Shifting the focus from enrollment to quality of education and reducing the gap in learning levels between the rich and the poor are key aspects of the long-awaited Ministry of Human Resource Development-commissioned report for a new education policy, a copy of which has seen.

The ministry has not yet made public the report by the Committee for Evolution of the New Education Policy, which was submitted to it on May 27.

A new education policy was one of the manifesto promises of the Bharatiya Janata Party ahead of the 2014 general elections. The party had said that the current education policy was outdated and there was a need for a new education road map for the 21st century.

The committee’s report, however, puts to rest the suggestion that the existing National Policy on Education, 1986 is obsolete. Instead, it upholds the values and goals of this policy and tries to take them forward.

The report states:

"It [the report] reiterates the role of education in inculcating values, and to provide skills and competencies for the citizens, and in enabling him to contribute to the nation’s well-being; strengthens democracy by empowering citizens; acts as an integrative force in society, and fosters social cohesion and national identity. One cannot over-emphasise the role of education as the key catalyst for promoting socio-economic mobility in building an equitable and just society."

Quality over quantity

The committee emphasises that in the last 30 years, the focus of education in India has been on enrollment – getting children into schools – and not on the quality of education. Enrollment has been achieved to a reasonable degree, but there has been a steep decline in the quality of education.

The problems with the Indian education system are in the acts of omission and commission by those responsible for the delivery of education – from teachers to school administrators to education department bureaucrats and politicians – corruption and political interference being key among them.

The committee’s focus has been on “improving the quality of education and restoring the credibility of the education system”.

To this end, it offers a list of recommendations to fix the governance of education. These include changes in management and monitoring of education departments, schools and universities and in the process of recruitment, training and posting of academic staff. It also recommends the use of modern technology to improve education and its management.

These recommendations reveal the enormity of the task of bringing about change. Such a transformation can only come about if everyone – from an aspiring school teacher to the government and the makers of the education policy – wants this. This is a very tall order.

The committee’s recommendations, in a way, only initiate a dialogue (that the Ministry of Human Resource Development does not seem to want to have) on the magnitude of the problem before the nation.

Quality of teachers

The report, long and poorly structured, does attempt to offer solutions to the enormous problems that stymie the education system in India. The quality of teachers and the learning they impart as well as the equality in education are some of the core issues at the school-level.

To address the issue of the poor quality of school teachers, the report suggests ways to make teaching a more desirable profession. Among other things, it recommends that all states introduce a four-year integrated undergraduate programme for Bachelor of Arts/Bachelor of Science and Bachelor of Education (along the lines of the integrated Bachelor in Elementary Education programme in Delhi University).

The advantage of this, the report says,“ is that the student will then make an affirmative career choice in favour of teaching.” How this will follow is not specified.

Though Delhi University has had its integrated Bachelor in Elementary Education programme for 10 years, only eight all-women colleges offer it. This suggests that young men are unlikely to opt for primary school teaching as their first choice of profession.

Although the report talks about improving the education of teachers, it does not adequately address the issue of quality of teaching. There is, for example, no frank discussion on what academic standards should be expected among those seeking to be teachers. One recommendation is to have a minimum cut-off of 50% for admission to B.Ed courses. This is setting the bar very low.

A cadre of educationists

The report says one of the reasons quality of education has declined is because it has been put on a low position in the nation’s administrative hierarchy. However, none of its recommendations will substantially change this. Nor will they change the fact that teachers have a much lower status than those in administrative jobs. As a result, administrative posts in education departments are much more coveted than teaching jobs. Under the current structure of incentives in almost all states, career advancement for teachers means moving out of teaching and into administrative jobs.

This confusion on how the hierarchies of education work are reflected in the report’s calls for setting up an All India Education Service (as the National Education Policy did in 1986). The report seems to envisage a catch-all central service that will be in charge of education management and also work as teaching cadre, policymakers and education researchers. “Persons from the cadre would progressively man the higher-level policy posts at the state and the Centre; they will be, like other AIS officers, deployed in teaching or managerial positions…” the report says.

