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New Delhi: Vineet Joshi, chairman of the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) for the past year, still struggles to find an answer to the most obvious question about his career: Trained as a mechanical engineer, how did he end up formulating education policy?

Mostly, Joshi says, he ended up doing things in a rush. “I picked up things others wanted me to do," he says. “Much of my career choices came from what the socially accepted definition of a good career was."

The talent guide: CBSE chairman Vineet Joshi says educationists must adequately communicate that change is important and for the better. Madhu Kapparath / Mint

Thus did Joshi gravitate towards the Indian Administrative Service, the much-coveted seat of bureaucracy. While working on a research project to develop high-speed cameras at IIT Kanpur, Joshi aced the exams in 1992. “It just happened. I didn’t really know what I wanted."

Two decades after he graduated from IIT and became a bureaucrat, Joshi now wants to ensure that schoolchildren choose their own careers instead of being led into something they aren’t sure about. “If that happens, you are basically sowing seeds of frustration," he says. “One must know what one wants to do."

This explains why Joshi is currently heading one of the most significant school reforms in India: The transition of CBSE-affiliated schools from a marks-based evaluation system to grades to assess the performance of students, and the elimination of the dreaded class X board exams.

This hasn’t exactly met with universal approval; many educators worry that without rigorous testing, it will become difficult to evaluate the performance of a school or even a single student. But Joshi feels that the existing system has led to the suicides of students suffering from peer pressure and an inadequate understanding of their own aspirations.

For this to change, he argues that assessments have to be based on a variety of subjects and not just academics. “A student from a rural area could be good at football, whereas an urban kid could be better at English. Assessment on all fronts will help them recognize that early on in their lives."

As soon as he joined CBSE, in 2004, Joshi began working on a system of continuous and comprehensive evaluation (CCE), a format which marked a departure from the usual testing of students.

Within a year, CBSE had asked its schools to launch the concept in classes IX and X; soon after Joshi took over as chairman last March, CCE was extended to all classes.

“We asked schools to assess students through class projects, extra-curricular activities and other parameters, which weren’t restricted to academics alone," Joshi says. “This will be a great equalizer when it comes to assessing first-generation learners and help in recognizing their interests and abilities right at the school level."

Much of Joshi’s focus has been on evolving policies to de-stress a student’s life. “Everyone has spoken about reducing stress among schoolchildren, but no one took it as urgently as Joshi," says Suman Gulati, director of the Blue Bells Group of Schools, who works closely with Joshi on policy interventions.

CCE is Joshi’s first step towards grades, but it is not his only priority. He is also working on a draft policy for school accreditation, a novel attempt to rank schools on the basis of quality of education. Over the last year, the board also moved the school affiliation process online. “Before this, we would get 400 applications. After this, we got 4,000."

Many of Joshi’s policy ideas seem to stem from his own experiences. His active love for sports—he represented Uttar Pradesh in national-level table tennis tournaments—led to CBSE’s effort to integrate physical education into primary school curricula. His recognition of professional courses as means of creating employment opportunities reflects in the board’s attempts to introduce vocational degrees in a variety of subjects from 2010.

In some ways, Joshi remains a student himself. Besides touring schools and brainstorming with educators, Joshi never misses his own classes at the Indian Institute of Foreign Trade, where he is enrolled as a part-time master’s student of business administration. “He is in tune with the times. He listens to us and understands our problems, which is why he is able to do more," says Gulati.

Joshi’s youth, in particular, has worked for him. At 41, he is one of CBSE’s youngest chairmen ever, popular with both educators and schoolchildren. At a recent conference, students waited for hours just to be photographed with him. “After five years at CBSE, no one would spearhead reforms better than him," says Sadhna Parashar, director, CCE. “He knows the subject through and through."

Joshi insists that communicating his reform-centric policies to schools, parents and children will prove the biggest challenge. “The general tendency is to resist change. We have to adequately communicate that it is important and for the better," he says. But after spending the 1990s on deputation in various other Union ministries, Joshi admits he has stayed with CBSE because he likes his work. “Your passion could be your profession. Education is mine."

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