The National Education Policy sets an ambitious direction for school education. For the first time, we have a policy focused on learning and not just schooling. To achieve this aim as we come out of a year of learning loss, states need to make quick, targeted changes that will yield significant improvement in the short term. At the same time, we must carry out deeper structural reforms to the Right to Education Act that will enshrine a right to learning, instead of the right to school enrollment that it is today.
In terms of low hanging fruit, one critical area is curriculum rationalisation. Currently, we have a “mile wide inch deep” system, in which children are rushed through key foundational competencies – like reading with meaning – without mastery, and they fall off the boat early as the curriculum progresses into more challenging territory.
2020 has been a difficult year for school education, with studies suggesting that 40-50% of Indian students have not learned anything during this period, and only a third of rural students received learning materials in the week before the survey. Given this, refocusing curriculum at every grade level in primary school around basic foundational skills in reading and mathematics is a change states can make easily. This should start as early as the next academic year.
It’s also critical for states to move away from the no-detention policy – so that students who have fallen behind during Covid don’t drift through many more years of education with no learning, and introduce vocational training options starting class 8, so more children have opportunities beyond traditional education.
However, to sustainably improve learning outcomes for all students in the long term, structural reform with legislative heft is critical – and the most decisive way to do this would be to review the Right to Education Act 2009. Broadly, there are three areas RTE reform should cover – across all schools, a robust learning outcome assessment and information dissemination system at the school level to target support and promote accountability; in government schools, a reorganisation of resourcing to overcome obvious barriers to learning; and in private schools a regulatory environment that establishes transparency, predictability of finances and self-regulation and empowers school managements, not inspectors or committees.
Global experience and research have shown that a universal and standardised assessment system across all schools is key. A “right” to education isn’t achievable without a mechanism to measure that a student is able to achieve meaningful learning outcomes through their schooling. Board exams come too late – around 80% of schools do not reach the board level, ending at Grade 5 or Grade 8. NEP’s current provision around assessments for all students at key stages – like grades 3, 5 and 8 – can allow two critical things.
First, it can be used to publicise school level results, giving parents information. This will push private and government schools to up their game. Second, it will give the government system detailed information to target and review school support mechanisms. The RTE is the right place to ensure the presence of such fundamental infrastructure.
In government schools, the RTE provision around neighborhood schools has resulted in what experts term the “smallification” of schools. According to government data, 40.2% of government schools have fewer than 50 students, and only 2 teachers on average to teach 5 or more grades. Rajasthan’s Adarsh school consolidation model, with a composite, fully staffed 1-12 school in each gram panchayat, might provide a pathway for reform at the national scale. To enable this, the requirement around school distance from habitations should shift to one of guaranteeing access without dictating how it’s provided.
In private schools, RTE’s input focused norms and rules have created a complex and burdensome regulatory environment which inhibits entrepreneurs wishing to start private schools, while creating an obstacle course for existing schools. A study found that a license to open a school in Delhi requires 125 document types, which pass through 155 steps across government departments. Further, stipulations around land ownership or lease periods, playgrounds, staircase width, teacher salaries, admission rules, fee caps, and myriad others exist across states. This framework grossly discourages meaningful investment by passionate educators and leaves the ground open for mediocre opportunists. These require review.
To truly improve governance, we must understand that in India profit cannot be limited by committees or laws, only by competition. The not-for-profit mandate on schools should be lifted. In its place, entities through the Companies Act could register as schools and be governed and taxed better and more transparently through existing mechanisms. Simultaneously, via cross-subsidisation, this can be a lever to bring RTE Section 12(1)(c) closer to its crucial objective – bringing a more diverse population to a school of choice.
Currently, only 4.7% of the 8 crore students in unaided schools use this provision instead of the envisioned 25%, largely due to poor state uptake and low reimbursement rates. Revenue from school taxation could be funnelled back into education spending – possibly through a DBT of Rs 5,000 – 15,000 per year to economically weaker students. This would achieve a dual purpose. Liberalisation would encourage innovation in schooling, and use of tax revenue to fund DBTs might give more families access to a school of choice.
Covid-19 has been a shock to our economy and system; it has also provided an opportunity to review several sectors. Structural reform in education should follow. Or the 25 crore children currently in our schooling system will struggle to take their place in tomorrow’s economy.
Views expressed above are the author’s own.
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