Almost five decades after India first formulated its National Education Policy, the Ministry for Human Resource Development appears to be gearing up for another revision to this policy document, and not a moment too soon. The state of education, particularly in the critical primary and pre-primary years, is far from satisfactory. Since the early 2000s, successive governments kept up momentum on a sustained investment push into schools in a bid to resolve what was viewed as a supply-side problem. As The Hindu ’s recent series on primary education, Learning Deficit, highlighted, it was hoped that through this effort children in elementary education would be provided with classrooms, uniforms, textbooks and other teaching materials, and a larger contingent of teachers. Thus, this approach hoped to tackle low enrolment rates. Led by government schools, public investment in education helped raise the gross enrolment ratio from 81.6 per cent of children in the 6-14 age group in 2000 to 96 per cent or more since 2008. Yet it soon became evident that getting children into school was only the first step, especially when gaping holes remained in the system. Among these, the barriers to high-quality, equitably-distributed primary education include: high dropout rates, especially for girls; teacher absenteeism and low teaching quality; and outmoded pedagogies and insufficient resources to implement contemporary teaching methods.
The problem of poor learning outcomes is of particular concern, for it is a structural issue pertaining to the design of curricula and ingrained rote learning methods. These have been the backbone of India’s teaching tradition for over half a century. But will this help create the kind of workforce that India wishes to develop: nimble, highly-skilled and ready for the digital age, the global economy and new pathways of occupational mobility? Or will the sheer weight of an outdated, colonial-era education system make Indians too sluggish and skill-deprived to cope in a highly competitive global arena? While efforts of the present and previous government to boost the quality of learning in higher and vocational education must be appreciated, policymakers ought not to ignore early childhood education and primary schooling, the phases during which the most important cognitive development milestones are attained. The tenth Annual Status of Education Report found that in 2014 the proportion of Class 3 and Class 5 students in rural areas who could read a Class 2 textbook was 23.6 and 48.1 per cent, respectively. Until Activity-Based Learning and “teaching at the right level”, tools for real learning and skill-absorption, become the norm, hopes of the country becoming a great power may well remain a dream.