The report, however, does not say whether this will be a cadre of trained teachers acting as managers and policymakers, or a cadre of generalists, like in the other all-India service, who will also be teachers.

Elsewhere in the report, there are recommendations for creating a state-level cadre of principals, to fill vacancies in positions of headmasters and principals. These cadre, the report says, should be drawn from teachers with five years’ experience or more. The report also calls for a separate cadre of teacher-trainers for the District Institute of Education and Training.

It is anyone’s guess whether these different services and cadre will exist in parallel, or will be interlinked, or how they will work together.

No roadmap

Also, while the report identifies quality of education as its focus, it does not really define what it means by quality.

The report, for instance, says that norms for learning outcomes should be enshrined in the Right to Education Act and this, it believes, will improve quality. It hopes that by improving the quality of teachers, monitoring their performance, and linking their appraisals and promotions to these “learning outcomes”, things will improve significantly.

In reality, measurable learning outcomes may ensure a minimal level of education – now sorely lacking – but minimal is not the same thing as quality. This will not in itself close the massive educational gap between the rich and poor, which is one of the concerns of the committee.

The confusion over how this gap should be bridged is writ large in the report.

The committee, for instance, recommends a curriculum that reflects the particular needs of tribal communities.

However, it does not suggest changes in pedagogy to have more inclusive classrooms in general. Current classrooms and testing systems are by and large not designed for children who are first-time learners or from communities with traditionally low access to education. The solution that the committee offers is additional “academic support” outside the classroom in critical years – primary school, Class 11 and in early technical education. This recommendation, well-meaning though it is, appears to be calling for tuition, so that children from disadvantaged backgrounds can compete with those who can afford to pay for private coaching. The committee seems to be saying that there are no systemic solutions to bridge the gap.

The committee’s approach reinforces this problem.

The committee places a heavy emphasis on developing an Early Childhood Education Programme. This is important, because the absence of affordable and quality pre-schools leaves the underprivileged severely disadvantaged. It also calls for a well-thought-out curriculum, development of learning materials and training of pre-school teachers, which is excellent. However, it completely ignores the proven limitations of the existing Anganwadis (which are grossly understaffed and primarily focused on nutrition and health rather than on early learning) through which pre-school education can be made available to the majority of India’s poor children. If children are treated inequitably at this crucial stage of their development, they will most definitely need “academic support” in addition to regular schooling a few years later.

Mind the gaps

The report’s chief failing is it does not join the dots.

This is also the case with its excoriation of the National Council of Educational Research and Training for not evolving curriculum and pedagogy that promotes independent thinking rather than rote learning. The report says that to change this, “NCERT will have to undertake preparation of a new curriculum framework, through redesign [of] its text books in a manner that teachers become motivators, facilitators and co-investigators and encourage self-and-peer-learning through project assignments.”

Redesigning textbooks to revamp the curriculum framework is doing things back to front – unless the intention is simply to produce new books without a publicly discussed curriculum framework.

The NCERT textbooks of 2005 were designed to achieve just the goals the committee wants.The report's critique of the NCERT ignores the real problem of the lack of coordination between text book production, teacher training and, very importantly, the examining board. The NCERT can produce the best textbooks in the world, but if teacher training does not evolve alongside and the examination board demands rote learning, then rote learning is what you will get. The report has recommended that the examination board test concepts and knowledge rather than encourage rote learning. Having done that, why would they be in a rush to change reasonably good textbooks?

The report, with all its problems, is the first effort in recent years to accept the extent of the problem in the education system and so offers a huge opportunity for a thorough discussion on issues and their solutions. The question we are then left with is why the Human Resource Development Ministry is so reluctant to formally make this report public and open for discussion.

Apart from the ideological sub-text that people will undoubtedly examine the report for, one reason for the secrecy could be that the report lays open the full horror that is the Indian education system and shows us just how hard it is to fix. As the report says, education is a process and not an event. It cannot be showcased. And the current Ministry of Human Resource Development is dedicated to the idea of events.