Expert Speak India Matters
Published on Mar 20, 2018
A sustained and coordinated bottom-up approach that does not look for quick fix solutions can improve the school education system.
PM’s ‘Swachh Bharat’ like initiative needed to improve school education

In the age of Make in India, Digital India and Skill India narratives, school education, which is foundational to these initiatives in many ways, continues to evade the limelight. This neglect could ultimately prove to be the undoing of several of these grand schemes beside other aspects.

Around 27.3 percent (35.50 crore) of India’s population is between 0-14 years of age — India’s future demographic dividend. Worryingly, the Indian states with the lowest median ages, including Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Madhya Pradesh, have some of the lowest literacy rates and poorest learning outcomes. As per the Annual Status of Education (ASER) data in 2016, less than seven percent of class III government school students in rural households of Uttar Pradesh were able to read a class II textbook. (The corresponding number in Maharashtra is above 40 per cent). Similarly, less than twenty eight percent of class III students in rural Bihar were able to perform simple subtraction. It is pertinent to note that while no state has numbers to be proud of, the situation in these highly populous states is particularly grave.


The Indian states with the lowest median ages, including Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Madhya Pradesh, have some of the lowest literacy rates and poorest learning outcomes. As per the Annual Status of Education (ASER) data in 2016, less than seven percent of class III government school students in rural households of Uttar Pradesh were able to read a class II textbook.


Pullela Gopichand, the principal architect responsible for transforming India into a badminton powerhouse, recently said in an interview that a focus on “people first, programme next and infrastructure last” was essential to create an efficient and sustainable ecosystem. His words ring true for the school education system as well, which unfortunately suffers from lack of quality people (teachers, administrators), programme (curriculum) as well as infrastructure. To compound the problem, there seems to be a disproportionate focus on creating lopsided infrastructure without catering to the other two needs.

Recently, T. Radheshyam, Education Minister of Manipur, during a surprise visit to a school in Khelakhong, Imphal, found goats occupying two empty classrooms. On further inspection, it was found that the school was catering to just two students. The school had inflated its number of students in order to get different government subsidies including mid-day meals, uniforms, books etc. As per the Unified District Information System for Education (UDISE) data, around 250,000 schools across the country have an enrolment of 30 students or less, while nearly 7,200 schools have no enrollment at all. A public school system with such a large number of white elephants is barely tenable.

The acute shortage of teachers in the school education system is fast reaching catastrophic proportions. More than 6,000 primary schools have no teachers at all (UDISE). Shivakumar Jolad, faculty, IIT-Gandhinagar, recently wrote about the condition of a government school in rural Bengaluru. The school had four teachers, of which, the head teacher was busy with administration, thus leaving three teachers to teach seven classes of 82 students. The situation is similar in different parts of India, where a handful of teachers are expected to teach different classes and multiple subjects, while dealing with plenty of administrative as well as mandatory census or election work.

The school curriculum remains a cause for concern in most Indian states. Although there is wide acceptance of the importance of primary education in one’s mother tongue, the issue has proved to be a logistical nightmare. A balance between learning regional Indian languages versus the fascination for English remains elusive. Textbooks of all subjects, especially science and mathematics, largely fail to inspire interest among students. Even in terms of infrastructure, school buildings dominate the progress report. While almost 40 percent schools do not have playgrounds, a similar number still do not have electricity. It is, therefore, barely a surprise that only 26.4 percent of schools in the country have computers (UDISE).


The school curriculum remains a cause for concern in most Indian states. Although there is wide acceptance of the importance of primary education in one’s mother tongue, the issue has proved to be a logistical nightmare.


There is no magic wand to solve these grave issues. Unfortunately, no election manifesto in any of the Indian states considers school education to be a major campaigning or governance plank. The AAP government in Delhi, which allocated 24 percent of its 2017-18 budget outlay (₹11,300 crore) for education, remains an exception.

The education sector is in urgent need of decentralised monetary prudence as well as policy interventions. Uttar Pradesh’s spending on education in 2017-18 is expected to fall short by eight percent of the budget estimate. Thus, it becomes difficult to secure the desired improved allocation for the sector in the next fiscal year. To ensure effective utilisation, the transfer of funds needs to be more streamlined and local bodies must have greater financial autonomy. This autonomy must be accompanied with accountability that can be linked to the various subsidies. The rationale here is that while State and Central Governments might find it difficult to monitor schools, the local community has better and easier access to such information and also the maximum incentive to ensure accountability. CfBT Education Trust conducted a study in rural Andhra Pradesh to analyse the impact of parental and community involvement. They trained illiterate mothers to assess and evaluate the quality of schools. The study found that these empowered School Management Committees (SMC) had a positive impact on the kind of effort put in by teachers in the classroom and thus improved the quality of education. Thus SMCs – a fundamental component of a decentralised school governance system — that are mandatory as per the Right to Education Act must also be allowed to play a greater role in the development of a school.

Teachers are the fulcrum of the school education system. Again, the number of teacher training institutions is not the problem (Maharashtra alone has more than 550 B.Ed colleges). The structure and quality of different teacher education courses needs a revamp. In addition to long-term reforms in the system to make it more robust and relevant, short-term measures like grade-based certification as well as training on the job must be implemented to immediately address the dangerous deficit. A wider debate on the framework of a teacher ecosystem focused on training, incentives and accountability must be initiated.

Another major reform that must be looked at is transitioning gradually into an education system that measures learning outcomes. In this regard, the clarion call to drop the ‘no detention’ policy as mandated in the RTE, without focusing on implementing Continuous Comprehensive Evaluation (CCE) must be reconsidered. It must be noted, however, that CCE is just one of the models to measure learning outcomes. A study was conducted in collaboration with Pratham and the Government of Haryana in 2016 to understand the impact of CCE and Teaching at the Right Level (TaRL) in primary schools. TaRL focuses on targeting groups of students at the same level (irrespective of syllabus) and concentrates on improving their learning outcomes. The study concluded that both methods lead to significant improvement in learning. Thus, a nuanced discussion of these different models and whether there should be a uniform one followed across the country is essential.


The clarion call to drop the ‘no detention’ policy as mandated in the RTE, without focusing on implementing Continuous Comprehensive Evaluation (CCE) must be reconsidered.


Private schools too, are important stakeholders in the education system. According to DISE data, around three lakh private schools are catering to 8.5 crore students, whereas eleven lakh government schools are teaching 19.77 crore students at the elementary level. Thus, while improving government schools must be a priority, the private sector must be aided and regulated in equal measure.

Several Central government schemes including the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA), Rashtriya Madhyamik Shiksha Abhiyan (RMSA) have been initiated in order to address the numerous issues plaguing the school education sector. Since education is a state subject under the Constitution of India, each state has its own programmes to cater to their respective student populations. However, the coordination between these two levels of government as well as other departments (Ministry of Women and Child Development, Ministry of Tribal Affairs etc.) often throws a ner in the works when it comes to timely fund allocation, disbursement and subsequently affects implementation. In most cases, it is an arduous task to pinpoint accountability amidst the bureaucratic red tape. Single window clearances for priority projects, third party evaluations to fix accountability as well as a decentralised framework are some ways to navigate these hurdles.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has successfully managed to bring the core idea of a ‘Swachh Bharat’ to the forefront. While the nomenclature is in place, a similar effort for ‘Padhega Bharat, Badhega Bharat’ is the need of the hour. A sustained and coordinated bottom-up approach that does not look for quick fix solutions is the only way to improve the school education system. It will demand planning, participation and passion from all stakeholders. The future of India hinges on its success or failure.

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