The education system needs change, not fine-tuning: Kasturirangan on the draft NEP

The draft National Education Policy was released by the government recently.

Updated - December 04, 2021 10:37 pm IST

Published - June 27, 2019 01:18 am IST

Here is the first part of an interview with Dr. K. Kasturirangan, the chairperson of the drafting committee and former head of ISRO. Here he talks about the formation of the committee, the school system and why such radical reforms are needed.

Read the second part of the interview here.

Could you tell me a bit about how the committee was constituted? How was the document made?

It’s a great pleasure to talk to The Hindu . The work on the present policy started in Srimathi Smriti Irani’s time. An enormous exercise was mounted during her time to elicit opinions from a wide cross-section of society. That was an exhaustive exercise spread over I think three to four years. Then they set up this committee of TSR Subramaniam to look into it. Parallelly, there was a report that came out of the ministry of human resource development (MHRD). This formed the basis for the way in which the policy had to be framed.

Dramatic changes have happened in the last twenty-five years. Changes have taken place economically socially, strategic demands, many other… certainly the country has moved much further. Into a 2 trillion economy moving towards a five trillion economy. Also a digitalized society is around the corner. Are we prepared for that kind of thing?.

In this context I was called by the minister – at that time it was Prakash Javadekar. There were some issues with the Subramaniam report which we were asked to revisit. We also had the MHRD report and the earlier homework. We were asked to use all this and come up with a report which does not have issues of this kind, and which can also withstand the next twenty years of India’s development. And with fine tuning it can even go up to thirty years.

But when we studied it, the members felt what was needed was not a fine-tuning of the existing policies but a relook in its totality. So, we virtually started from a clean slate but without overlooking the fact that there were lot of information and ideas in the old ones.

It suggests a number of radical changes to existing system, for instance, the draft policy talks of the 3-8 age group as the foundational stage of education. Studies have shown that in the 3-5 age group, generalization is just setting in, their bodily growth and sensory experience is very different from the 5-8 group. Is this addressed anywhere in the policy?

The child’s brain starts developing the day the child enters this world. You have the 0-3 period when it tries to comprehend sound, making a meaning of it, trying to learn the mother tongue, in its own way. There is a traditional way in which a child is taught at home, creating sounds, creating communication in a peculiar way a child will appreciate. These are all part of the training it gets at home. 3-6 years, is the time when the brain grows very fast. By six years, 85% of the brain has already matured. This is a very critical period of learning time. In this period according to how you stimulate appropriate regions of the brain, you will see child [develops different aptitudes] These are all because of differential stimulation the brain receives with respect to the ability to learn from the outside world. This is quite a realistic way in which the brain evolves. The child cannot be blamed for this.

By the age of eight or so, there were differences in the growth, because of the way in which it has been taught. The education is tuned for a linear growth, whereas this [development] is not linear. This is an important aspect which has been overlooked.

Are you not talking of school preparedness rather than child development?

The two are not unrelated. At 3 years, you have ability for play based thinking activity based and play based, which are not regular learning. That is what makes the child grow further in early learning.


I talked about brain growth and how it becomes saturated if you don’t take advantage of it. The fact is you have to correct these differences in brain growth by ensuring you have a specialized attention.

The foundational period is a critical period. It is where we ensure that the child enters higher [3-8] classes fully prepared. This is a developmentally appropriate education which we carry forward into the next three years and the next three years. Slowly you move into more communication, and the ability to look into books and then ability to interact with teachers. These are what we try to move towards with an outcome-based assessment.

You spoke about the Kothari recommendation of school complexes. While it sounds good in the urban and semi-urban terrain. But what about the varied terrains where access can be a significant problem? You mention that cycles may be provided and so on. But is this feasible. Think of a Dalit family who lives in a remote area. Is it a good idea to close down an existing school and provide a school complex which is far away?

It is not about closing down existing schools. Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan had put forth that within specified distance there should be a school. If you really look at it, schools have come up. But there are many schools which have only six students. There are many schools in which there is only one teacher. This is not the idea of a school education. There is no playground, there is no idea of a societal interface with the child. That is not expected in the policy we have drawn.

Wherever you have a cluster – maybe urban and peri-urban [areas] – certainly we can move on this concept [school complexes] a little fast… You talked about Dalits – for that matter, any underprivileged people, we need to make sure by 2025-2026 that there is no illiterate left in this country. We will cover literacy and numeracy in our school system by 2025, if I remember that number.

We need to upgrade schools, bring in more teachers - this is not possible with five children and ten children. We need to make the complexes through existing system by improving it, with minimal norms

for a school in terms of teachers, ability of teacher to learn and upgrade themselves, work with anganwadi and other systems in the nearby places, work with middle and high schools elsewhere. But slowly move them into working together and people in the community can also be mentors to the schools. Currently, community connectivity with schools is practically nothing. We need to bring that culture.

It will grow fast in the most easy places. But that will give information on how to operate in the more complex systems. We are not talking about overnight change. We cannot do that in a huge country with such a diversity.

Geographically, if they are not easily connected, we have to provide those kinds of facilities like cycle or some other. But that is how development of India is.

Most importantly teachers are not isolated people any longer. They can internally decide on many things. These are ways in which we should move into the next step of an optimal, viable and efficient education system.

