Education: The System Needs a Complete Overhaul

ABOUT: It's well recognized that school education plays a crucial role in economic and social development of a society.
By Anurag Behar   Delhi     Print Edition: January 17, 2016
(Photo: Ajay Thakuri)

Anurag Behar, CEO of Azim Premji Foundation (Photo: Nitopal Baruah)


ABOUT: It's well recognized that school education plays a crucial role in economic and social development of a society. While India has clearly made some progress on school education, the situation on multiple dimensions is alarming. Anurag Behar, CEO of Azim Premji Foundation looks at the possible solutions.


Let us start by considering two things. One, in the past 10-odd years, the proportion of children in private schools has gone up from 15 per cent to over 30 per cent. This is three to five times more than any mid- to large-sized country, not including failed states. We are world champions, hands-down, on the matter of private schooling. In the same period, learning levels (even the narrowest of definitions) have dropped across the board - both in public schools and private schools. However, all rigorous research studies conclude that in the aggregate there is no difference in learning levels across public and private schools, and that learning levels in both kinds of schools are poor.

Two, the only study available that compare India's best schools (about 100 of them) to any international benchmark, the PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) 3 scores, conclude that the average learning across these (our best) schools is below the average of the overall school systems of Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries. This requires emphasis: the best Indian schools are just about below the average school performance of a list that includes countries like Mexico, Slovenia, Italy and the (much maligned on school education) US. Alarmingly, but not surprisingly, the performance of our best schools falls sharply further, if "procedural" assessment questions, which basically assess memorisation, are factored out from the study.

What are these two things indicative of? First, that we must get rid of the silly notion that private schools are going to solve India's education problems; actually they (and certainly there are exceptions) are making matters worse. Second, and more fundamentally, both private and public schools are performing poorly on the average, while there is indeed a range. And, even our best schools are performing poorly with respect to a relevant benchmark. Then we must start seeing these for what they are - manifestations of deep-set systemic problems, which are affecting all our schools.

Education must help the child to develop into an autonomous and independent-thinking individual, to relate empathetically to the people and the world around, to become aware of the accumulated knowledge of humankind, to be an engaged citizen and part of a community, to be economically productive and independent, and to develop a sound moral and ethical bearing.

Everything else that one can look at also suggests that to improve education in India we will have to look at system-level issues and act on those, and not advocate for simplistic actions. Silver bullets (for example, technology- and assessment-led reforms) captivate the general imagination, but in the best case have little effect, and in most cases make things worse. However, before we look at these system-level actions, unless we have a common and shared understanding on some of the fundamentals of school education, we are likely to misunderstand each other.

(Photo: Shekhar Ghosh)
These fundamentals include the purpose of education, processes of learning and influences on education, among others. While some of these fundamentals may be well known, some may not be. So, I will list some of the most important ones. I must caveat it by saying that in a brief piece like this it is not possible to do any justice to these matters; only very rough pointers will be possible within the required brevity. There is substantial consensus on these matters in the field of education. The specific positions are either informed by decades of research and debate, or are matters that are normative in nature, representing a basic socio-political consensus in relevant societies. For the normative positions, I have used the particular instance of India. However, these positions would be similar across most liberal, democratic societies.

The aim of school education is to help the cognitive, social, emotional, physical and moral development of the child. This needs to happen in an integrated manner, through sustained, systematic and purposeful interventions. Some related specifics are that education must help the child to develop into an autonomous and independent-thinking individual, to relate empathetically to the people and the world around, to become aware of the accumulated knowledge of humankind, to be an engaged citizen and part of a community, to be economically productive and independent, and to develop a sound moral and ethical bearing. Such a role of education in the development of the individual underlies the parallel role of education in developing a good society; a democratic society, which is equitable, humane, just and sustainable.

Education is a social-humanistic process, entirely dependent on relationships of people involved in the process - the teacher and the student. Early childhood years are critical for learning, growth and development of the child. All children can learn and have multiple capacities, while they will have individual differences, including of dispositions and interests. These differences must be factored into the teaching-learning process. The teacher is the most important part of the education system, and her role is very complex and demanding. Teaching-learning is an uncertain and creative process, requiring autonomy for the teacher. School culture has significant impact on the child's learning and development, in addition to the pedagogical processes in the classroom. Sociological factors have significant impact on education; socio-economic background of the children is a very significant influencer of learning. And finally, to close this very inadequate list, we must recognise the importance of a child having a fulfilling childhood and not think of this period only as a preparation for the adult life.

Let's now briefly look at the Indian education system before going on to discuss how to improve it. Education is a concurrent subject in the Constitution; while there are broad common directions guided by national policies, the states run their school systems independently; higher education has much greater control of the central government through multiple regulatory bodies. With 1.5 million schools, eight million teachers and 210 million children, India has the largest schooling system in the world. It's also by far the most complex because of India's linguistic, socio-cultural and geographic diversities. A very large percentage of the children are first-generation school goers. The system is afflicted by multiple problems, which is why it needs improvement. Most importantly, there is an alarming crisis of learning, that is, children are not learning what they are expected to and, whatever they are seemingly learning, is mostly through rote. Equally importantly, school completion rates are about 40 per cent - for every 100 children entering grade one, only 40 pass out of grade 12. There continues to be deep-seated inequity and discrimination within the school system. It's not as though India has not made progress on school education. In the past 30 years, the enrolment numbers have gone up from near 50 per cent to near 100 per cent; if the enrollment numbers had been the same as in the mid-1980s, then 100 million children would have been out of school today. This has happened because of massive expansion of the school system in the past 25 years. Every habitation in the country has a primary school within 0.8 km. In grades one to five, we have almost achieved gender parity, meaning that almost all girls are also enrolled in schools. Many of our policies are progressive, most importantly our school curriculum and curricular frameworks are very good.

To talk about improving education, we must recognise that we have to inescapably deal with socio-political and cultural issues, as well as complex issues within the field of education; it's actually a wicked problem to solve. We can be certain about the necessary actions, but we can't be certain about all actions. I will list six set of actions that are absolutely necessary, without which improvement will not happen, and which if done will help make significant improvements. Need-less to say, no such list can be exhaustive.

One, we have to rebuild our teacher education system from grounds up. Teacher education (B ED or D ED) prepares people to become teachers. Without any exaggeration, we have the weakest teacher education system in the world. The curriculum, its implementation, institutional structures and regulation, everything is in a mess. Our teacher education programmes are two years long, countries with even half decent systems have five-year programmes. The curriculum is archaic, and implemented shoddily, if at all. We have about 16,000 teacher education colleges in India, over 90 per cent is privately owned and run, and an overwhelming majority of these are shops-in-the-guise-of-colleges with no interest in education. They have no faculty, no facilities, only a licence to operate. How this has come about is one of the biggest scams in independent India. The result is that we have a super-weak and super-corrupt teacher education system.

There is enough recognition that this is a core problem in Indian school education. The Supreme Court had taken suo motu notice of this matter and appointed a commission under the chairmanship of the (late) Justice J.S. Verma. The commission's report has been accepted by the Union government. Not only do we know what needs to be done (curriculum, institutions, regulation, etc.), but have accepted it "officially". Getting it done, however, is a different matter. It will require actions that will shut down a very large majority of these 16,000 colleges, most of which are owned by locally powerful people. You can imagine the political will (at multiple levels) required to do this. In parallel, massive public investment will be required to set up new colleges and improve existing ones. This is perhaps the toughest set of actions, but without this no improvement will happen. I wish that the influential readers of this magazine, systematically build pressure on this matter rather than agonising over the "poor learning outcomes in schools". What's the point in crying over symptoms, when we know the disease and its cure; shouldn't we act?

Most importantly, there is an alarming crisis of learning, that is, children are not learning what they are expected to and, whatever they are seemingly learning, is mostly through rote. Equally importantly, school completion rates are 40 % - for every 100 children entering grade one, only 40 pass out of grade 12. There continues to be deep-seated inequity and discrimination within the school system.

