Towards education shops

Print edition : July 19, 2019

At a primary school in Vellore, Tamil Nadu. Photo: C. VENKATACHALAPATHY

At a corporation higher secondary school in Vyasarpadi, Chennai. When the elite classes exit from any public facility, the poor have to fall back on poorly served government schools. Photo: B. JOTHI RAMALINGAM

The proposed new education policy signifies the return of elitist control of the school system and the reinforcement of the traditional social segmentation.

THERE HAVE BEEN A SLEW OF REACTIONS and comments on the draft National Educational Policy, 2019, ever since the document was made public. Some termed it “too good to be true” while others felt it only amounted to “rearranging the deck” and “a bad thesis”. The draft NEP is perhaps a mixed bag and needs an objective and comprehensive reading of the intent and deliverables proposed in it. A healthy debate among the stakeholders and the government is necessary. The draft report was submitted by the K. Kasturirangan Committee in December 2018. The government waited for about five months to make it public. So it might as well wait for a few months more and begin a round of consultations.

Here, I will concentrate only on school education. However, the intent of the draft NEP is embedded in the policy document that runs through school, higher, vocational/professional segments of education and the distance learning mode. The policy envisions “…an India centred education system that contributes directly to transforming our nation sustainably into an equitable and vibrant knowledge society….” This is possible only by providing high quality education to everyone. We will deconstruct the above vision as we read through the first 200 pages of the 477-page draft NEP. Let me enumerate some of the highlights of the school sector reforms suggested in the report.

Some of the highlights

1. The draft NEP claims that its main concern is to ensure delivery of quality education to all—a major concern that was ignored in the decades after Independence because of the preoccupation of governments with issues of access and equity.

2. In order to achieve the goal of high quality education for the creation of a knowledge society, it proposes the “…revamping of all aspects of the education structure, its regulation and governance, to create a new system that is aligned with the aspirational goals of 21st century education, while remaining consistent with India’s traditions and value systems”.

3. It further proposes to build an integrated yet flexible approach to school education. To begin with, the model of 10+2, which was effectively divided into five grades of primary schooling, three of middle schooling, two of secondary schooling and the terminal two grades of higher secondary, will now be broken into 5+3+3+4. Here, the first five grades constitute the foundational stage, which includes the first three years of pre-primary classes and the first two years of not-so-formal schooling with 1st and 2nd grades included. The next three years of remaining primary grades will form the preparatory phase of formal classroom learning. The next three years remain untouched as middle schooling and the last four years will be secondary and higher secondary school education with board examinations at the 10th and 12th grades as is the case currently in the 10+2 mode.

4. There will be no separation of streams as in science, arts and commerce right through school and under-graduation classes. Instead, vocational subjects and training in various kinds of skills would be imparted right from the upper primary grades.

5. The educational structure will allow for multiple exit and entry options in the post-secondary phase.

The emphasis on early childhood care and education (ECCE) is the most outstanding and perhaps the only positive aspect in the draft policy that I would take home with some expectation. The concern for ECCE is not new and has been there since 1992. Pre-primary education took a back seat, particularly in public institutions, because of the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) launched by the Ministry of Women and Child Development. I fully agree that pre-schooling has significant positive association with school retention and better educational outcomes and I find it difficult to understand why pre-school has been separated from main primary classes/schools. It may actually turn out to be counterproductive as a disintegrated schooling system invariably leads to a large number of dropouts and discontinuation.

The policy takes a high moral stand on integration but in the same breath, speaks of flexibility, and that is where I see the real problem. The gains of high enrolment, declining dropout rates and higher retention rate in schools across socio-economic groups needed reinforcement through correcting the major deficiency in pre-primary education and later, by taking tangible measures to improve quality. The ECCE may fall flat as its structural design ranges from being part of anganwadi, co-located with the primary schools, or as stand-alone pre-schools. It is not clear whether grades 1 and 2 of the foundational stage would be part of the anganwadi system or whether anganwadi would be integrated structurally with the primary schools. The latter is a better option as there is enough evidences to suggest such integrated pre-primary-primary schools. It is apparent that the policymakers did not have any clarity on this fundamental issue and, therefore, failed to present a road map. We will return to quality education again.

Integrating/closing schools?

