Written by Amrita Singh

On December 18th 2017, the government of Odisha tied up with All India Society for Electronics and Computer Technology (AISECT) to provide skill-based vocational training in 44 government-run secondary and higher-secondary education schools. Around the same time, Altaf Bukhari, the Education Minister of Jammu and Kashmir, announced that the state government’s plans to establish 16 new degree colleges and upgrade 400 schools to improve facilities and access to education. Such policies dedicated to improving the education sector indicate a tenuous movement towards a brighter future for India’s children.

Still, the current problems with our education system are not unknown.  With the second largest higher education system, the Gross Enrolment Ratio in higher education is still low at 23.6% as of 2015. The quality of education being imparted is not at the expected level either, with only one in four children being able to demonstrate “grade” level reading and computation in standard III. With a shortage of trained and motivated teachers alongside a curriculum suited to rote-learning, India’s education has suffered miserably.

According to the official Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) website, the new National Education Policy (NEP) 2018, formerly called NEP 2017 as it was set to come out in December this year, will “meet the changing dynamics of the population’s requirement with regards to quality education, innovation and research, aiming to make India a knowledge superpower by equipping its students with the necessary skills and knowledge to eliminate the shortage of manpower in science, technology, academics and industry.”

Here is a huge promise presented at the stake of a burgeoning young population. Can the NEP 2018 set to come out in March next year address the issues that mar India’s education system? In the meanwhile, what are the possible solutions to some of these recurring problems?

Issues and Probable Tissues

Access and Participation: Recognizing the difficulty students face walking several kilometers in order to reach school, the state government of Jammu and Kashmir plans to introduce 16 new degree schools. Simultaneously, 400 high schools and middle schools are being upgraded to higher secondary schools and high schools respectively. Through such programmes, the government reaches out to more children all the while addressing the challenge of terrain and geography in providing universal education. In this respect, Sikkim is an example worth noting; despite harbouring similar challenging terrain, it is set to become a fully literate state by 2018. The government has been increasing the number of educational institutions in the state and providing free education up until college since 1994. This dual policy has made schools accessible to more children. The introduction of policies that address geographical factors throughout the country (coupled with the provision of free education and other incentives like free mid-day meals), can undoubtedly benefit all of India.

Quality of Education: Several factors such as high student, teacher absenteeism, gaps in teacher training and motivation, irregular monitoring and a lack of feedback sessions have led to deterioration in the kind of education being imparted to students. Focusing on these issues is imperative to improve learning outcomes of students, which is when the education being provided to students will actually become useful. For instance, Jammu and Kashmir has come out with an online library, which is linked to the National Digital Library of India, providing access to around 1.5 crore downloadable e-books and journals. Information and Communication Technology courses that teach students how to use computers and more importantly, the internet for educational purposes, along with access to such online portals can help tackle the problem of teacher absenteeism or poor pedagogy in schools. According to research carried out at the University of Oxford, supply-side interventions, such as the provision of funds for infrastructural development or teacher training, are more effective at improving learning outcomes and student performance when social norms are also taken into consideration. In other words, community participation and incentives that can influence preferences and behaviours are key factors in effectively improving learning outcomes. In India, it was observed that pay-incentives for teachers along with monitoring and enforcement devices resulted in increased learning outcomes in private schools. However, this was not the case for teachers teaching in public schools as they enjoy permanent contracts but barely any pay-incentives. In order to improve learning outcomes in India, targeted incentivisation, different for public and private schools, should help.

Skills and Employability: Due to the current state of education, even students who have managed to obtain higher education are not considered to be employable, as they lack skills that would allow them to join the workforce. This undermines the belief that higher education can lead to better job prospects. A solution to this ‘work-unreadiness’ crisis can be incorporating vocational training in schools as part of regular curriculum. In a workshop conducted by the MHRD on implementing the scheme of vocationalisation in secondary and higher secondary schools, it was suggested that Rs 1500 be made an incentive for students who perform well in these courses in the form of fee concessions. According to the implementation plan made in 2015, schools will introduce the vocational course as an additional and compulsory sixth course. Katha Lab School, a private learning centre located in New Delhi, teaches children from the slums of Govindpuri and makes them employable by offering vocational courses such as dress design, bakery and food processing and later internships with companies such as Taj. This particular department, known as the Katha School of Entrepreneurship, is recognized by the MHRD and the National Institute for Open Schooling. Monetary incentives in the form of fee-waivers and internships with companies to gain practical knowledge and work experience can prove to be of great help not only to students but also their families as it can help millions come out of poverty through education. Making these courses a part of the school curriculum will also make it easier for students to juggle both education and work in the same location, without wasting time on travel.

Teacher Development and Management: Santosh Mathew, chairman of the National Council for Teacher Education, took charge of his new post in January 2017. According to Mathew, there are about eight to nine lakh seats in teacher training institutions but there are no reports of whether these trained teachers are actually part of the current teaching process. There are over 13000 such institutions and Mathew plans to evaluate each one of these institutions to make sure that the quality of their training and the teachers that come out of these institutions are fit to impart education. Accreditation and national ranking of these institutions have emerged as ways to counter the problem of poor pedagogy across schools. While such institutions required accreditation only once in a lifetime, now they will be required to pass the test once every five years. The Council even plans to cooperate with Quality Council of India to assess the number of teachers teaching in institutions, their qualifications, the material they use to teach, the kind of tests conduct and the like. This kind of rigorous and regular monitoring and assessment should also help maintain a certain quality of education.

While a unified National Education Policy can certainly provide the roadmap to better education, the focus needs to shift towards state-specific education policies that can tackle some of the issues listed above. Decentralization will allow different functionaries to carry out their tasks more efficiently instead of operating at one, mammoth scale. Initiatives by the governments of Odisha and Jammu and Kashmir along with the kind of work being carried out by Katha Lab School should be thought of as models that can be emulated throughout the country, by understanding and recognizing specific educational needs.

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