Politicians should take cognisance of the longstanding rot in bureaucrats-run school education system and put forth the demand for a statutory School Education Commission
Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his maiden speech to the Parliament on June 11, 2014 had said “...criticism is in the sense of expectation. I consider it healthy and I welcome it, from whichever side it has come I consider it as direction for me. I will use it for improvement ... The greatest tool of democracy is criticism.” The role of academia is to constantly critique and keep the government informed and also keep giving positive advice. Kings and governments which have taken the criticism positively have benefitted from it and those who have taken it otherwise have faced setbacks. All ideas for the improvement of schooling are only in the national interest and nothing else.
The National Education Policy 2020 mentions that only 26.3 per cent of the relevant age group children are in higher education. So where are the rest 73.7 per cent? This has been a major concern of academicians who work in the school sector. If we have been admitting 100 per cent children in schools through the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA) for nearly two decades, then what made 73.7 per cent fail in passing school examinations? The Prime Minister had also said in his maiden speech “... the greatest tool for fighting poverty is education ... Would we keep the village people deprived of modern education? ... Let us assume for a moment we don’t have good teachers available in all villages but modern science enables us to provide long-distance education. With the help of the best teachers living in towns we can teach the last child staying in a village through the use of satellite...” (author’s translation). NEP data says the state of school education is not very reassuring. We need to examine the existing system of school management and regulation. We are well aware how every small change in the school curriculum becomes a matter of media debate and political mudslinging but nothing such happens in higher education. Reason is obvious!
The jobs in the education sector are professional and skill-based. Those who are trained and who have engaged in the process can understand teaching-learning at different levels. At present, the decision making for school education is political and bureaucratic. Higher education which has about 60 million learners is regulated by a professional ‘statutory’ body like the University Grants Commission (UGC), but the school sector which has around 380 million learners is regulated by the Department of Education of the Central or the State governments. Professionals who understand this sector have often criticised the existing system.
Professor JS Rajput, a former Director of the NCERT and also a person who had the opportunity to work as Joint Secretary in the Ministry of Education, in one of his books, wrote in 2007: “Whatever I have learned after having been a part of the school education at different levels for four decades, has now become my firm belief. Complete access and improvement in educational quality and to achieve the objective of education in India will be possible only when it comes out of the clutches of the politicians and the bureaucrats and the roots of education would have reached deep down the soil of the nation. When the educational change would be based on the understanding of the teachers, educationists, scientists and social scientists and their research, keeping the demand of the time and the future and not dependent on government and leaders.” Nothing can be more authentic than his account and observation on the state of affairs in the Ministry of Education and the NCERT. The situation has not changed a bit since 2007.
On February 10, 2019, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had also expressed a similar opinion on the floor of the Parliament. He had said "Will Babus do everything? What sort of superpower have we created? If one becomes an IAS, he can run a fertiliser factory or a chemical factory or even fly airplanes." Obviously, the PM understands the weakness of bureaucrats i.e., a generalist managing a sector which requires domain knowledge, experience and expertise, but unfortunately nothing has changed in the school education sector since Independence. It remains as strongly dominated by the bureaucrats as it has been since the Charter Act of 1854. It is often mentioned that the Ministry of Science and Technology has a scientist as its secretary, and also when Modi created the Ministry of Aayush he selected a domain specialist to head the Ministry of Aayush. School education is similarly a very specialised sector and deserves to have a domain specialist as Secretary of School Education and Literacy and a professional body to regulate school education.
At times, those in favor of making school education autonomous have argued in favor of Indian Education Service (IES). Instead of creating a new ‘class’ amongst academics we should establish an autonomous statutory regulatory body – School Education Commission (SEC). We are against the demand of IES. The argument in favor of SEC should not be seen as a ploy against the bureaucrats or the political party in power. It is an argument towards making education Bharat-centric, providing every child near identical quality schooling. After all, children of politicians and bureaucrats also attend the same schools and are taught by the teachers trained by the same system. In the recent past, the number of children going abroad for schooling has constantly increased. This is a very disturbing sign. Children will not only grow reading foreign content but also a huge foreign exchange will flow out of the country. All positions, including that of the Chairperson of SEC, should be filled through open competition just as all teaching positions be filled through open selection on merit and no other criterion. Only the best must be in teaching and regulatory agencies of education.
Will political parties take cognisance of the welfare of the non-voting individuals and make a promise to establish SEC in the election manifesto 2024?
The writer is Professor of Education in IGNOU and former Chairman National Institute of Open Schooling (NIOS), Govt of India. Views expressed are personal