Numerous studies and surveys have squarely shown us the woefully inadequate quality parameters in our system. And this extends to the private system which is mostly ( with some exceptions ) unable to enhance the learning levels. Globally benchmarked tests have thrown Indian students to be towards the bottom on parameters like critical thinking and real life co-relation of concepts. The few oasis of higher education like the IITs that are feted in India, are inadequate for the size of the population and are yet not quite at the top of the pecking order in global rankings of institutions.
The quantitative programs of the last decade have definitely succeeded in getting more children into school and retaining them there, but have done nothing more to make school a more fulfilling and productive experience for children. As the eco-political outlook moves away from being rights based, one would need to rethink the mass schooling model. And expand the debate beyond access to the parameters of quality and even of equity. Can we give our children a level playing field to hone their potential ? Can education become a tool for the emancipation of the girl child and her economic and cultural independence ? This would be the most potent antidote to gender, class, religion and caste schisms which riddle our society.
A society as disparate as ours with a multitude of cultural hues and contexts, would definitely need a nuanced education delivery approach. Attempts at standardization of either infrastructure or curriculum would have to be limited to a feasible degree. Gurukuls, madrasas, convents, slum schools would all jostle for space in the educational canvas of India. Arguments for minimal infrastructure provision ( eg drinking water and toilets ) have a compelling case but they need to be juxtaposed with the larger challenge of creating outcomes ( however broadly and minimally one may define the outcomes ). If we have to leap-frog as indeed we must aspire to, one has to start talking the language of outcomes.
The role of the private sector in education has only expanded in the last decade despite no clear policies in this regard. They indeed have a critical role in fostering innovations – low cost delivery, personalization, quality beacons as well as a significant role in reforming the public system through meaningful public-private partnerships on teacher training, quality assessments, data analysis, even school management at times. But whether the mass system would be private ( as it is increasingly becoming by proxy with even rural aspirations being to send to a private school ) or a systematically reformed public system – shall be one of the debates of our society.
At the secondary and tertiary levels, private coaching and colleges weave elaborate dreams which come down with a thud. Millions of youth pursue these dreams in engineering, business management, IT etc thus substantially depleting the resources of their parents, only to find themselves stranded at the exit with jobs ( for those who are lucky ) which cant even repay the loans taken to pursue them. Much has been said about unleashing the entrepreneurial spirits of young India. But the journey of a young entrepreneur who manages to break free from the societal expectations and take the plunge, is far from smooth. Regulatory hurdles, no access to risk capital, sky-rocketing marketing costs, bribes at every stage are enough to snuff the zeal out of a commoner who is not aware of the ways to navigate the labyrinth. The rote learning skills of formal education are hardly helpful in overcoming this challenge. To the disinterested observer, there is a sharp dichotomy between what is valued in social concepts of good education and what is valued in the economy. Urban India has an insatiable appetite for the English speaking driver, the competent plumber and electrician, the handyman. A considerable thrust has been given to laying the foundation of a skill infrastructure, but a lot more needs to be done to generate demand for these skills as part of the formal process of school education.
Some would argue for e-learning and technology driven classrooms as an out of the box solution, but experiences with technology globally have given mixed results. They have not been able to transcend the role of teachers in the classroom paradigm and the motivation of learners in the e-learning approach. ( as reflected in the high drop-out rates of MOOCs) Hardware centric provision of computer labs in India have been a disaster in the public education system. Meaningful pilots are the need of the hour – learning data analytics, interactive curriculum, teacher training, rapid assessments on mobile devices, mobile apps, learning cloud. So while technology is a clear enabler and an essential building block of a reformed education infrastructure, a monolithic approach would not yield any quick-fix.
What can we learn from the experiences of other countries? Experiences of countries as diverse as Finland and Singapore tell us that a systemic reform begins with the invigoration of the teaching profession. The kind of people attracted to teaching and their relative economic and social worth in society shall largely determine outcomes in education. It is not possible to conceive of the construction of a creative curriculum without this re-invention. The curriculum and the suggested pedagogy is not the constraint, but the actual learning transactions in the classroom and the way they are measured and feedback into the system. We have seen a systematic decline in the worth of this profession since independence and this can be co-related to the lower returns from education. A simple litmus test is to check from a group of teenagers as to how many aspire to be teachers when they grow up.
The aspirations from education are tremendous. Larger sections of the population are seeing it as a passport to a better life. Many of these aspirations are being chipped away with a mix of unemployment, under-employment both in qualitative and quantitative terms. A rethink is needed, are we training for the skills that society needs, what about the work attitudes and ethics that are needed? What is the role of vocational education and what is the right age level to introduce that track? As traditional professions like engineering and medicine give way to newer professions, what kind of a secondary and post-secondary curriculum do they demand ?
This is a historic opportunity to rethink the edifice of education. There are a number of valuable things in the system we may want to retain, but we can do with a lot of first principle thinking on what we intend to achieve here. We owe this to the hundreds of millions of young Indians and their billion dreams.