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'Learning should be holistic, integrated, engaging, and enjoyable': reforms to secondary education in India

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The National Education Policy (NEP) 2020 sets out an ambitious vision for the transformation of the Indian education system aligned with the Sustainable Development Goal 4 (SDG4) of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development: to ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.

One of the key aims of the NEP is to move towards a more holistic, learner-centred and competency-based model of education, which nurtures critical thinking, problem solving, creativity and innovation.


Key points:

  • Curricula will be reduced with the aim of facilitating inquiry-based learning and reducing teacher-led instruction.
  • Exams and assessment will be redesigned to focus on core competencies and test higher level thinking skills, and to discourage rote learning and memorisation.
  • The Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) is looking at how competency-based approaches can be implemented more fully and effectively for Standard X; the development of a framework and best practice will inform reforms to qualifications offered by other boards.
  • Teacher training and professional development will be reformed to equip teachers to deliver more learner-centred and competency-based teaching.
  • Equity and inclusion are key priorities, and the scale and diversity of the Indian school system present many challenges for the proposed reforms.
  • Some changes will be made soon, but transforming approaches to teaching and learning will be a more incremental process.


Throughout the policy on schools, the NEP emphasises the principles that students should be actively engaged in their own learning, education should promote the holistic development of students as individuals, and learning should be enjoyable. The NEP acknowledges that a full review and reform of the curriculum, assessment and pedagogy will be needed in order to achieve this.

The planned changes to the school system include a restructure from the current 10+2 system to a 5+3+3+4 system, aimed at ensuring that education is responsive and relevant to learners at all levels.

New academic structure


Class 9-12 (ages 14-18)


Class 6-8 (ages 11-14)


Class 3-5 (ages 8-11)


Class 1-2 (ages 6-8)

3 years of pre-school (ages 3-6)

The secondary stage will consist of two phases, covering Grades 9-10 and Grades 11-12. The NEP is critical of the current examination system, but the emphasis is on redesigning and reforming assessment. The external exams that are currently taken in Grade 10 (Standard X) and Grade 12 (Standard XII) will continue, but will be reviewed and reformed.  Changes will aim to discourage coaching and memorisation and reduce the ‘high stakes’ exam culture.

Following the launch of the NEP, a new curriculum framework will be developed, the National Curriculum Framework for School Education (NCFSE). The current National Curriculum Framework (NCF) was published in 2005. This framework provides a foundation for some of the key principles in the NEP, such as experiential learning, equity and inclusion. However, it is based on the current 10+2 system and does not provide for other reforms, such as the focus on core subject content and greater flexibility in course choices.

Review of the Standard X

In 2020, Ecctis (then UK NARIC) was commissioned by the British Council of India to conduct a review of the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) Standard X framework and provide an assessment of readiness for competency-based education.

The CBSE is a national examination board under the Indian Ministry of Education. The project looked at the extent to which competency-based approaches are already integrated into the system and made recommendations for how they could be implemented more fully and more effectively. It focussed on the core subjects of English, mathematics and science.

The CBSE Standard X is taught in over 25,000 schools and has annual cohorts of over 2 million students. This presents a significant challenge for the implementation of such a fundamental reform to the delivery and assessment of the qualification. It is delivered across very different types of schools, to students with a diverse range of different backgrounds, needs and abilities. CBSE is one of three national examination boards; there are also over 30 state boards offering Standard X and Standard XII qualifications. The work carried out by CBSE to integrate competency-based approaches and the development of a framework for best practice will inform the implementation of similar reforms by other boards.

The project findings highlight some of the key challenges and considerations for the implementation of the reforms across India. A range of changes will be implemented in the short, medium and long term to work towards the model described in the NEP.

Curriculum reform

Students' demonstration of learning outcomes is central to the learning process in a competency-based model of education. To achieve this, the curriculum must be designed around learning outcomes, with clearly defined aims and objectives.

According to the NEP, the content of the curriculum will be reduced to focus on core essentials and to facilitate inquiry-based learning and the development of critical thinking skills. The inclusion of too much content in the current curriculum has been identified as a factor that contributes to lessons in Indian classrooms being mainly teacher-led, with limited scope for active participation by students.

Another feature of the competency-based approach is a focus on authenticity and real-world applications of knowledge and skills. The review found that the CBSE Standard X provided a good theoretical basis for further study, but could do more to enhance employability skills. Increased engagement with employers would ensure that the curriculum was aligned with the skills needed in the workplace.

The plans also aim to give students greater flexibility and choice in the subjects they study, particularly at secondary level. In line with the vision of a more holistic approach to education, the reformed curriculum will also avoid rigid separation between subjects and streams and explore the relationships between different subject areas.  

Changes to assessment

The changes to the curriculum and approaches to teaching and learning will need to be supported by changes to the way in which learners are assessed. To evaluate core competencies effectively, assessments must be designed to allow students to demonstrate the full range of learning outcomes.