The policy envisages expanding and strengthening the school education system and investing larger public resources as in the past. However, even this commitment seems to give way later. The draft NEP proposes to correct structural extravagance by closing down small schools as they are economically non-viable. Schools with fewer than 30 students, of any grade, would be closed down gradually and integrated with a larger school in the neighbourhood. This sounds good on paper and better on the purse, but on the ground this sounds pretty hollow.

According to the Unified District Information on School Education (U-DISE), over 40 per cent of primary schools in the country have fewer than 30 children enrolled. Separate primary schools for boys and girls in the same village/habitation may be integrated into one, thus enhancing the teacher-pupil ratio, which, among other things, has positive learning outcomes. There can be duplication by school managements also, all within the government sector. For example, a primary school run by the village panchayat or the tribal council can be merged with the one run by the Department of Education. But closing down schools purely on the basis of enrolment is a bad idea.

Let me elucidate this point further. Fact 1: According to Census 2011, over 70 per cent of villages in India have a population of less than 2,000. If one adds the population of these villages, it accounts for about 42 per cent of the rural population. Fact 2: Very small-sized villages, having a population of less than 500, constitute 37.5 per cent and those up to 1,000 another 22 per cent. Remember, the percentage of small-sized schools is 41 per cent. Close them and you will take away even that wretched primary school from at least 60 per cent of villages. The child population in the ages 3 to 8 and 9 to 14 will be an average of 12.5 and 13 per cent respectively of the village population. So, with a quarter of a village population of 1,000, one will get 250 children in the ages mentioned above.

But in smaller villages , this will result in a much smaller child population in the relevant school-going age. Where is that study which says that smaller schools are academically non-viable? Where are these small schools located? And the obvious answer would be: in hilly, forested, arid and low-density localities that are poorly linked by transport and have been suffering from all kinds of constraints for ages. Are children living in such places outside the ambit of the Right to Education (RTE) Act? Creation of school complexes only for administrative convenience is not a good idea.

The question of Quality

The draft NEP seems to be overwhelmed with the issue of quality education. Quality education has always been a high priority of various policies in the past. The Kothari Commission talked about pace-setting and model schools. NEP 1986 came up with Navodaya Vidyalayas as quality inputs in the education system. I can go on enumerating several steps taken by governments at the Centre and in the States over the last few decades. But my concern is not to set history right but to reflect upon those measures envisaged by the draft policy.

However, before I enumerate those, let me ask a simple question.Why is the quality of teaching poor, particularly in government schools? The policy document makes no attempt to even refer to the plethora of published material on this issue. The document abhors small-sized schools but makes only a casual reference to the fact that over two-thirds of our primary schools have fewer than three teachers. My analysis of private and government schools in Punjab during 2010 clearly establishes that a multi-teacher government school with at least five teachers and one head teacher performed better than a private school with comparatively better infrastructure and more than six teachers.

An average primary school in the private sector has eight teachers and an integrated primary and upper primary school has 12 teachers, far higher than the figures for government schools. Teacher absenteeism is an issue in rural areas, but several District Primary Education Programme (DPEP) studies have shown that it is a much more serious problem in single- and two-teacher schools, but when there are at least three teachers and a head teacher, absenteeism drops. So what is the lesson? Increase the supply of quality teachers.

Quality education and grade progress among students has been reported to be better for schools that are not stand-alone primary or upper primary schools. We also have stand-alone secondary and higher secondary schools. These structural problems should be corrected. But in the name of quality and behind the smokescreen of school complexes and special education zones for backward areas and underrepresented groups, the draft NEP seeks to turn the gains made so far upside down. Why do I say this? Let us go back to the ECCE and primary school segment of the report.

The report proposes that in order to monitor a student’s academic progress, he/she be tested at grades 3, 5 and 8 through census examination, besides the board examinations at grades 10 and 12. It also suggests a plethora of initiatives, especially in the context of the teachers’ capacity and development. It reverses the “no detention” policy under the RTE Act. Remember that the “no detention” policy was supplemented by a rigorous methodology of continuous and comprehensive evaluation of the student’s all-around development. Since the ECCE did not work, the no-detention policy will also become counterproductive. But replacing “no detention” with a census examination is the worst thing that can happen to children at the early and formative stages of their learning process, particularly those from the poor, socially marginalised, first-generation or second-generation learners. The stress and fear of examination will force them out of the system. The system will essentially push them out, they will not drop out.

