National Education Policy: Why Education Reforms in India have Failed to Make the Grade

Poor teacher training, lack of access, and a focus on “skills” rather than learning currently plague India’s education system.


The recently released draft National Education Policy (NEP), 2019, has proved contentious. The initial draft sought to make Hindi a compulsory language in non-Hindi speaking states, but owing to widespread discontent, this clause was later dropped. Further, the draft also recommends introducing Sanskrit at all levels of learning. While the draft NEP has been commended for some of its recommendations, including restructuring primary school education, it has failed to address the issue of learning levels of students, and teacher and institutional accountability. Moreover, the draft’s articulation of a “liberal” education is one that is expected to benefit the NDA government’s “Skill India” project. By implementing a vocational education/training (VET) system, the project plans on skilling 400 million people.




The 2018 Pratham–Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) report highlighted India’s dismal record on the quality of education that is available: 73% of class 8 children cannot read beyond class 2 level material, and only 44% of them are able to solve basic arithmetic. 

This reading list looks at previous education policies and other fundamental issues of Indian education. 

1) What has the RTE Achieved?

While the Right to Education Act was passed in 2009, educational infrastructure and teacher training remains woefully inadequate. Writing in 2017, Disha Nawani says that only 9.54% of schools in India are fully compliant with RTE norms on infrastructure and teacher availability. 

One of the primary reasons why the RtE Act has failed to achieve its goals is that there are no dedicated financial resources for its implementation. Even when the act was passed, it was not accompanied by a financial memorandum to ensure the availability of the requisite financial resources for its implementation. Additionally, budgetary allocations to the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA), the primary body for implementing the act, have witnessed a gradual decline (from₹23,873 crore in 2012–13 to₹22,500 crore in 2015–16).

Further, Nawani also argues that RTE norms on access of education are either slow in implementation or are misguided. 

There are no data available on the number of children from marginalised communities who have been given special training—as envisioned in the act—and have actually gained entry into formal schools … According to Desai et al (2010), there is a stark social disparity in education, which impacts enrolment and dropout rates. Dalit, Adivasi, and Muslim children are far less likely to enrol in schools and slightly more likely to drop out. Thus, while 94% of children from forward castes and 96% of children from other religious groups were enrolled, the figures for Dalits, Adivasis, and Muslims were 83%, 77%, and 76%, respectively.

2) Can Skill Training Substitute an Education?

Radhika Saraf writes that introducing “skilling” programmes in secondary education is in line with the government’s desire to turn India into the “skill capital of the world,” which seeks to differentiate education from economic growth. Saraf argues that such skill training for blue-collar jobs will only serve to perpetuate inequalities, as such jobs are at the bottom of the employment hierarchy. Saraf contends that the state’s push to fuel growth via the informal sector ensures that mobility that the poor might benefit from by education is restricted.

The emphasis on skills training at such an early age would serve to restrict social mobility and is a departure from recognising the intrinsic value of education which aims to enable every child to reach her full potential. For first generation learners—historically poor families, for those who live on the peripheries of globalisation, and for those who suffer from multiple disadvantages of their socio-economic being—education provides acculturation and is a means of social mobility and allows the transcending of class and caste hindrances.  

3) What Does Education Mean for a Girl Child?

Krishna Kumar writes that the state fails to consider issues outside the classroom as being detrimental to a girl’s education. For them, equality is achieved as long as there is equal strength of both sexes in the classroom. Kumar argues that the state is reluctant to seek equality when it involves engaging in culture.

In matters related to curricula, textbooks, and teacher preparation, the state has made a certain effort to focus on girls without addressing girlhood, that is, the culturally constructed life of girls. Neither male nor female teachers are equipped to deal with the conflicts and contradictions that arise in the annual calendar and in everyday school life between the aims of education and girlhood. While education implies the pursuit of aims chosen by a girl, girlhood implies the pursuit of matrimony and motherhood as the highest aims of a woman’s life. The school has little interest in a girl’s life at home. By practising neutrality or non-discrimination bet;ween boys and girls, the school overlooks the consequences of the lives they lead at home.

4) Does Failing Children Ensure Learning?

If children are to learn and understand, they must do so at their own pace, aided by an assessment structure that does not look upon schooling as either a “pass” or “fail”. Writing on the “no detention policy,” Rohit Dhankar argues for an alternative curriculum, which,  the author says, should be seen as a continuous curve, and should not be separated by class or year. 

The only necessity that remains is that at the end of five years (completion of primary) and the end of eight years (completion of elementary) of education, there have to be some clearly defined and expected standards. A child gets the certificate of completion only if she has achieved those standards. Let us note here that a certificate that does not guarantee defined learning is nothing more than a worthless piece of paper. Therefore, the school has to ensure that such certificates are issued only on the basis of learning and not on the basis of years spent in school. 

Further, Dhankar argues that rather than a class-based structure to schooling, a better idea would be a “vertical group of learners (VGL).” This system does not recognise grade, but a child’s “learning ability” in different disciplines.

Children range in age from, say, six to nine years. Their period of study at school may also range from 1 to 4/5 years and are therefore naturally at different levels of learning. Obviously, there are smaller subgroups of children in the same VGL, who are more or less at the same level of learning, of similar ages and have been in school for a similar number of years. On the other hand, there are also children more or less advanced than any particular child, creating an opportunity to help the younger and getting help from the older children in the same group.  

5) Are Teachers to Blame for the Standard of Education?

Since teacher salaries occupy the largest share of education budget, Protiva Kundu writes that teachers are constantly criticised for children faring poorly in school. However, Kundu argues that the focus of criticism should be towards the state: poor allocation of funds for teacher training has failed to better teacher education, and state-sponsored measures such as in-service teacher training are only half-measures. 

Making teachers solely accountable for the poor quality of education in government schools is not only unfair, but also demotivating. Controlling teacher salaries will certainly not guarantee accountability. Rather, there is a pressing need to address the issue of teacher shortage by recruiting a cadre of qualified teachers. Improvement in learning outcomes can only be expected if states allocate a substantial amount of resources in building the infrastructure for teacher training and for the training of trainers. In the absence of progressive changes in school education, the potential demographic advantage may just turn into a major liability.  

6) Is Privatisation a Panacea?

A contemporary education policy needs to consider democratic and educational aspirations of the youth, and provide concrete steps for the realisation of these endeavours. S Ramamurthy and K Pandiyan argue that rather than address issues plaguing the Indian education system, the National Policy of Education, 2016, looks to privatise education, and create a neo-liberal education system that is market-oriented, and where government oversight is minimal. 

These manifestations of privatisation are: the state’s withdrawal, proliferation of the purely private sector or of self-financing programmes, removal of aided college identity, creation of private universities, deregulation of public-funded institutions through policy neglect, the further strengthening of the private educational management, deregulation of checks and balances, market control of universities and paving the way for the entry of foreign finance capital into the sphere of higher education.  

Further, Ramamurthy and Pandiyan contend that the state’s inability to spend 6% of India’s GDP on education, as recommended by the Kothari Commission, has led them to invite private players in education.

There lies no scope for the enactment of a central legislation to regulate private enterprise in higher education, but only the alarm of their proliferation. Against the non-contextualisation of funding, government colleges are expected to undergo partial privatisation in one form or another. The era of no tuition fee would soon come to an end, paving the ground for the operation of the cost-effectiveness theory. All these are not mere conjectures, but are explicitly implicit in the formulations of the policy. 

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