Due to the wide range of student abilities at Standard X level, exams must find a balance between being accessible to all learners and providing opportunities for students to demonstrate higher order thinking skills. Some ways this can be achieved include through question types (e.g. interrelated, scaffolded, open answer questions), reducing reliance on recall (e.g. providing formulae, including diagrams) and assessing taught concepts in unfamiliar contexts.

Internal assessment currently makes up 20% of the final grade for the CBSE Standard X and the review recommends changes to ensure the reliability and validity of the assessments carried out within schools. Additional guidelines and assessment criteria for internally-assessed components, as well as a standardisation process, would reduce scope for inconsistencies in marking practices across the country.

Looking beyond exams, the NEP sets out plans for a cultural shift in assessment: away from a focus on summative assessment which promotes memorisation and rote learning, towards formative and competency-based assessment, which tests higher order thinking skills. It includes plans to integrate peer and self-assessment, and focuses on the use of feedback to enhance learning.

Pedagogical approaches

Linked to the changes to curricula and assessment, a major shift in approaches to teaching and learning is also outlined in the NEP. The principle of student-centred learning is central to the planned changes, with a focus on experiential learning.

Experiential learning is the process of learning through experience. Students actively participate and reflect upon their experiences.They develop analytical skills to relate experiences to wider concepts, and problem solving and decision making skills to use the new ideas they have gained. In the NEP, experiential learning is closely linked with multidisciplinary learning and making links between subjects; for example, integrating art and sport across the curriculum.

Teacher education and development

For these changes to be introduced successfully, teachers need to understand, accept and integrate new approaches into their teaching practice. They need training and support to develop the skills required to deliver more learner-centred teaching. The review of the CBSE Standard X found that many teachers are implementing some competency-based approaches within their teaching, but face some challenges in moving towards a learner-centred model.

Teachers may not have received training in, or have an understanding of, competency-based and learner-centred approaches. Additionally, factors such as infrastructure, school facilities, learning resources and class sizes may make it difficult to implement them. Students may be unfamiliar with the style of teaching and the shift away from the traditional classroom hierarchy may be present challenges for classroom management.

The initial teacher training system may not have equipped teachers with the knowledge and skills to deliver the interactive, individualised provision outlined the NEP. Continuing professional development (CPD) therefore has an important role to play in enabling the planned shift in teaching practice. The NEP sets out the expectation that all teachers will participate in at least 50 hours of CPD a year.

Equity and inclusion

Providing equitable and inclusive education is central to the NEP’s vision. A key priority is improving access to secondary education; although India has achieved near universal enrolment in primary education, at secondary level the enrolment rate falls significantly, particularly among socio-economically disadvantaged groups. Gender inequality is highlighted in the NEP, which recognises the intersection of gender with other characteristics to reinforce barriers in the education system.

In addition to improving access to education, considering and monitoring the impact of any reforms on different groups will also be important to promote equity and inclusion. For example, initiatives focussing on STEM subjects will need to be planned with an awareness of gender inequalities within those subject areas. Similarly, curricula which incorporate real-world examples will need to reflect the different lived experiences of students. Training and professional development activities for teachers also need to consider socio-economic factors and potential barriers to access.

Next steps

The initial focus of the reforms has been on embedding learner-centred and competency-based approaches into education in the years up to Grade 10, particularly in the teaching of English, mathematics and science.

As the ultimate aim is to integrate these approaches throughout the education system, the curriculum and assessment of the Standard XII will also be reviewed and reformed over the next few years. These changes will be of interest to universities around the world which recruit Indian students for undergraduate studies.

The NEP also proposes the establishment of a National Assessment Centre, which would set the standards and guidelines for assessment and evaluation for all exam boards in the country. As well as ensuring equivalence of standards between the boards, it would also promote collaboration and sharing of best practice as the changes are implemented.

Incremental change

The shift towards learner-centred and competency-based education is a priority for state governments and exam boards, as the NEP sets the objective of '…a transformation in the assessment system by the 2022-23 academic session...' While there are changes that can be introduced in the short term, the transformation in teaching and learning that is the ultimate aim of the NEP can only be fully achieved through a more gradual and incremental process.

The need for ongoing development and review is recognised in the NEP; it is proposed that the National Curriculum Framework for School Education (NCFSE) will be revisited and updated every five to ten years. A similar plan for the update of the new National Professional Standards for Teachers (NPST) is also in place. There is also scope for further changes to the school exam system, with modular exams and provision of two different levels of exam cited as possibilities.

Embedding learner-centred and competency-based approaches requires both systematic reform and changes at local level. The overarching frameworks for curriculum, assessment and teacher education are determined at a national level, but the scale and diversity of the Indian education system will also require the development of policies and programmes that consider the contexts of different states, regions and even individual schools.

19/10/2021 09:35:00