There is no doubt that the school education sector is beset with huge problems. However, whether the dismal performance is on account of policy gap or there are other factors that are responsible for the current state of affairs is a moot point.

Let us first try to understand what has not happened in the education sector. Why has it not happened? And, how can it happen (whether through policy intervention or otherwise)?

Two things have certainly happened during the current millennium. The infrastructure (school buildings) has shown remarkable improvement though there is still a long way to go. And, thanks to the mid-day-meal, we have managed to get the child to the school.

However, what is appalling is the poor quality of education that is imparted in most of the government schools. This is evidenced by the fact that the learning outcomes have actually come down during the past decade despite enormous amount of investments. The number of teachers has gone up substantially and the average pupil-teacher ratio comes close to the required levels.

However, this does not solve the problem of quality. To begin with, a large number of teachers are not qualified to teach, yet they are teaching. According to a rough estimate, out of eight million teachers around 1.4 million fall in this category. Politics has seeped into this cadre in the most insidious manner resulting in skewed distribution of teachers in most of the States as the tendency is to hang in and around urban areas.

The Right to Education Act did precious little on this front. In fact, the legislation made the task of delivering quality education complex and difficult. The focus of the Act is primarily on ‘inputs’ (like infrastructure) rather than ‘outcomes’. It has created an adversarial role between ‘public’ and ‘private’ schools. The Act mandates under Section 12(1)(c) that even private schools “shall admit in Class I, to the extent of at least 25 per cent of the strength of that class, children belonging to weaker section and disadvantaged group.” The manner in which reimbursement is to be provided has created a number of problems.

The norms and standards prescribed in the schedule for a school are far removed from ground reality. What is perhaps desirable has been made mandatory. This has resulted in a phenomenal increase in the number of teachers. During 2015-16, there were 39,608 government schools that had less than 10 children but each school was mandated to have minimum of two teachers.

The budget private schools, most of whom are doing a great job in imparting education, are under enormous pressure to meet the prescribed standards or face closure. No attempt was made while enacting this legislation to look at the ground reality.

Focus on regulation

The consequences have been disastrous. On an average, an amount of around ₹10,000 per child gets spent in government schools. The budget schools do it for much less and impart as good, if not better, education. Unfortunately, the focus so far has primarily been on regulation (legislations are perhaps meant for that) and not on development of the private sector. Consequently, even after eight years of enactment, the country is none the better than what it was.

The RTE Act has done more damage to delivery of education. Section 16 of the Act provides that “No child admitted in a school shall be held back in any class or expelled from school till completion of elementary education.”

The ‘expulsion’ part can be understood but not holding back a child in a class has meant that a large number of children are getting promoted without acquiring the necessary attributes. The model of ‘no detention’ was apparently picked up from the West and transplanted in this country without taking into account the objective conditions obtaining here.

Yet again, the consequences have been devastating as there is a huge bottleneck getting created at Class X where the pass percentage has plummeted. The States were not even given freedom to take a call on the issue. The government has subsequently decided to provide an option to the States and the amendment is under consideration of Parliament.

A new Education Policy is round the corner. However, what needs to be understood is whether there is a need for a policy to address the issues that afflict school education. Most of the action relating to education lies in the States. In any case, the country is too diverse to consider a single mandate by way of policy for the entire country. If a teacher does not go to a school in Kerala, he could well be “lynched” but in some of the States of northern India, they consider it their right not to go to the school. There are instances of these regular teachers employing a “substitute” to represent them and even teach on their behalf.

What is actually required is an action plan clearly outlining: What needs to be done? How it will be done? Who will do it? And, by when it will be done? The roles of respective entities should be clearly defined so that the performance can be assessed. One has often wondered why should only the Centre assess the performance of States? Why can’t it be the other way round?

Teacher-focussed plan

The action plan needs to focus on the teacher who plays a pivotal role in imparting education. The entire value chain needs to be looked at, understood and interventions clearly outlined. Beginning with pre-service training, to selection process, to in-service training, to transfer and posting, to engagement of teachers in non-educational activities, to their promotional avenues and morale will need to be looked at.

An action plan for each State will have to be worked out in detail, clearly outlining the roles of the Centre and the respective State government. Intervention for each State will vary from State to State. Unlike the present dispensation, there will have to be sufficient flexibility in the central schemes to accommodate the differences among States. The whole approach has to be outcome based rather than input based as has been the case so far.

Our country has been obsessed with the western world. We had looked at Finland, England, Scotland, Holland and all the lands of the world but not at motherland. A lot of wonderful work is being done within the country but has so far gone unnoticed. “Policy” cannot help in this regard.

What needs to be done is to facilitate identification, understanding and scaling of successful practices. If these home-grown practices have succeeded in the prevalent objective conditions, the chances of their replication and scaling are pretty high as compared to an ‘imported’ idea or practice.

What is also required is to learn from States, like Rajasthan, that have turned it around through some remarkable State level interventions both administrative and financial.

Policy debates provide food for intellectual stimulation but what matters is what is done on the ground. Hence, the dire need for an action plan.

The writer is former Union Coal and Education Secretary