With NEP20 suggesting five years of formalised foundational education for all the 73 mn children, plus 10 years of regular schooling and 50% of the country’s population being below 25, the future requirement for education is about 10% of GDP.

 

The field of education is perhaps as old as civilisation itself. From our ancient “gurukuls” to the ultramodern gadgets-equipped virtual classrooms, we may have come a long way, but the essence of teaching continues to be all-round human development. So do the other basics of worthwhile education viz. a pupil’s desire to learn, backed by the inclination of the instructor to share knowledge and skills and having an ecosystem which promotes personal touch, trust, gratefulness and mutual appreciation. A vast increase in the numbers of the taught and the teachers for them, the imparting being now standardised and requiring to be completed in a limited time-span and the confines of a room or two are no doubt significant changes but none is beyond manageable solutions.

To address the twin issues of quantity and quality of education in India, well-intentioned efforts have been underway during the last seventy odd years, but the outcomes have been mixed. The disappointment has been palpable in respect to early education, loosely referred to as primary education (PE). Way back during Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s years (1999-2004), the time-bound mission for universalisation of PE under the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan was launched. In 2012, the UPA II had enacted a Right to Education (RTE) Act, much like the various other entitlement-based welfare schemes. Building up on these, the Narendra Modi government announced the Samagra Shiksha mission to attain a cent per cent school enrolment. a goal proclaimed to have been reached.

That apart, in the age group of under 12 who should be in primary classes up to the 5th,  India has a staggering 270 mn children. But more significantly, there remain serious learning gaps. A major one is about the dropping out of primary schools of about 20 mn students annually. More worrisome are the quality parameters. In an international comparison of learning outcomes that India had participated in 2009, it ranked 72nd out of 73 countries, outranking only Kyrgyzstan. This reflects itself in a number of economic and social parameters e.g. as per a 2016 Lancet study, the average Indian’s peak productive period was just 7 years, less than half of an average Chinese worker, due to poorer health and quality of learning.

The recently finalised New Education Policy (NEP20) observes “a large proportion of students currently in elementary schools, estimated to be over five crore, have not attained foundational literacy and numeracy, i.e., the ability to read and comprehend basic text and the ability to carry out basic addition and subtraction with numerals.” Many other surveys, particularly the well conducted All India School Education Report (ASER) by the Pratham NGO, corroborate this and have spelt out the rampant deficiencies in our PE, including the vast differential between state run and private schools. Such findings are damning, as the children, not able to read by the age of 10, usually find it challenging to grasp the ability to read in later years of their schooling, or simply put, fail to become literate.

To address these, NEP20, while proposing the “decolonisation of school education”, has suggested a host of pedagogical reforms beginning with the foundational years. The 15 “school years” proposal would now begin at the age of 3, with the first 5 years in pre-school, 3 in primary, another 3 in middle and 4 in high school (instead of the extant 10+2). The initial years’ focus would be on cognitive development to broaden the mind through play and activity based learning. In the rural areas, the pre-school years are envisioned to be spent at the existing 1.38 million village “anganwadis”, rather than creating new establishments. A question does arise about the capabilities of the 2.4 mn workers/helpers manning them, since few amongst them have teaching orientation and most are unlikely to be trainable for becoming kindergarten teachers. No doubt, the toddlers attending them are not expected to go through classroom teaching but even outdoor teaching through observations of nature and reflecting on it requires a different set of skills.

Desirable as it might be,  the new Policy does not lay down the implementation process and perhaps rightly so, because school education is a State responsibility and one size fits all approach will not work in all the six lakh villages and the fifty thousand odd towns with diversity in their geography, economics and culture. A common requirement across the country however relates to creating more equal socio-economic opportunities to access education. Another positive aspect is not subjecting the young minds to the burden of learning a language other than their mother tongue and at the end of the foundational five years being subjected to only a standardised assessment methodology. In fact this would also be applicable at the end of the primary school years, viz the 5th class.

Neglect of mass education in India had lasted almost the entire colonial rule and in reality did not receive much of a push in the Nehruvian period either. The successive governments seemed to have preferred spending or facilitating higher education instead. It was perhaps to this aspect of indifference that Mahatma Gandhi referred to, during the Round Table conference in 1931, when he told the colonial rulers, “The beautiful tree of education was cut down by you British. Therefore today, India is far more illiterate than it was 100 years ago.” Incidentally, the current gap between India and its peers in basic literacy is higher than the gap in the tertiary enrolment rates. Yet, out of a total Central budgetary provision of about 3.2% of GDP in 2020-21 on education the outlay for primary education is under 1%.

For decades since the Kothari Commission in the mid 1960s called for 6% of public expenditure going to education, the actual support has hovered between 3% and 4 %. With NEP20 suggesting five years of formalised foundational education for all the 73 mn children, plus 10 years of regular schooling and 50% of the country’s population being below 25, the future requirement is about 10% of GDP. Private supplementation is unlikely to be much in pre-schooling or even the rest of primary education as the operation of market forces to attain universal enrolling remains tightly regulated.

All the four so called Asian Tigers—Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan and South Korea—which rapidly moved from being developing to developed nations in under fifty years post the Second World War, had witnessed heavy state investments in basic education and health care. So had China since the Mao Zedong’s days seen heavy investments in broad based education, health care and rural electrification. This had led the World Bank in its first study of China in 1983 to observe that despite low per capita consumption levels, China’s “most remarkable achievement has been to make low-income groups far better off in terms of basic needs than their counterparts in most other poor countries”.

Dr Ajay Dua, a public policy specialist and a development economist by training, is a former Union Secretary.