“Indian students fare badly,” “Indian students second to last” were some of the recent headlines summarising the performance of 15-year-olds from Himachal Pradesh and Tamil Nadu in an international “test.” This was sufficient for a lot of chat on the internet along with many thoughtful and insightful comments.

Forget about the many things we do not know —why these two States were even chosen for the testing; the background of the schools from where the children came or of the kids themselves, whether they hail from rural or urban settings. And more important, even forget the fact that standardised testing scores are slowly being discarded by top universities in the West having come to the conclusion that, among other things, the scores obtained do not accurately reflect the knowledge or potential of a student. A good all-round student need not be a good standardised test taker!

A critical look at our educational system at the school level is required if the country is to really emerge as a knowledge-based economy. It is one thing to look at the so-called Islands of Excellence in the disciplines of engineering, medicine and management and pat ourselves on the back. But it is quite another story to start examining the rut and rot that has set in our educational system at the school level. And this is especially the case in a rural setting where a primary, secondary or high school tucked away in the boondocks has virtually little to look up to.

There are numerous things that have to be addressed in talking about the educational system before we even start condemning the ability of our students. Let me just address three of them:

First, the need to emphasise substance over form, if quality and all-round education is going to be imparted to schoolchildren. For good measure, there is an over-emphasis on “form” in our system — teachers must be dressed in a particular fashion, must go to class on time and stay there for the entire period and stick strictly to the syllabus; and students must be made to either mechanically take down notes and spit it back during examination time or learn “by heart” what is put out in a textbook. There is nothing wrong in asking a teacher to be on time, come properly dressed or making him/her stay for the entire duration of the class. But the bottom line is rarely considered: staying for the duration in class versus what has been actually taught.

Second is the absolute imperative of having quality teachers, especially in government schools. Criticising 15-year-olds for not measuring up but looking the other way when it comes to quality teachers is simply wrong and pathetic. And the media reports of rampant corruption in recruitment are simply horrifying, to say the least. How can we ask for quality students when incompetents in search of “job security” weasel their way into the system?

Finally, government schools, especially in rural India, need better infrastructure rather than the simple incentive of a mid-day meal to children for just coming to school however commendable this programme is. Modern education goes far beyond providing computers, laptops and tablets. What is the use of filling up the classrooms with these gadgets when there are no competent persons to teach the kids how to operate them?

It is indeed a long way to go in cleansing the system and in the meantime we have to stop this comparison of kids from India with these in the West or Asia Pacific. Other developed countries have had a solid educational system for several decades; we have been around several decades but are still groping for a sound educational system. It is time to wake up and smell the coffee!

(Having taught in a private university and in a private school, the writer currently teaches at a government high school and can be reached at arul.archana25@gmail.com)