In Uncertain Glory — India and its Contradictions, Jean Dreze and Amartya Sen begin their chapter on education with a quote from Rabindranath Tagore: “The imposing tower of misery which today rests on the heart of India has its sole foundation in the absence of education.” This is as true today as it was nearly 90 years back.
While India highlights its ever-improving literacy levels, educationally it is a terrible under-performer, too embarrassed to participate in the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment tests covering reading and computational skills for 15-year-olds. Successive studies have repeatedly established that a majority of those in each class in India have educational attainments much lower than the one they are in. Data from the Ministry of Human Resource Development show that only half of all students who enter primary school make it to the upper primary level and less than half that — around 25 million — get into the 9-12 class cycle. We have around a million primary schools and only half that number at the upper primary level. The number of secondary schools is less than 150,000 for a country of 1.3 billion, and even this comes down to just 100,000 at the higher secondary level. While there are around five million primary school teachers, at the secondary level the number is just 1.5 million. India has persisted with a schooling system that has long failed its young.
The inexorable shift to private school education along with the Right to Education Act represents a failure of the public-school system. It is government schools that should be the drivers of change by becoming the first, not the last, choice of parents to send their children to. For that to happen, our public-school system must be swiftly and radically revamped, while our teacher training institutions, of which the District Institutes of Education and Training constitute an important part, speedily re-jigged to turn out world-class teachers, of the kind that will encourage children to stay on in, not drop out of, school.
It is time that India began viewing school education as a critical strategic investment and gave it the status of a vital infrastructure project. As all in-country efforts have failed, we should go in for a radical overhaul of our educational infrastructure with the help of countries that have an amazing record in providing quality school education — Finland, for instance. We can surely afford to pay for that.
If only India had begun revamping school education at the start of economic liberalisation, it would by now have had the world’s largest pool of well-educated and highly trained workers. Fortunately, India continues to have the largest number of young people anywhere. By ensuring they get a world-class education over the next few decades, India will be well on its way towards becoming a developed nation sooner than expected.
Uday Balakrishnan is visiting faculty at the Centre for Contemporary Studies, Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru