4 Things Need To Urgently Fix In India's Education System

The Draft New Education Policy 2018 (DNEP) is a grandiose document that covers a student's entire life span from pre-schooling to the PhD degree in about 500 pages. Here, we look at what has been proposed in relation to school education.

The draft says that all schools, including public ones, will have to possess world-class infrastructure and have competent teachers and in full strength to keep the pupil teacher ratio below 30. This will be supported by the best creative teaching-learning styles, the best students teaching those who are weaker, and community volunteers pitching in as well. Students will learn many languages, have choices for elective subjects, and will study about ancient Indian knowledge, scientific temper, ethical reasoning, digital literacy and social awareness. Not just this, board examinations will now be made less "high stakes" and less "life determining"; they will not require any cramming and can therefore be cleared without coaching. School governance structures will be revamped so that they function with the highest efficiency.

The first problem with this well-intentioned document is that it has no sense of realism. One set of recommendations cannot cover goals across various social divides: rich versus poor schools, urban versus rural, elite versus municipal, and so on. Some rich schools already have pupil-teacher ratios lower than 30 and are well-equipped in every possible manner; on the other hand, we have schools that barely exist, housed in a ramshackle room or two. Over one lakh schools have just one teacher (leave aside teacher quality). What was needed is a set of specific and realistic targets for different categories of schools. "World class" facilities in a village school, or teachers who are updated to the "latest pedagogies" in a small town are a pipe dream, when the local socio-economic milieu is so down in the dumps. This fact that we live in a highly unequal society, where some sections live in dire poverty, seems to inform the policy quite poorly.

Second, the document has a poor sense of engagement with history. It does not dwell upon why we have such a terrible infrastructure deficit in most public schools. Teacher vacancies have grown and have remained unfilled for decades in public schools, and a deficit prevails despite the large number of temporary teachers. Teachers are well-paid only in affluent schools. Permanent teachers in government schools get a decent salary, though probably not enough to make the profession enticing. The stock of even the Kendriya Vidyalayas has fallen, due not just to understaffing, but also decay of infrastructure. Teacher absenteeism remains a persistent bane. Small, dysfunctional schools, with just a few students, dot rural areas. The policy document does not tell us how we came to this sorry pass, nor, therefore, how we will come out of it. 

The most significant and visible problem is that of rote learning. How did we fall into, what Paulo Freire calls a "banking model" of education where teachers deposit knowledge in lectures and students produce it in examinations? It is likely that the pressure of large numbers of students in a class and the relative paucity of teachers has led us to this "optimal" solution of a rigid, memorization-based pedagogy. It has given rise to assessment forms that rely mostly on short-answer, multiple choice questions with answers which focus more on correct keywords rather than creative analysis or expression. Why did progressive initiatives like Continuous Comprehensive Evaluation (CCE) fall by the wayside? Any policy that proposes to slay the demon of rote learning must first tell us why and how we fell into this pit. Merely saying, in flowery prose, that we will get rid of rote learning, will not solve the problem. Where will we get teachers to do all the creative and customized stuff, teach so many languages and other multidisciplinary subjects (e.g. digital, climate) when we cannot find enough to teach the routines ones like English and Mathematics?

Third, a sense of innocence pervades the draft. Many existing things are being paraded as novel. The newly labelled foundational stage already has many activities like math puzzles, play-based learning, etc even in the poorest of schools. The 5+3+3+4, in lieu of the 10+2 school grades classification, is just a cosmetic refresh. Much of what happens in Grades 1 to 12 today is similar to what has been labelled in the draft report as "foundation", "preparatory", "middle" and "secondary" stages. The point should have been to interrogate these classifications more deeply as to how valid these are in the light of current debates.

There is also this quaint obsession with jargon. Using words like "deep" or "experiential" multiple times may lend gravitas to a document but does not help with any actual solutions.

The suggestions regarding inclusion of ancient Indian knowledge into the curricula is welcome but this deserves special care to separate myth from history, and empirically validated knowledge from pseudoscientific claims. There is also the inclusion of scientific temper in the curricula but here brews a fight between tradition and modernity. Will our schools be allowed to debate this?

Regarding board exams, the policy says that examinations should be held multiple number of times in a year, and students should be able to take a subject examination whenever they are ready. These measures are likely to introduce logistical nightmares into a system that is currently so fragile in its current, "rigid" form. There is talk of eliminating coaching from student lives but this is unlikely because coaching will simply exploit whatever examination is "life-determining".

We did not really need a policy document; what we need is an action document on strategy and implementation, one that identifies the few most significant issues and then details how these can be tackled. 

To my mind there are four urgent problems:

1) Infrastructure in public schools: if education is to remain a public good in any meaningful way, this is an essential reform. A task force should fix minimal mandatory standards and ask the central and state governments to put their money where their mouth is.

2) Elimination of rote learning: getting rid of this is going to be a Herculean task, especially because low availability of teachers will remain a persistent, concomitant constraint. A task force, consisting of representatives of public and private boards, NCERT, teachers, educationists should prepare detailed teaching manuals, and recommend model textbooks. This is needed for a pedagogy based on questioning and critical analysis ready to be implemented, at all levels, as soon as these documents are finalized. Much can be learned from the way school teaching is done in good schools in Europe and America.

3) Immediate restructuring of board examinations: could possibly start with intensive teachers' training for Grades 9 to 12 to move the pedagogy towards more analytical and open-ended teaching-learning styles. Indeed it will remain an imperfect system because such a pedagogy will not have been practised in the earlier grades. But it is absolutely imperative to get rid of the current fascination with multiple choice questions and keyword-based answers.

4) Recruitment and training of teachers: this is the toughest one to solve because a competent pool from which teachers can be recruited is simply too small. My experience in teacher selection committees shows that the quality of candidates who are interviewed is abysmal. Not too many people are interested in becoming school teachers given the uncertain working conditions and tenures, as well as the relatively low salaries in most private schools; even in government schools, while the salary is decent, temporariness seems to be standard. There seems to be little incentive for aspiring teachers in rural areas and small towns to invest in a 4-year B.Ed degree when their likely monthly pay will be a few thousand rupees. If these issues are not addressed through regulation and special recruitment drives to hire smart people, then there is no feasible solution. 

A critical mass of teachers is a must for any creative teaching and assessment as well as elimination of rote learning. Further, extensive training will be required for incoming teachers who themselves are a product of the rote learning system they will be tasked to overcome.

Finally, of course, much of this will come to nought if governments do not have the political will and social wisdom to spend the required money on school education. Perhaps the education reforms in Delhi by the AAP government provides hopeful pointers.

(Anurag Mehra is a Professor of Chemical Engineering and Associate Faculty at the Center for Policy Studies, at IIT Bombay.)

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