Kapil Sibal has spoken. In one succinct statement, the human resource development minister has proposed scrapping the class X board exams, getting rid of the state boards in favour of one centralized board, changing from marks to grades, radically restructuring higher education, allowing foreign universities, expanding the role of the private sector and providing equal opportunity for all students. All this, as well as making education compulsory!
He is being extremely brave. None of his proposed reforms is new and some have been knocking around awaiting government action for decades. Most have been considered in the past and shelved.
The change to one centralized board of examination is considered by many to be neither desirable nor practicable. At present, the Central Board of Secondary Education, or CBSE, only serves a tiny minority of children and a vast majority opt for the numerous state boards, the National Institute of Open Schooling, or NIOS, or the ICSE/ISC (Indian Certificate of Secondary Education/Indian School Certificate) programmes.
For the wealthy, the trend is towards the International General Certificate of Secondary Education, or IGCSE, and the International Baccalaureate.
In the past, the proposed move to one centralized state board has been vigorously resisted by the states, which have argued that numerous local differences must be incorporated into any teaching/examination system and the more local the influence on education, the better.
The minister’s desire to relieve the stress we are putting our children under is commendable and any consideration that takes us away from exam-centred education must be welcomed. However, most of the stress comes not from having to sit in an exam, but from having to do extremely well in these in order to stand a chance of getting into a good college/job. The minister does recognize this and proposes to revamp and expand the number of colleges. However, his proposals will not create the many millions of good-quality places that the country needs, and the vested interests in the present system will seek to maintain the status quo and produce strong resistance.
Scrapping class X board exams will require development of a different method of assessing and reporting how well a child has done in school—a daunting prospect for individual schools and one requiring good planning and a massive amount of work, time and resources.
Replacing the marking system by grades for classes IX and X in schools affiliated to CBSE is a tiny step in the right direction, but may not be greeted by many parents as a step forward. For example, at the moment, they know if their child obtained 89% or 80% in the exam. Under the new system, they will only know that their child scored between 80% and 89%.
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The minister’s desire for equal education is also commendable but, sadly, our education system is designed to give a massive advantage to the children of the wealthy. Providing a modicum of equality of opportunity would cost far more than the country can afford in the foreseeable future, and a complete restructuring of the education system. Similarly with the minister’s wish for compulsory education of all children.
Only 30% of Indian adults have spent their childhood in school. Primary school enrolment is now 100%, but some 55% drop out before the beginning of secondary school, and in secondary school, attendance is only 50%. If all our children spent their childhood in school, the student-teacher ratio would be 168:1—at least 10 times more than it is in many countries.
Providing education for all our children until the age of 14 will need a stupendous level of investment to develop the many thousands of new schools and millions more new teachers.
Previous governments more or less gave up on providing education for all our children. In many areas, education is replaced by literacy schemes under the pretence that being able to read and write your own name is somehow similar to having an education. Schooling for the poor (where it exists) is mostly irrelevant, substandard and grossly under-resourced.
The minister does recognize that schooling for the poor is underfunded and badly managed. And that is the reason he is calling for more businesses to build and operate schools. However, the lack of decent education facilities throughout the country means that the private sector can’t come close to meeting the needs of all our children.
So what should the new minister do? For a start, he needs to ensure that the two million new teachers necessary to meet the 2015 target of universal primary education are recruited and trained. But that should simply be the first step.
The country needs massive government investment and millions more teachers. It also requires a viable system of maintenance, refurbishment and replacement of existing provision. Tinkering will not do.
Our education system was not designed for an egalitarian democracy and we need fundamental changes. Luckily, we have plenty of foreign models to guide us. Most advanced countries once had a system such as ours but over the years, they revolutionized the way they educate their people.
Sibal is a good, intelligent and committed man, but he has inherited a ghastly mess and is surrounded by the architects, managers and perpetrators of that mess. The good news is that he is listening to some of the voices of progress. It is a tiny start.
Having only 30% of our population spending their full childhood in school is a disgrace and costs the country a lot. In the long run, change would pay for itself. Unfortunately for us, most politicians are not in it for the long run. Let us hope that Sibal is.
Abha Adams is an education consultant. She writes a monthly column on training and education as they relate to careers and the workplace.
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