School reforms under NEP 2020 must not be allowed to languish

India is being referred to as a country suffering from “learning poverty”.
India is being referred to as a country suffering from “learning poverty”.


These are long overdue and we must achieve them quickly or risk squandering the demographic dividend of our youth bulge

Ensuring all children in India get good education requires ensuring children have access to schools and that schools are delivering quality education. Our education system prioritized access to education and the quality of what is delivered in classrooms got overlooked. In order to achieve the goal of universal access, driven by the values of equity and inclusion, the system has put its effort behind building schools, making sure that teachers are deployed, equipping classrooms, etc. With consistent effort, the nation has by and large achieved that goal, with about 98.6% of children in the age group of 6-10 years found to be enrolled in schools. However, children going to schools are not always learning. Report after report indicates deplorable education quality. The Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) has shown an alarming trend. Nationally, only 42.8% of children enrolled in Standard V in government or private schools can read a grade-two level text. India is being referred to as a country suffering from “learning poverty". Clearly, the big challenge for the nation now is to ensure the delivery of quality education.

Three years ago, the National Education Policy 2020 (NEP) brought a ray of hope, presenting a comprehensive and forward-looking framework to elevate learning outcomes and nurture well-rounded individuals. To address an immediate need to improve learning outcomes, it set a target of ensuring foundational literacy and numeracy among all students by the year 2025. To address the need on a long-term basis, it aims at improving the system’s efficiency and its specialization level by changing the governance framework for education. It identifies a current ‘conflict of interest’ at the very core of it: “All main functions of governance and regulation of the school education system—namely, the provision of public education, the regulation of education institutions, and policymaking—are handled by a single body, i.e., the Department of School Education or its arms. This leads to a conflict of interests and excessive centralized concentration of power; it also leads to ineffective management of the school system…"

To address this issue, the NEP recommends a clear separation of functions between different bodies administering education and the setting up of a new body, ‘State School Standards Authority’ (SSSA), independent of the education department of the state as a neutral body, to regulate schools.

Similar reforms were introduced in India’s aviation, telecommunication, banking and insurance sectors, and have been working.

Globally, there are some compelling examples of independent neutral regulators in the field of education, with this idea having been implemented successfully in some countries. One example is the Dubai Schools Inspection Bureau (DISB) in the United Arab Emirates. DISB engages school assessors from around the globe to evaluate schools and ensure transparency and accountability in Dubai’s education system. As a result, Dubai’s schools have developed a culture of continuous improvement, leading to enhanced overall education quality. Other inspiring examples of independent education regulatory bodies driving positive change can be seen in the UK, Finland and Singapore, where the potential of autonomous bodies like Ofsted, FINEEC and SEAB were harnessed to transform their education systems. There are good lessons to be drawn from these models that India could incorporate while setting up SSSAs.

Despite the NEP’s visionary promises, progress on establishing SSSAs has been disappointingly sluggish. While some states have taken initial steps, many remain hesitant, citing a lack of clarity on roles and powers. This impasse is hindering the fulfilment of the NEP’s transformative goals and putting our education system at risk.

The path forward is collaborative implementation. State governments must demonstrate a commitment to education reform by defining the roles and powers of SSSAs clearly, and the Union government ought to support states with technical knowledge and funds. States must allocate sufficient financial and human resources to support the establishment and smooth functioning of SSSAs. This will incentivize states, help enable implementation and expedite progress.

This investment will yield long-term benefits for our children’s education. Meaningful dialogue with educators, parents, policymakers and administrators would be crucial to garner support and build a consensus on the importance of independent SSSAs.

India recently surpassed China to become the world’s most populous country. We have one of the world’s biggest young populations right now. However, the demographic dividend from this youth bulge is not going to last long. With a reduction in the country’s fertility rate, our population is expected to peak later this century and then start coming down. By 2040, we will begin to enter a phase of a fast-ageing population, with many more people who may need welfare support and a reducing segment of young workers. This gives us a window of about 20 years to capitalize on the demographic dividend, or we will simply lose the opportunity. This requires that we fix our education system with due urgency to ensure learning quality for all students entering classrooms today, as this is the same lot that would form an important chunk of the country’s workforce 20 years down the line.

Reforms in school education are long overdue and we must achieve them quickly or risk missing the bus forever. As India marks three years of the NEP, we stand at a critical juncture in our quest for a world-class education system. We cannot afford any inaction; we must rise to the challenge with determination and collaboration. Let us unite as a nation to create a transformative education system that empowers our students to make India a knowledge superpower, as the NEP envisions. The future awaits our action, and the time to act is now.

Amit Chandra & Parth J. Shah are, respectively, chief executive officer and founder trustee of the Centre for Civil Society

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