For instance, many schools offer a limited choice of subject combinations to choose from. Even with these options, schools make sure that such options are entertained only to the extent of availability of requisite staff and feasibility of numbers.

Innovative and executable solutions needed to implement flexibility suggested in NEP- 2020 

As mentioned earlier, the data from many state boards indicates a similar trend as in the case of CBSE. There could be slight variation among the states, but the choice is mostly limited to subjects related to Science, Commerce and a handful of subjects in Humanities. 

Making the vision of flexibility in the choice of subjects in IX-XII standards, as stated in NEP -2020, into a practical and workable model required solutions which address the implementation problems. 

Based on the data we analysed, the following two key problems are visible.  

Fewer options are made available: Although the options are many on paper, the ones made available to students could be limited. Many a time, students are forced to choose options which are provided by the school, in spite their interest to take up a different option. 

Even from the perspective of a school, making all or most of the options available poses practical challenges. Hiring teaching faculty for all the available options is not practically viable. In semi-urban areas, finding quality faculty even for the science subjects is a huge challenge. So, the challenge to find faculty for other subjects is a bigger challenge. This is a major roadblock to be addressed by the government if flexibility of choice needs to be implemented in its true spirit. 

The Government can explore options like allowing visiting faculty who can teach in multiple schools, conduct focused workshops for few of the optional subjects at specific times of the year etc. This would ensure that schools are eased from the burden of having dedicated faculty for such a vast array of subjects. 

Lack of awareness on alternate career options: The limited options made available by the schools is also influenced by the preference of choice to specific subjects or the feasibility in terms of student numbers. Sciences and to an extent commerce/management related subjects are considered to provide better career prospects. This points to a lack of understanding on part of the parents as well as the schools about the various career options that are available in a rapidly changing world. 

In a Pearson’s article, Healthcare, AI, Fintech, Nursing, Data Analytics etc. are highlighted as emerging fields of study. In the ‘Future of Jobs Report – 2018’ published by World Economic Forum, jobs such as Data Analysts, AI specialists, Sales & Marketing Professionals, IT security specialists, Digital marketing specialists, E-Commerce & Social Media specialists etc. are identified to be the emerging ones, along with roles such as HR professionals, Finance & Investment advisors, University & Higher education teachers along with other IT -related jobs are identified as stable options. 

The same study identified few of the skills as necessary for the future– analytical thinking, Leadership, complex problem solving, reasoning, creativity etc. 

Source: The Future of Jobs Report 2018, WEF

Identifying the emerging careers and inculcating the skills required during the secondary school stage through the diverse subject options are going to be key.  This has to be done along with educating the students and parents on the various career options available beyond the traditional choice of engineering & medicine.  The subject choices at the secondary level have to be mapped to specific career prospects with real-time examples for the students & parents to make an informed choice. Only such focussed efforts towards encouraging inter disciplinary participation from students would be able to fulfil the objective as envisioned in NEP-2020. 

A workable & practical framework for implementation of the vision set in NEP-2020 is the key. Else, it would be a continuation of the current situation where in options and flexibility of choice is limited to paper while the majority of students choose a limited set of subjects.

Featured Image: National Education Policy 2020


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