NITI Aayog, the Government of India’s think-tank published a comprehensive report, SDG India Index 2021, giving an insight on how various states were performing on the seventeen sustainable development goals. A brief look at various indicators around education in this report suggests a very herculean task that India as a nation is facing. Only six states in India have ‘80% or more students in grade VIII achieving at least a minimum proficiency level in terms of nationally defined learning outcomes to be attained by the pupils at the end of the grade’. The gross enrolment ratio in higher secondary, which is grades 11 & 12, is just over fifty percent. The National Education Policy (NEP) 2020 of India had previously mentioned, ‘a large proportion of students currently in elementary school estimated to be over 50 million — 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 Indian numerals. If action is not taken soon, over the next few years, then we could lose 100 million or more students from the learning system to illiteracy.’ The SDG India Index or the NEP 2020 did not account for the learning loss due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) Report 2021 published by the United Nations estimates that ‘Globally Covid-19 has wiped out twenty years of education gains. One hundred million more children than before fail to demonstrate basic reading skills. Many risk never returning to school; some are forced into child marriage or child labour.’
As the world is gradually recovering from the pandemic, the response to support the most vulnerable sections of society has been slow and insufficient. Education of our children in the past two years has suffered the most and has impacted their learning. This predicament has been accelerated by the technological and geographical divides. The current education ecosystem, with its uni-dimensional focus on rote learning and over-emphasis on marks scored in text-book based factual exams as the only evidence of a student’s potential, is unsuitable to mitigate this crisis.
At a time when India celebrates its 75 years of independence, we can not repeat the mistakes of post-1947 by ignoring school education. Our response has to be unconventional and would require lateral thinking. NEP 2020 provides an opportunity to the Government of India to look beyond immediate short term gains and focus on long term goals. The document highlights the importance of ‘learning how to learn’. It says, ‘Globalization and the demands of a knowledge economy and a knowledge society call for emphasis on the need for acquisition of new skills by learners on a regular basis, for them to ‘learn how to learn’ and become lifelong learners.’
Other interventions suggested in NEP 2020 like shifting from the traditional ‘10+2’ school infrastructure to ‘5+4+4+3’ model or the concept of ‘school complex’ are radical and can bring desired results. But this will amount to wishful thinking if not backed by the appropriate infrastructure and financial support. There is an immediate requirement to strengthen basic school infrastructure and equip schools with appropriate information and communications technology (ICT) tools. Training the necessary human resources would require greater financial and technical collaboration. The use of technology can enhance the learning experience but we require skilled teachers to make digital learning impactful. Programs like massive open online courses (MOOC) can help in continuous learning and upgrading skills but can not become an alternative to school education.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced ‘Pradhan Mantri Schools For Rising India (PM-SHRI) Yojana’ on September 5, 2022, to develop and upgrade 14500 schools across the country. These schools will impart holistic education and focus on ‘discovery oriented, learning centric way of teaching’. This is a step in the right direction but the question to be asked is, if it is enough for a country of a continental size like India! While the Indian Constitution mentions education as part of the concurrent list, a lot gets done at the level of States. It is important to maneuver the bureaucracy and teachers’ unions at the level of States to make any major shifts. Their active participation and involvement is necessary to implement NEP 2020 in letter and spirit.
Educating the young generation of India is at the heart of India’s development story and we can not aspire to be a major global economy in the future without focussing on our schools in the present.
(The article was published by Chintan-India Foundation Blogs)