Do you have some insight into why the stated aims have not been achieved by earlier systems so far. Is the crisis of learning in the country only due to mismanagement, the fact that people in the system have not realized that literacy and numeracy are fundamental, the non-viability of having small schools… are these the fundamental reasons?

We wanted to create schools so that everyone has access – every few kilometres or so, like the drinking water mission every 1.6 km – These kind of numbers are put. These are based on input definitions of what a system should be. If I took a building of so much area, we already think we have established a system of education. But the story of education goes much beyond buildings and infrastructure.

Our concept is an outcome-based education. Not only school but everywhere. Input gets less [importance]. It is feasible, and we have consulted people who were part of school education policies and systems in this country. They feel this is something we should move. We have put a lot of importance on volunteers, local people. They will motivate the parents, telling them “You should go and study in that school”. Overall culture needs to change.

Ultimately this will go because everyone wants a good education. But we don’t want to slow down this.

You mentioned the complexity of the country. There are several iniquities which cannot be ignored. Why does the policy have just half a page on education of Dalits and OBCs.

At different places we have touched upon the education of underprivileged classes. Including setting up of special education scholarships for them, special teachers being selected out of them for local requirement – don’t see just the title of Dalit or underprivileged and read the paragraph under that. Read across the document and you will see in several places we revisit this question with respect to that area.

We had a special person from Indira Gandhi National Tribal University at Amarakantak – professor Kattimani. He has a real depth of knowledge about tribal education and what we should do. It has transformed into major policy decisions in this document.

I don’t think anyone has gone into such depth on tribal and underprivileged education as we have done.

Typical problems faced by Dalit children is different in nature from that faced by economically backward people from a different caste. Do you address this?

We have not tried to create a silo of this kind.

You know, if you bring the entire solution of a Dalit student into the educational process, I feel it may be a tall order for education to deal with it. For this is a societal problem in the broader context. What we have tried to make sure is that Dalits do not suffer for want of opportunities. What are the opportunities? Access to education – you can go to nearby places and study as good as others. We have not made any distinction of it. Secondly, Dalits will get 100 per cent scholarship. Many small concessions the government gives will all be retained, and, if necessary, they will be upgraded.

But to bring in Dalits everytime… even they may not like being treated like that. I know many people who are doing well in society. They are proud of living as responsible and active members of the society. I use them all the time in my mind to make sure we don’t unnecessarily draw lines. I think today, in a modern India and the way we are looking at people, these [differences] are slowly going to melt. A twenty-year programme like this for a ten-trillion economy – dalits will be enjoying probably the best status in this country with their own intelligence, efforts etc. I think they will be asking for no special concession.

This is my personal feeling. But we have not assumed that in trying to make sure that this education is accessible to them from all angles – financial, cultural, social and many other parameters. They are no less qualified than anyone and there are no less opportunities for them compared to other segments. That much we have taken note of.

If there are any particular areas, we would like the public to tell us to strengthen this area.

About board exams: In the present system everything depends on the board exam so it is considered a “high stakes” feature and hence adds to the stress of children. But the suggested frequency is three board exams in a semester for eight semesters. Isn’t the load being increased far more?

They can take the board exams as soon as they are through with a particular area. If they are not happy with the outcome of that exam, in another six months they can take it again. There is nothing sacrosanct about writing it at a particular time and doing well and that their whole future is ruined if they don’t perform well [once].

Right now we have put down two or three times a year. Once this [the examination] is completely digitized, the youngster can walk into a place and give the exam. And if he finds it is a good mark he has got, he has completed.

Another aspect is that he gets more and more credits as he passes more exams, these credits can be carried forward.

So through a method of crediting your activity, flexibility in taking the exam, [which will become] even more flexible with time, we think this system provides the minimal pressure. And we do away with rote learning – it is a formative test.

A more general thing is that learning should be enjoyed. It should not be a punishment for the student.

But can this not be achieved with in the existing system? Because even given the many exams and the flexibility, it is the cumulative performance that will matter when going to the undergraduate level. IS it not that the “high stakes” is due to there being few available undergraduate programmes and the resultant heavy competition? Why not just expand that within the existing system?

Existing system has intrinsic issues. There are several thousand, or even more, schools having merely six or eight students. Or having only one teacher. What kind of model can you develop around this?

Not that they are not good. CBSE is a very good system, we have government schools. There are some good private schools which have got their own role to play. But if you look at it with respect to a rural area or underprivileged area, there is much to be done.

We are changing things. A four-year secondary education is not parallel to the secondary education we are accustomed to. There is a three-month connecting period to higher education. You [the student] are trying to enter into a new regime of higher education by making sure that whatever is the gap between what you have learnt in school in terms of sciences, humanities, arts and crafts, social sciences, as well as limited professional and vocational education [is bridged].

The school examination system has to be changed. The examination system is difficult because youngsters are stressed by the rote-learning approach. Teachers have to be retrained or even new teachers have to be brought in because the pedagogy is going to be very different. The curriculum has to be looked at.

If you look at the whole system it has to undergo a change, so fine tuning the existing system to achieve the level of aspiration projected here doesn’t look to be feasible, prima facie.


In the second part of the interview , Dr Kasturirangan speaks about centralisation of the educational system, the public school concept, modifications of the college and university systems, research and more.

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