Two, we are required to support and develop capacities of existing teachers. The reality is that we have eight million teachers in our schools, who have come through this weak teacher education system. Unless we provide sustained and rigorous professional development support to our teachers, the large majority will remain limited by their own weak educational background. This has a direct effect on their motivation and engagement as well. Effective in-service professional development will require empowered, local institutional structures at the district, block and cluster levels. It will also require possibilities and mechanisms for peer learning. In many senses, making all this happen will be far more complex than improving teacher education.

Three, we should have much larger numbers of (what I will call) education experts. These are teacher educators, curriculum specialists and assessment experts, etc. The numbers of these are woefully short in India; the numbers need to increase by a hundred times. The shortage has overall impact - including on teacher education and their professional development. For this, new "schools of education" need to be set up in university campuses, which offer Masters and Doctoral level programmes in Education.

(Photo: Shekhar Ghosh)
The fourth set of actions relates to changing our assessment (examination) system. We have moved to continuous comprehensive evaluation for grades up to eight - this has been a good development. However, till we do not improve our school-leaving exams (and college entrance tests) by moving them away from assessing memorised and procedural knowledge, to assessing conceptual understanding and ability to think, we will keep reinforcing what we want to eliminate.

Five, we need to invest substantially more on our pre-school education and care for children between ages of three and five. Most children do not have access to such facilities or even the Anganwadi system, which is in a shambles. We need investment in the basics of this system, as was done in schools between 1985 and 2005. This involves a host of changes, including changing completely the profile of people being recruited as Anganwadi workers, and treating them on a par with school teachers.

Six, we must invest in capacity development of our education leadership. This includes principals of schools, functionaries at the block and district levels, and senior officials at the state level. It will also require a change in approach of the appointment and management of such education leadership.

It's not possible to list all the areas of actions. There are very many other important sets of actions, such as investing in creating secondary schools, teacher recruitment and ensuring teachers are there for all classes in all schools, improving text books, streamlining and improving committed financial flows, structural simplifications like merging the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan structure with State Education Departments.

For these sets of action to be possible, and many others that will be required, we will have to raise public investment in education. Govern-ments, past and present, have accepted that at least 6 per cent of GDP needs to be spent on education, while we are currently at about half that number. In fact, in this phase when we are developing and improving our education system we probably require 8-10 per cent; as a benchmark most OECD countries spend 6 per cent of GDP on education, while they are not really in an "investment" but a "maintenance" phase. Without the money, anything that we are wanting to do, will remain as intention.

There is another key reason why public expenditure on education must go up. Till 25 years or so, most Indian students studied in government or government-aided schools. An entirely privately-funded school was a rarity. From there, we have, in just one generation, moved to a situation where private schools are almost a third of the total school-going population. And this share is still rising. Many would celebrate this. But, as I noted earlier, this mushrooming of private schools has not had a positive impact on learning outcomes. In fact, we have witnessed just the opposite. This is not accidental. The role and nature of education is such that it's a quasi-public good, which cannot be delivered effectively by market mechanisms. Both theory and evidence is clear on this matter. It's no surprise that even the most market-driven countries depend on the public system for education and not the market. To complicate matters, a vast majority of our private schools are profit seeking, and see the socio-economically disadvantaged as the market. The most disadvantaged are getting the worst deal from this trend of privatisation. Good education for all will happen only in public schools, not in the marketplace.A sound public education system is the foundation of a good democratic society; there is no substitute to that.

In closing, let me point out two issues that will have as much bearing as money on any real improvement in education. We need to drive basic cultural changes in the education system, moving away from a culture of centralised and mechanical decision-making to empowering schools and teachers. We must stay the course with our plans and directions for at least 20 years. Even a country as big as Finland took 40 years to get its school system where it is today, while working consistently in the same direction. Education change takes a long time, and we have to accept that.

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