Recent attempts at reforming the public education system in India are full of good intentions, but fall short.
Education is a powerful tool that can lead to a drastic increase in earning power. Nevertheless, many socioeconomic factors prevent children from receiving a valuable education. This shortcoming is especially applicable in developing nations such as India, where high teacher absenteeism and poor quality of educational infrastructure inhibit efforts to provide good public education. To ensure that all citizens have access to education, the Indian government has established a law that guarantees the right to education for all children until the age of 14. Yet access to education does not guarantee a valuable learning experience—the quality of education is also essential for success.
In 2009, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh established the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education (RTE) Act. This legislation ensures free mandatory education for every Indian, especially those between the ages of six and 14. The law mandates that all private schools in India reserve 25% of admissions space for children from poor families in exchange for reimbursement by the government. The law also provides a legal framework for existing programs, such as Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan and the District Primary Education Programme. These programs work in accordance with the RTE Act to provide access to educational infrastructure, teaching material, and teaching staff in rural Indian communities.
While these steps were taken with the best intentions, they have not yielded desired results. In 2013, Global Post noted that only a quarter of public school teachers in India are usually present in class and only half of them actually teach, shortcomings that led to a significant decline in reading skills of students. The Times of India reported the percentage of fifth grade students able to complete second grade level readings fell from 50.3% in 2009 to 43.8% in 2011 and 41.1% in 2013. These articles also reveal that one third of India’s primary schools lack proper infrastructure and one tenth lack basic materials such as blackboards. Failure to properly implement the RTE Act resulted in continued deterioration of the Indian public education system.
The failure to take more holistic steps and the declining condition of public schools has led to increasing inequality in education. The vast majority of students come from poor and illiterate families, leaving them completely dependent on the school for resources and support. Though public schools are inadequate, private schools are well-equipped to deliver better education and results. As a result, the poor are spending greater time and effort competing with each other for the 25% admissions quota in private schools, while the rest send their children to the ever-struggling public schools.
Current Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi won the national elections last year with an overwhelming majority. This victory brought with it the hope and challenge of achieving much-needed educational reforms. In September 2014, Prime Minister Modi promised the establishment of separate toilets for girls in all schools in order to reduce the number of female dropouts. While this is certainly one step forward in reducing gender inequity in schools and improving the quality of educational infrastructure, there is still much to be done. Besides revising the RTE Act, Prime Minister Modi should introduce legislation that increases incentives and training for teachers, bolsters research and development, and improves overall investment in education in India. These small but significant steps could go a long way in transforming the Indian public education system. While ink has been spilled on how the new government will reform India’s education system, no substantive action has yet been taken to implement the required changes.
Quick-fix approaches addressing education issues in India, such as the 25% admissions reservation in private schools, remain a major distraction from the bigger problem of inequality in education. Consequently, government-run schools in India continue to face several problems in education access and quality. Many children attending public schools either drop out before the age of 14 or simply get by without truly learning anything of value. As a result, they are not equipped to compete for better-paying jobs. This further raises the income gap between the rich and poor.
Education is crucial to the advancement of Indian society, alleviation of poverty, and the lowering of disparity between the haves and the have-nots. Instead of focusing on reserving spots for children in private schools, the Indian government must work to bridge the quality of education gap between public and private schools.
Reformers must concentrate on raising the quality of the public education system in four main ways. First, funds must be focused on setting up and improving the infrastructure of the educational facilities to provide better resources for children. Second, incentives must be established to lower teaching staff absenteeism and increase staff motivation to engage and educate children. Third, the curriculum must be on par with national and international standards of education, and periodic training must be conducted to assure teachers can maintain these standards. Fourth, the Indian government, either solely or in partnership with private institutions, must support research and development in education.
If India’s educational system is not systemically changed, millions of its citizens will not realize their full potential and the country’s future prospects will remain bleak. It is crucial that Prime Minister Modi and his new government take proper advantage of the power that accompanies their legislative majority and begin implementing these necessary changes to improve the quality of the Indian public education system.
Nikita Setia is an M.A. candidate at the Elliott School of International Affairs in the International Affairs Program, concentrating in development. She previously earned her B.B.A in Economics, International Business, and Management at Northwood University in Midland, Michigan.