By Adapa Akhil*
“Education for all” is an ideology that seeded into the minds of the country’s early leaders seven decades ago when the constitution came into existence. Literacy was a necessary prerequisite in achieving democracy, mainly to propagate the importance of vote and to prevent any manipulation by political parties.
On a macro level, India was in a development stage with an ambitious aim to emerge as a superpower nation. It was apparent that educational penetration is the first step to achieve the dream. On a micro level, the country was dealing with various social evils like child marriage, child labor, and dowry, which would reduce with the proper education system. For example, education providing better-earning opportunities would reduce child labor and child marriages.
Government schools were an affordable channel to ensure greater educational penetration, especially for the economically weaker population. But government schools were highly stratified, i.e., few schools were performing exceptionally well, and others showed poor results. This can be attributed to the variation in access to resources like qualified teachers, number of teachers, infrastructure, environment, and study material. As a result, students were performing poorly and were pushed out of school branded as “dropouts.” This was a disincentive, especially for those families who considered education an expensive investment or opportunity loss, as the child would have otherwise earned wages as labor.
Total Literacy Campaign was a milestone towards educational transformation. The Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan ( Total Literacy Campaign, TLC) was launched in 2001 to ensure that all children in the 6–14-year age-group attend school and complete eight years of schooling. This campaign attracted overwhelming participation and exposed the demand for education in the country. However, the implementation of Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan was sub-optimal. One of the setbacks was recruiting teachers. Para teachers were onboarded who were not fully qualified for teaching. Salaries and incentives were meager when compared to a regular qualified teacher. Exhibit-1 shows declining growth of enrolments until 2009.
Transformation of the educational system
The purpose of education reforms should not be only to achieve superficial targets like enrollments. The government, in collaboration with school management, must strive to ensure the holistic development of all students i.e., 100% participation and completion of the program. Impose stricter penalties not on students but on schools that cannot provide such quality education to students. With this mindset, the Right to Education Act (RTE) or Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act was launched on 4 August 2009. RTE describes the importance of free & compulsory education for children between the age of 6 to 14 years in India.
Based on this Act, education is a fundamental right of every child irrespective of caste, race, or religion. Note that schools and communities passed this act with great reluctance and resistance. The argument was that it would be operationally challenging to incorporate 25% of EWS students as part of the class. People from various socio-economic backgrounds were reluctant to have their children interact and share class with EWS students. RTE provided a mild boost in student enrollments in first two years after launch but later the enrolments rates have declined.
One other issue was the notion that including EWS students led to an ineffective learning experience. Marks achieved in the exam were the standard measurement of quality. So, few early adopters of RTE experienced a drop in average student performance in the examination; thus, RTE got slight criticism, and the schools got a bad reputation. So, schools chose a cunning approach to deal with the problem. They introduced an open schooling framework where students could decide where and when they want to study. The students appearing for exams under the open schooling system didn’t come under any regular board like CBSE. This hedged the reputation for schools. Overall, percentage of schools complying with RTE were as low as 10%. Exhibit-2 shows state wise RTE compliance.
Critiques failed to understand that, the performance of any newly established regulation like RTE cannot be measured solely based on a snapshot of aggregated exam performance. Change in performance on an individual level must be the criteria of measurement. Secondly, the examinations do not capture the intangible aspects like creativity and imagination. The ideal scenario would be to have a decentralized system where teachers set the outline for evaluation, including activities, tests, and exercises, enabling an exhaustive assessment of student performance.
Potential learnings from foreign nations
Finland’s education system has the best education system globally, and other nations strive to emulate its structure. Following are the striking features of its education system:
- Infrastructure: It has well designed and well-maintained schools with good ambiance, providing an appropriate learning environment. Playground and gym facilities are also made available at the school level.
- Provisions: Schools have a mid-day meal program providing nutritious and quality food to complement the learning process. Also, cooking classes are included in the curriculum where locally grown vegetables and cereals are promoted.
- Emphasis on Teachers: Teachers are given high priority. They are provided with good working conditions with higher pay. To ensure high quality and integrity, the selection process for teachers is very nuanced and stringent.
- Assessment Mechanism: Less weightage to quizzes and more focus on customised diagnostic tools to assess the performance of students. The intention behind this process is not to segregate bad high performing students but to identify weakly performing students and assist them.
These factors greatly influence the mindset of students. They build a positive image of their schooling and the role of a teacher. Students aspire to become teachers themselves after completing their education. This becomes a virtuous cycle of top-performing students taking up teaching and delivering quality education to upcoming students.
It’s not just Finland, but other countries, including Japan, Norway, South Korea, and Australia, were able to transform their education system into a more effective and inclusive one. India has a lot to learn from these countries. Summarising the above details, the following are broad strategies which could help in making progress towards a more inclusive education system:
- Research: Policymakers must try to gather information on various initiatives in the educational sector across the world that has helped in achieving greater penetration and improve the effectiveness of teaching. Then identify the policies which can be implementable in the Indian context.
- Representation: The representation of all stakeholders in a policymaking process is essential. There is a high chance of conflict due to the diverse needs and opinions of various stakeholders, but it will help design a socially equitable policy.
- Reorganization: Different schools have different accessibility to resources; different children have different capabilities of grasping knowledge; further, different teachers have a different style of teaching. In such a setup, a balance must be maintained between standardization and customization of schooling. Teachers must be given greater autonomy on designing evaluation components while the education department can have a model to monitor the performance of schools on an aggregated level.
*IIM Ahmadabad, PGP in Management; IIT BHU, Electrical Engineering. Thanks to Instructor: Prof. Anita Rampal, Dr Sandeep Pandey; Academic Associate: Mr. Pratapa Chandra Nayak