The New Education Policy has vanished from public discussion. From time to time, Human Resource Development Minister Prakash Javadekar says it is in the works. At a press conference on Tuesday to talk up his ministry’s achievements as part of the third anniversary celebrations of the Narendra Modi-led government, Javadekar responded to a question on the New Education Policy as he has done in the past. He said that a committee would be formed soon and that all the inputs they would need have been collected over the last two years.

Who has been sending inputs and who has been doing the collecting is a mystery including to many officials in the ministry. The original policy drafting committee, constituted by Javadekar’s predecessor Smriti Irani, was rechristened “Committee for the Evolution of a New Education Policy”. Its report, submitted a year ago is being treated as recommendatory, or as inputs for the new policy.

In the absence of a new policy or even a well stated vision for education, the ministry’s achievements, particularly for school education, are mostly a laundry list of government schemes that have been in place for at least a couple of decades. The continuing expansion of centrally funded schools – the Kendriya, Navodaya and Kasturba Gandhi Balika Vidyalayas – and support for the mid-day meal scheme being the centrepieces of the Union government’s contribution to school education.

Besides this, the government has implemented some changes that were carried over from the previous United Progressive Alliance government. Chief among these is a change in the Right to Education rules, making it mandatory for all state governments to set benchmark minimum grade-wise learning outcomes for elementary school. These learning outcomes are meant to act as goals for schools and teachers, and as a guide for what to expect for parents. Specifying learning outcomes became necessary because the education system so far has been weighted in favour of enrolment, infrastructure and “finishing the syllabus” rather than children learning. This is seen as a major factor in the low learning levels of elementary school children in India.

Photo credit: Rupak De Chowdhuri/Reuters

No-detention policy

The other change carried over from the tenure of the previous government is related to the Right to Education Act, specifically to the section that mandates that children cannot be detained or failed in elementary school. This no-detention policy was contingent on continuous comprehensive evaluation – the one ensuring that the other did not happen. However, schools failed to imbibe the spirit of continuous comprehensive evaluation, and children failing Class 9 – when the no-detention policy no longer applied – was blamed on their being promoted through to Class 8 although they had learnt very little.

State governments have done little to ensure that continuous comprehensive evaluation is properly understood. But driven by the need to see an improvement in education statistics, they have been lobbying for an end to the no-detention policy.

Javadekar counts among his government’s achievements the change in rules that allows state governments to opt in or out of the no-detention policy. There is no dearth of evidence-based research that shows a direct link between failing a class and dropping out of school. School completion rates in India already average only around 30%-50%.

In the absence of proper reform of the school education system that acknowledges the different socio-economic backgrounds and needs of children, a one-size-fits-all system is by nature iniquitous. It is poor children who will bear the burden of this move to turn the clock back.

Teacher education

The one stand-out achievement that Javadekar listed was the decision to stop the National Council for Teacher Education from approving private teacher education institutions for the year 2017-’18, and to start a process of de-recognising institutions that got approval using fraudulent means – by bribing officials of the famously corrupt body. A large number of the private teacher training institutions in India are what the minister called “fly-by night operators” where you “pay and get a degree”. The vast majority of them have been set up in the last decade.

While this is an all round good start, it is only the tip of the teacher education iceberg. Although the vast majority of teacher training institutions are privately run, the vast majority of government school teachers usually come from state-run institutions. These institutions, by and large, are poorly run and in dire need of across-the-board improvement.

In its first budget, the Modi government announced a sum of Rs 180 crore for teachers training over five years, or Rs 400 per existing teacher per year. Subsequently, in March 2015, the ambitious Pandit Madan Mohan Malaviya National Mission on Teachers and Teaching was launched with a budget of Rs 900 crores for the 12th Plan period. The Mission’s goals included setting up, among other things, 30 Schools of Education, five Centres of Excellence for Curriculum and Pedagogy, two Inter-University Centres for Teacher Education, 25 teaching learning centres, and five Centres of Excellence in Science and Mathematics Education. No part of this figures on the list of the Human Resource Development ministry’s achievements at the end of three years.

Education in deep crisis

Since he became minister Javadekar has spent considerable time promoting the prime minister’s pet projects through the education system. For months on end, Swachh Bharat and digital payments seemed to occupy his working day. The same enthusiasm and energy is missing where school education – a sector in deep crisis – is concerned. Also missing is the sort of thinking that a crisis of this magnitude demands.

The Human Resource Development ministry’s pronouncements have a cleverness about them, like the minister’s assurance that when the new education policy finally appears, it will be based on “five pillars” – accessibility, equity, quality, affordability and accountability. Cleverness hides muddled thinking. The fact of the matter is there is no equity without accessibility, affordability, quality and accountability; there is no accessibility without affordability and without accountability there can be no quality.

Javadekar has steered clear of the controversies that dogged his predecessor. On Tuesday, for example, he dextrously evaded a loaded and potentially headline-grabbing question about school textbook content. But, like his predecessor, he has so far failed to pull his weight. His ministry’s list of achievements underlines this.