View: NEP 2020 charts new road map, but fails to make public school teachers accountable

After 34 years, the National Education Policy (NEP) 2020 has outlined a new road map to overhaul India’s education system. While the document promises to bring transformational change to higher education, the story is more mixed on school education.

By Geeta Gandhi Kingdon and Arvind Panagariya

After 34 years, the National Education Policy (NEP) 2020 has outlined a new road map to overhaul India’s education system. While the document promises to bring transformational change to higher education, the story is more mixed on school education. It offers some excellent proposals in this latter area, but leaves unaddressed the heart of the problem.

Among the positives, we mention four. First, the policy makes early childhood care and education for children in the 3-6 year age group an integral part of school education. Given that a disproportionately large part of a child’s brain develops prior to 6 years of age, this is an important step in the right direction.


Second, the policy gives priority to imparting foundational literacy and numeracy by the time a child enters 3rd grade. Currently, a large proportion of children arrive in 3rd and higher grades without these skills and are unable to follow the curriculum. The result is poor educational outcomes in the higher grades.

Third, the policy proposes to end the hard separation of secondary school curriculum into science, arts and commerce. Instead it would allow students to take courses across these fields, thereby encouraging broad-based learning.

Finally, the policy proposes to integrate vocational education into the regular school curriculum. This is a stigma-free way to impart basic skills to all including those who eventually opt for the academic stream. It will do more for skilling the workforce than the existing skilling programmes.

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The heart of the problem in school education, however, is the extremely poor delivery of outcomes by public schoolteachers. On average private schoolteachers, though less qualified, deliver better outcomes because they make more effective use of whatever qualifications they do have. The difference in behaviour stems from the difference in accountability: They face reprimand including dismissal if they fail to perform their duties but the same is not true for public schoolteachers.

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Unsurprisingly, even parents with limited means are progressively moving their children out of public schools to low-fee budget private schools. According to official District Information System for Education (DISE) data, enrolment fell by 2.38 crore in public elementary schools and rose by 2.11 crore in recognised private unaided elementary schools between 2010-11 and 2017-18. With total enrolment rising, there was also probably an increase in enrolment in unrecognised private schools on which DISE does not collect data.

The exodus has given rise to the phenomenon of emptying of public elementary schools. Thus, in 2017-18, 68% of all public elementary schools in the country had less than 100 students each and, on average, had only 45 students. Taking into account officially recognised inflation of enrolments to procure larger ration under the Midday Meal Scheme and also student absence, individual classes in these schools averaged no more than 5 to 7 students on any given day. Such small classes are pedagogically inefficient; they also cost more than Rs 40,000 per pupil per year in just teacher salaries.

In many states, the situation is catastrophic. As per DISE data, the average enrolment per public elementary school in 2017-18 was just 34 in Himachal Pradesh, 39 in Uttarakhand, 40 in Jammu & Kashmir, 63 in Madhya Pradesh and 97 in Uttar Pradesh.
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To its credit, NEP 2020 recognises the problems of emptying of public schools and poor student achievements. But the solutions it offers such as school consolidation, creation of school complexes and additional teacher training address symptoms rather than the root cause of the problem. Deep down, it is the absence of any teacher accountability whatsoever that is behind the poor educational outcomes in public schools. The emptying phenomenon will not go away after consolidation and additional skills will not improve outcomes if teachers won’t use those skills.

If it is the case that accountability of teachers in public schools is politically a non-starter, it is time to confront this fact for what it is. If we choose to look the other way, we only commit ourselves to condemning yet more generations of students to poor outcomes. The argument that it is the duty of the government to run schools is not good enough when precisely those for whom it runs them pay the price.
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Likewise, the argument that we can fix the system this time around sounds hollow when we have failed to do it after promising it repeatedly over the last several decades and even now find ourselves unable to acknowledge, let alone address, the problem of accountability. How many more generations of children must pay for such an ideologically driven defence of public schools?

The hard reality is that few among the decision makers at the Centre or in the states send their own children to public schools. Instead, it is low income families that rely disproportionately on these schools. To be fair to the taxpayer whose hard earned rupees pay for public education, it is time to consider giving these families vouchers worth some minimum amount that they can take to the school of their choice. If we can give government employees Rs 27,000 per year to defray a part of the cost of their children’s education, why deny at least a fraction of this sum to low-income families?

Geeta Kingdon is Professor of Education Economics at University College, London. Arvind Panagariya is Professor of Economics at Columbia University, New York
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