• The Modi government failed to frame a new education policy as promised
  • The Right to Education Act 2009 was amended to allow primary school children to be failed in school exams
  • Education spending was reduced, it touched a 10-year low in 2018-’19
  • Schemes for primary and secondary education were merged
  • The Centre tried to influence state education policies

In its 2014 election manifesto, the Bharatiya Janata Party promised to draft a new education policy for India. The last one had been drafted in 1986 and updated in 1992.

But it took the Ministry for Human Resource Development, which oversees education, more than one and a half years to appoint a committee to draft the policy. Headed by former cabinet secretary TSR Subramaniam, the committee’s 230-page report was submitted in May 2016.

Among other things, the report recommended curbing campus politics, reintroducing the Class 10 board exams and merging public schools with low enrolment. It sparked a debate, but was ultimately abandoned for being a “mere compilation” of previous policies and reports.

On June 26, 2017, the ministry appointed scientist K Kasturirangan to head an entirely new panel. Three extensions later, it has still not submitted its report.

However, the government has not waited for a new guiding framework and has introduced sweeping changes in school education and higher education without it. This includes mergers of schools, dilution of the Right to Education Act 2009 and attempts to reform the University Grants Commission.

This article focuses on the Modi government’s decisions in the school education sector.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi interacting with the school children after addressing the nation on Independence Day in 2017. Photo: PIB
Prime Minister Narendra Modi interacting with the school children after addressing the nation on Independence Day in 2017. Photo: PIB

Merging schemes, reducing budgets

India passed the Right to Education Act in 2009. The main vehicle for implementing the law was the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, the education scheme targeting children in Classes 1 to 8.

In 2018, the Modi government merged the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan with Rashtriya Madhyamik Shiksha Abhiyan, the secondary education scheme for Classes 9 and above, and the central scheme for teacher education.

The government said the merged scheme, called Samagra Shiksha Abhiyan, aimed to “ensure inclusive and equitable quality education at all levels of school education”.

But critics say the merger could undermine the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan by depriving it of funds. In the 2018-’19 Union budget, the allocations to all the schemes were made under separate heads. By May, the heads were merged and combined funds were released.

Reports from the states suggest that the funds released under the combined scheme were smaller than what states received under separate heads. There were also delays in the release of funds.

The Centre’s spending on education – higher, lower and teacher-training taken together – has been lower than 4% of the total budget every year since 2015-’16. At 3.5%, the budget estimate for education in 2018-’19 is the lowest in a decade.

Pushing its agenda on the states

School education is a state subject with the Centre’s role limited to setting terms for the schemes it funds. But the Modi government has been strongly interventionist.

Both the human resources ministry and NITI Aayog created blueprints for education reforms in states. Several versions of school-ranking systems were introduced with the latest iteration, the “Performance Grading Index” in 2018, promising to deliver more central funds to states based on their performance.

Till the Supreme Court put a halt to Aadhaar linking in schools in September 2018, the most disruptive Central decree was the mandatory linking of Aadhaar with every school scheme, including the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, the mid-day meal scheme and scholarship programmes.

This was ostensibly done to weed out “fake” enrolments and reduce leakages of public funds, but instead resulted in massive disruptions, keeping children out of school or denying them access to benefits in states like Uttar Pradesh and even Delhi.

In April 2017, after school board exams had already taken place, the Central Board of Secondary Education tried to control “marks inflation” by getting state boards to abandon “marks moderation” while correcting papers. Marks moderation is the practice of awarding extra marks to compensate for errors in question papers and unreasonably difficult questions or strict marking.

But many states did not listen and CBSE was ordered by the Delhi High Court to moderate its own results instead.

Bringing back exams

In February 2017, the Ministry amended the Central Rules of the Right to Education Act 2009 to include subject and class-wise “learning outcomes” – skills and standards of learning that children in a particular class are expected to display.

It introduced other schemes such as Padhe Bharat Badhe Bharat to improve reading and numeracy skills in Classes 1 and 2, and the Rashtriya Avishkar Yojana to get children interested in science and technology.

The NITI Aayog released funds for laboratories in over 2,000 schools, of which a large number are well-funded private schools.

The government also expanded the National Achievement Survey in 2017. From testing the learning achievements of about 1.5 to 2 lakh children in a year, the National Council for Educational Research and Training which conducts it, tested about 25 lakh in Classes 3, 5 and 8, in November 2017. But the data is still “provisional” and analytical reports are not available.

However, citing low outcomes, the Modi government reversed several major evaluation reforms implemented under the previous government. In August 2015, the Central Advisory Body on Education recommended that a key reform introduced by the Right to Education Act – the no-detention policy – be dropped. An amendment Bill allowing the states to make children repeat Classes 5 and 8 was passed in the monsoon session of the Lok Sabha in 2017 and in the Rajya Sabha on January 3, 2019.

Another major change was the return of the Class 10 board exams for schools affiliated to the Central Board of School Education. The decision was taken by the board in 2016 and implemented in 2018.

Exam controversies

In March 2018, the Central Board’s Class 10 mathematics and Class 12 economics question papers were leaked and circulated through social media before the examination. Ultimately, the board chose to conduct a re-exam only for economics.

This was not the first major security breach on the CBSE’s watch under the Modi government. In June 2015, the Supreme Court nullified the All India Pre-Medical Test – a national-level entrance exam for medicine – due to “exam fraud” and ordered a re-exam.

In May 2017, the CBSE conducted the new National Eligibility-cum-Entrance Test, the national exam that replaced the pre-medical test in all states. It was promptly caught up in lawsuits – candidates took the CBSE to court for setting different question papers in different languages.

In November 2017, the Cabinet approved the creation of a specialised body, called the National Testing Agency, to conduct entrance tests into higher education programmes. The first test was conducted on December 18.

Teacher training

The Right to Education Act 2009 – implemented in 2010 – had given the government five years to train all school teachers. But the 2015 deadline passed with 11 lakh untrained teachers in schools. In August 2017, government amended the Act to extend the deadline to 2019.

Meanwhile, it started on online learning portal called Swayam, an acronym for ‘Study Webs of Active-Learning for Young Aspiring Minds’. By April 2018, over 7 lakh untrained teachers had signed up for it, but educationists are sceptical about the effectiveness of such training.

Read more:

Failing children: Why is India ending a radical school reform within years of introducing it?

Niti Aayog and Union HRD ministry compete over state education roadmaps

A new training policy proposed to help Indian teachers upgrade their skills may not help much

This article is part of The Modi Years series which recaps the major milestones, controversies and policies of the BJP government.