The policy attracts attention by going beyond the framework of universal elementary education in order to perhaps make higher secondary education universal in India. This is the simple marketing strategy. An imaginary conversation with the people behind the draft policy may go like this:

“Hey, look we are giving you something you did not ask for! Take it!”

“Wait a while. Did you say universal higher secondary education without specialisation? May be it has more vocational content?”


“But why are you silent about correcting the structural anomaly?”

“What is that?”

“For every 100 primary schools you currently have 50 upper primary, 20 secondary and 8 higher secondary schools. If you want every child who enters the system to complete some kind of higher secondary education, then the structural ratio of primary schools to senior secondary schools should be 1.”

“But, did you not read that we are closing down the primary schools and many such non-viable schools? The structural ratio will be taken care of by market forces.”

What is the narrative here?

The policy makes the commitment repeatedly to create a knowledge society. It also talks about accessible, flexible and sustainable quality education. But quality education for a large percentage of the population, coming from highly differentiated socio-economic backgrounds, is not sustainable. The classic tangle of quality versus quantity has surfaced again, as it had done several times in the past when it led to a significant fragmentation of the schooling system and gradually transformed it from a government-led, society-centric philanthropic public education to an elite-led public education system on the top of the pyramid.

Social segmentation

I am motivated to point out that one of the main objectives of the Nehru-Azad educational paradigm was not technological transformation of society alone but the socio-economic transformation of Indian society, where education was seen to play the critical role in ending the traditional stratification and its occupation-social rank manifestations. Reservation in educational institutions at the time of entry was a good tool for creating a just and fair opportunity for everyone. It is important that reservation was not valid at the exit stage. The outcome did result in shaking the foundations of the traditional caste-based society and freeing bonded and family-attached labour. Agricultural wages began to rise. Children from traditionally deprived social backgrounds began sharing the same classrooms with the children of their traditional patrons. The established social order began to change in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Soon, in the name of quality, the traditional educated classes, the propertied classes and the regular Central and State government employees began asking for separate schools for their children. Therefore, there are various shades and kinds of schools run by the government, at far varied costs and outcomes. The Model Schools, the Central Schools, the Army and Air Force Schools, the Sainik Schools and the Railway Schools, the Navodaya Vidyalayas—the list goes on and on. The elite control of public education meant that the poor mass of tenant agriculturists and landless classes had to fall back on under-provided and poorly served government schools run by the Department of Education. When the elite classes exit from any public facility, the inarticulate have to suffer and this is where the social segmentation began in school education.

The proposed policy wants to reinforce this segmentation. Everyone should get education and training as per their capability and capacity. What can the son of a poor landless wage-earner aspire for? With multiple exit points and checks through notional or formal examination systems, the hiatus will be created in the education field so that it can realign itself to the classical stratification, though we will know it by a different name. Only a few will produce robots and “man” the Artificial Intelligence (A.I.), while scores of others will form the cheap trained labour in a globalised world economy. Think globally and act locally!

The draft policy also proposes that the scope of the RTE Act will be extended to include pre-primary classes as well, but soon it backtracks and says it will be obligatory. Similarly, it proposed that the RTE Act will cover secondary and higher secondary classes as well. A review of the RTE Act has also been mooted. The intention is very clear as one reads that the provisions of the RTE Act will be significantly mellowed down to suit the requirements of diverse socio-economic and geographical settings. The outcome of this measure will help the private education shops. Many of them have not been recognised by the State Boards because of the stringent infrastructural requirements in the Act.

There is nothing in the draft NEP that is new or “out of the box”. It’s all stale, served in a new packaged and decorated Japanese tray. After reading the draft NEP several times in the last two weeks, there is a lot that one could reflect upon. I chose to select only a few of the substantial issues of school education. I will take up teachers and other issues separately elsewhere.

At the end, I am reminded of a magic show I witnessed when I was 10 years old. It was a show by the magician P.C. Sorcar Jr. He had a jug placed in one corner of the stage and whenever he started a new item he would lift the water jug and pour all its contents into a bucket. One wondered how he could refill his water jug? After the show, he showed us that the jug had no base and that it never had any water in it! Is draft NEP 2019 yet another magic show?

Sachidanand Sinha is professor at the Centre for the Study of Regional Development, JNU, New Delhi.