After 67 years of independence, too many of India’s citizens are shackled by the lack of a quality education that enables them to be free and independent. Our earlier generations fought to end the injustice imposed by the British Raj; we now need a second freedom movement that ensures equality of rights and opportunity for all citizens of India.
Since the early 2000s, our government’s outlay on education has increased significantly and currently stands at nearly 3% of GDP. The recent Union budget allocated Rs. 69,000 crore for education. Yet, studies like the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) show that learning levels of children are not increasing. This is because much of the focus in the last two decades has been on increasing enrolment in schools. Around 97% of children are enrolled in Class 1 thanks to the involvement of civil society and the private sector. There is a need to ensure that children are not just enrolled but also receive quality education. To that end, the government can shift the focus from investing in infrastructural inputs to strategic initiatives that improve learning outcomes.
What will it take to achieve quality education? First, recognise that monetary investment alone cannot solve the issue. Fifteen to 20% of every state’s budget is earmarked for education. Yet, not a single state prioritises education in its agenda and adopts a clear strategy to ensure that children get quality education. Our leaders must pledge that they will match the committed resources with a seriousness of intent to develop ambitious goals and implement them.
Second, the government needs to re-orient the role it plays in education from being primarily an education provider to being a regulator.
Today, both the public and private sectors play vital roles in education with nearly 40% of children studying in private schools. Governments should take on larger roles as regulators and enablers of environments conducive to providing quality education. They can do so by adopting measures such as implementing outcome-based accountability standards for public and private schools and increasing investment in education research.
Government schools will remain critical providers of education to marginalised children, but their quality must be of the highest standard. In this regard, states can learn from high-performing Kendriya Vidyalaya schools and experiment with creating autonomous bodies to administer schools.
Third, our education system needs to be oriented toward outcomes. The ministry of human resources development has committed resources for conducting Student Learning Achievement Surveys (SLAS) across states. We need to build the capacity of states to design, implement and administer these surveys. It is worth making the transition from the current sample-based surveys to low-stakes census assessments that cover all children.
Fourth, we must invest in our educators as our education system can only be as good as its school leaders and teachers. The National University of Educational Planning and Administration (NUEPA) has established the National Centre for School Leadership to train school principals. Civil society groups like Kaivalya Education Foundation are demonstrating promising results through their school leader training and such innovations should be scaled up.
India has a shortage of 1.5 million qualified teachers and a majority of existing teachers are not trained effectively. Our teachers need better pre-service and in-service training and we must promote efforts to reform the current teacher training system. Technology can deliver training for teachers at scale as well. There are numerous examples of private sector players investing in vast training programmes to improve their workforce’s ability and we must apply these lessons to the education sector.
To be a truly democratic society, we must have citizens who are educated. The greatest need of the hour is to provide our children a better education, better lives and freedom. The lives of 240 million children in India are at stake and the time to act is now.
(Ashish Dhawan is founder and CEO, Central Square Foundation. The views expressed by the author are personal.)