The education system in India: promises to keep.

[This is an excerpt from an article in The Round Table: The Commonwealth Journal of International Affairs.]


The completion of seventy-five years is a time of celebration, a time of rejoicing for a country the size, diversity and complexity of India, which began its journey as a newly decolonized democratic republic there three quarters of a century ago. With a population of over 360 million, but an average literacy rate of only 18.3% and a female literacy rate of 8.9% (Census of India, 1951), India still had a long way to go. Today, the average literacy rate is 73% and the female literacy rate is 65.5% (Census of India, 2011), with over 1.5 million schools catering to over 200 million children (U-DISE, 2017-18). The education levels of Scheduled Castes (SC) and Scheduled Tribes (ST) – among the most educationally marginalized communities – also showed a substantial increase to 66.1% and 59% (India Census , 2011) respectively during this period.

In addition to improving access to education, this period also saw a variety of innovations in pedagogy and teaching practices that brought great value to fundamental debates about what constitutes a good education, in especially in the context of a country like India, which is characterized by multiple layers of disparities and continues to struggle to build itself as a new nation.

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Among the new ideas of this period, the “Nai Taleem” (new education), launched by Mohandas Gandhi, is remarkable. In arguing against the colonial system, Gandhi called for a “national education” based on a revolutionary change in approach that was less book-based and more manual-skill based. As reported by Young India (July 11, 1929), Gandhi believed that “when our children are admitted to school, they need not use the slate, the pencil and the books, but simple village tools , which they can manipulate freely and profitably”. And again, in Harijan (January 9, 1937), “The utterly false idea that intelligence can only be developed by reading books should give way to the truth that the most rapid development of the mind can be achieved by learning the work of the craftsman in a scientific framework”. way’.

Unsurprisingly, these ideas met with resistance, especially from Tagore, who was in favor of learning English as well as modern science and technology from the West. Nehru’s modernizing vision, for a nation willing to establish itself in the modern world by shedding its traditional and unscientific image, rejected Gandhi’s ideas, instead seeing a modern Western education as the way forward. “Nai Taleem” was therefore never formally adopted, but its contribution to improving the understanding of education in a broader sense is worth considering.

Other innovative ideas were also tested in different parts of the country at different times over the following decades, but they also remained experimental without being extended or even pursued beyond their trial period, for example, Nalli Kalli in Andhra Pradesh and its modified form, activity-based learning (ABL) in Tamil Nadu. While these and other innovative ideas all had their merits and improved the quality of education during the time they were used, they could not be adopted on a wider scale. The reason for this is probably in the way the Indian education system has been designed and structured.

In this article, I take a closer look at the Indian education system – its strengths and weaknesses and how it has contributed to the current situation in terms of educational successes and shortcomings.

An overview

The Indian Constitution sees education as a ‘competing’ subject – within India’s federal system, with central and state structures having a say in its governance. The 73rd and 74th Amendments to the Indian Constitution, introduced in 1992, created an additional level of government, due to which education was further delegated to panchayats (village councils) and local urban bodies – the third levels of governance rural and urban respectively.

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The three levels of Indian governance are aided by various bodies. National and state councils for research and training (National Council for Educational Research and Training – NCERT and State Council for Educational Research and Training – SCERT) provide support in formulating programs , the preparation of textbooks and the training of teachers. The National Institute of Educational Planning and Administration (NIEPA) and the Central Advisory Council for Education (CABE), advisory bodies at the national level, guide the Ministry of Education in policy matters, with the District Institutes for Education and Training (DIETs), at the district level to bring training closer to where it is needed.

The Indian state oversees 1.55 million schools. Additionally, it has jurisdiction over a system of Central Schools (Kendriya Vidyalayas) and Sainik Schools for the children of central government employees and the armed forces respectively; Sarvodaya Vidyalayas (SV), Navodaya Vidyalayas (NV) and other “model” schools for particularly gifted children; as well as boarding schools for children from tribal families and Kasturba Gandhi Balika Vidyalayas for girls from academically backward blocks (EBB).

The Indian state has also launched various flagship programs to make education inclusive, accessible and standardized. The Midday Meals Program (MDM), the largest school feeding program in the world, serves approximately 116 million children every day. The Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA) or Education for All, launched in 2000, has established a state-level structure of ‘societies’ that provide academic support to schools. It has its own distinct set of frameworks and resources that spans from state to district and even cluster level. The District Information System for Education (DISE) produces “report cards” outlining basic school information, available at the click of a button.

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It is important to note that the Indian education system is not solely dependent on the state. Non-state actors have always had a place in Indian education, and in recent decades their role has grown dramatically – in establishing schools and providing services and policies.

There is no doubt that the improvements that have taken place since 1947 have been made possible by this elaborate structure of state and non-state actors that oversees and advances the Indian education system. However, India is far from fulfilling the constitutional promise of universal education, as required by the 86th Amendment to the Constitution which made basic education a basic right in 2002, as well as the Education Act 2009. Right to Education (RTE), which added a law mandating to provide basic education based on a set of minimum rules and standards (Government of India, 2022). Moreover, India has not been able to achieve the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) related to education.

In fact, there are at least 32 million Indian children who are still out of school. This is one of the highest rates in the world (NSSO, 2017-18). Those who are educated have learning levels well below the required levels (ASER Report, 2020). Dropout rates are staggering: the average annual dropout rate is 17.06% at the secondary level (U-DISE, 2017-18). Marginalized communities are particularly disadvantaged, with a dropout rate of 21.8% for Scheduled Castes (SC), 22.3% for Scheduled Tribes (ST) and 24% for Muslims, implying that few of these social groups reach higher levels. Education (U-DISE, 2017-18).

The flaws in the system have been exposed as India grapples with COVID-19, the worst health crisis it has faced since becoming a nation – a crisis that has spread to the educational system. In the words of UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, “We were already facing a learning crisis before the pandemic. We now face a generational catastrophe… that could undermine decades of progress and exacerbate entrenched inequalities.” Those words couldn’t be truer for India, where schools have been closed for a year. Thousands of people have lost access to education (Azim Premji Foundation, 2020), many may never return to school (S. Seethalakshmi, 2020). Clearly, the system, elaborate as it seems, has failed to deliver on its goals and promises.

Kiran Bhatty works at the Center for Policy Research, New Delhi, India.