With 14cr children in primary schools why Indian education needs to be democratised


Empowerment of stakeholders — students, parents and teachers — is critical to escape the depressing levels of learning plaguing our system.

The idea of education holds a promise. For an individual, it is the promise of unleashing their innate potential. For governments, education is the key to survival and success. Children aged below 14 comprise 28 percent of India’s population.

India’s future is not being scripted in boardrooms or manufacturing plants. Our indicators of impending success are not GDP or the soaring stock markets. India’s future is struggling in its classrooms, lagging behind and on the verge of dropping out. Education is each citizen’s right and past governments have ensured that we get almost every child to school.

Realising that getting children to school was not enough, policy discourse has finally started moving to quality. But when 50 percent of your 10-years-olds still cannot read Class II level books, is this enough?

To secure India’s future in the next 70 years, we need to democratise education. Empowerment of stakeholders — students, parents and teachers — is critical to escape the depressing levels of learning plaguing our system.

In this article, we provide a brief context of the themes characterising India’s school education system. We then focus on the need to empower students by catering to their multiple intelligences, designing a pedagogic system based on understanding and application, and by providing a system where they can engage with real-world problems on a deeper level. It is important to empower teachers by creating pathways for peer learning and mentorship, providing the majority of the decision-making power to school leaders and teachers, and by making it a more desirable profession. And empowering parents by equipping them with skills to support their children at home.

When we think of the education discourse and direction in the country, a few major themes come to mind. These themes emerge from and are legacies of some of our landmark policies. Universal Access has been the most important theme in our education dialogue in the past 70 years. Landmark schemes like the Sarva Siksha Abhiyan, Right to Education Act and the Mid-Day Meals were formulated to achieve the goal of universalisation of primary education. Having made progress on expansion, enrollment, retention, equity and inclusion, the quality of our education system (or the lack of it) is the current theme defining education at every level. Various government-led, national-level surveys and third-party assessments throw light on the worrying learning levels of our students.

All the discourse and policy action on the theme of quality can be clubbed into improving infrastructure, increasing accountability and enhancing teacher training. We need to think of education reform from the lens of people, not processes.

Empowerment is the theme that we hope captures the education discourse and drives policy in the country moving forward. We need to align all talk and action in education through the idea of empowering our most crucial stakeholders — students, teachers and school leaders and parents.

The student is the ultimate beneficiary in any education system. A beneficiary that is most often without a voice and has to depend on other stakeholders to understand their needs. This unique aspect makes designing education policies tricky. But it is important to make our system student-centric.

Any action on quality education has sadly focussed on test-based accountability and proficiency of basic skills (numeracy and/or literacy). This reinforces a system that continues to be based on rote and recall. Not only does this hamper a child’s ability to engage with real-world problems on a deeper level, in the long term it also renders an entire generation unemployable. India is also then saddled with a large population of young people who’re unable to think creatively and critically, understand and accept diversity, be open to new ideas and perspectives, and communicate and collaborate effectively.

Students need to be empowered by catering to their multiple intelligences and by designing a pedagogic system based on understanding and application and not recall.

We need to move away from the thinking that only students who’ve mastered the basics can engage in higher order skills like collaboration, critical thinking and creativity. Policies also have to encourage differentiated pedagogy that may not be the same across the country. With the present cookie-cutter approach, India’s young population will never be able to compete with an international workforce or be able to meaningfully contribute to our democracy.

High levels of teacher and school leader vacancies are a worrying concern across many states in India. It is indicative of the lack of desirability of the profession. Teachers are treated as lowly civil servants and are used as resources to collect administrative data from local communities. Many countries select school leaders through a dedicated mechanism, Indian schools mostly promote the most experienced teachers to become principals. We cannot assume that experienced teachers automatically become good school leaders. For both these professions, there is almost no professional development opportunities or mentorship.

Peer learning is almost absent with most schools working in silos. Training programmes are few and far in between and almost always ineffective. Teachers and school leaders are the closest stakeholders in a school to the ultimate beneficiary, the students. Student achievement levels can improve only by empowering these two stakeholders. Let’s start with efforts to make these jobs more attractive and desirable to generate a larger talent pool. We need to further decentralise education and provide the majority of the decision-making power to the authorities that are closest to the field. There needs to be a system of acknowledgment and reward, of greater opportunity and decision-making authority to those doing a good job in their classrooms and schools.

Amidst all the stakeholders in the education landscape, the parent is the most ignored even though they spend the most time with the students. Post the global Education For All movement, enrollment numbers across the country soared. But it also brought forth a unique situation.

Many of India’s 14 crore children in primary school are the first in their family to go to school or are going further in school than their parents ever have. Parents of these children understand the importance of education and its power to break the shackles of poverty, but having never been to school, the support they can provide at home is limited.

Research documents the lack of knowledge with most parents in developing countries over estimating the academic levels of their children. Without targeted support at home, these first-generation learners face a high probability of falling behind in school and eventually dropping out. This prevents them from breaking out of the vicious cycle of inter-generational povertyEducation policy hasn’t closely analysed the role that parents can play as strategic partners. Governments and non-profits need to focus on designing programmes building the knowledge of parents and equipping them with skills to support their children at home. Having hardly interacted with the schooling system, they need to be trained how to partner with the schools. Most importantly, parents need to believe in their own power — that regardless of their income and education, they can play a meaningful part in their child’s education.

The conversation in education has slowly started moving away from the importance of infrastructure and inputs. We are now talking about improving quality in terms of outcomes. But these outcomes cannot be achieved by designing policies that are process-centric. We need people-centric policies to catalyse a learning revolution in the country. We still have a long way to go.

Disclaimer: The views expressed by the author are his own and do not necessarily reflect that of YourStory.

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