Teach India? Really?

The Modi government has blown a golden opportunity to reform school education in India. If our children’s future is dismal, so is India’s.

The Narendra Modi government is going to complete its tenure of five years at the centre in another four months, which makes it a good time to consider its performance. While it may have attempted reforms in some areas, it has failed to reform school education.

India’s path to progress depends on how well it capitalizes on its demographic dividend.  Over 50% of our population is below 25-years-old, and above 65% is below 35. To capitalize on this demographic dividend, the first thing the country needs to do is provide globally competitive education in schools. But the situation is deplorable.

India ranked 72nd out of 73 countries in the PISA (Program for International Students Assessment) ranking of 2010 by the OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development). The Annual Status of Education Report (rural) 2016 has shown pathetic learning quality, with only 25 per cent of children in grade III being able to read a grade II level text. A similar exercise conducted by the Delhi government threw up equally depressing results.

The ultimate losers of this flawed education system are students and parents. The students don’t get personalized quality education of their choice, and therefore grow up with a gap between their area of interest and work. Parents have to bear the huge cost, and yet have to settle for substandard quality. Technically, parents are supposed to get a high quality of education for free as it is a fundamental right of children under the constitution of India, and parents as taxpayers have already paid for it. Additionally, the government has levied dedicated education cess of 2% on income, so parents are paying for the second time even when they are not receiving education for their children.

When it comes to choosing schools for their children, even poor parents prefer to send their children to budget private schools as the quality in government schools is so abysmal — and this is when parents pay for the third time. It is important to mention here that fees in private schools have seen a sharp increase post the formulation of ‘Right to Education Act of 2009’. The cost of impractical infrastructure norms and free education to students of economically weaker section is being passed on to parents — and so parents are paying for the fourth time.

The pain of parents doesn’t stop here only. Most of the teachers are not subject experts, and fail to give personalised attention in their classrooms. The parents end up sending their children to coaching classes, or arrange additional tuition and pay for the fifth time. The pain continues endlessly at different stages of school and higher education.

Schools, by and large, have become a place to get a certificate, and not to further the goal of education. Attempts to reform education have failed, largely because policy makers are still using the same old approach. We cannot solve 21st century problems with 20th century ideas. It requires fresh thinking and a modern approach. The world is changing fast, and to keep it up to date, a system needs to be developed that is self-correcting. along with bringing efficiency and ensuring accountability. We need to re-envision an education system which is designed keeping students in the centre of the system. The system must expand choice of parents/students, give schools autonomy to enable them to constantly evolve and facilitate learning growth, and must bring accountability in the institutions governing education system. And all of these must be done in an efficient manner.

The country got its first ‘National Education Policy’ in 1968, and its second in 1986, which was modified in 1992. After the economic reforms of 1991, India has changed drastically in last quarter of a century, and it is imperative that its education policy catches up. This government, which received a huge mandate, was expected to introduce reforms in ailing school education sector. It initiated the process to draft ‘New Education Policy’ under the leadership of Smriti Irani as the minister of Human Resource Development. The process adopted to come up with a new policy was ambitious, and had several steps of consultation at village, district, state, and zone level for input under 13 different themes.  Soon after its launch, though, the much-needed initiative became a victim of poor planning and politics.

Firstly, only a few state governments cooperated in organizing consultation meetings, and therefore consultation meetings at various levels in all states were never completed. Secondly, the process faced huge criticism as it provisioned to take input from students, teachers, parents and community, but didn’t have much significant role for input from experts of the segments. And thirdly, there were more than 60,000 inputs received from initial consultations, which are yet to be compiled into meaningful interventions, and, therefore, the sanctity of the process itself came under question. The critics of the government suspected that interventions will be based on input from the RSS and Dinanath Batra.

Realizing the impracticality of the process, MHRD created a five-member committee in 2015, with TSR Subramanian as its chairperson, to draft the policy. The committee created its own process to study the state of education and conducted a wide range of consultations. The committee came up with its recommended draft for a new education policy, and submitted it to MHRD in May, 2016. The recommended draft was never formally made public by MHRD. However, it got leaked and was widely available. In July 2016, Irani was shifted to Textile Ministry and Prakash Javadekar became the HDR minister. To save itself from embarrassment, MHRD later published a document by the name of ‘Some Inputs for Draft National Education Policy,’ and again asked for further input from public till 30 September 2016.

In June 2017, a new committee was consitutted to prepare the final draft of ‘New Education Policy’ under the chairmanship of Dr K Kasturirangan. The committee was supposed to submit the final draft December 2017. However, the timeline was extended three times, and till today, there is no formal information by MHRD on the final status of the policy. Thus, the government which came with high expectations and a full majority missed the golden opportunity to bring much-needed change to school education in India.

About the author

Amit Chandra

Amit Chandra is a passionate promoter of market-based policy solutions, with hands-on experience in the policy space. His work has focused on school education, urban livelihoods and governance.