Learnings about Improving Education

(Notes and References from documentation for NGOs and Teachers)
John D’Souza, Tanvi Patel and CED DocumentationTeam

Policies Affecting Quality of Schools

The Evolution of India’s Education Policyi

Indian governments have seen education as a crucial development tool. Since Independence, the education policies of successive governments have built on the substantial legacies of the Nehruvian period, targeting the core themes of plurality and secularism, with a focus on excellence in higher education, and inclusiveness at all levels.

Nehru envisaged India as a secular democracy with a state-led command economy. Education for all and industrial development were seen as crucial tools to unite a country divided on the basis of wealth, caste and religion, and formed the cornerstones of the antiimperial struggle.

Following Independence, school curricula were thus imbued with the twin themes of inclusiveness and national pride, placing emphasis on the fact that India’s different communities could live peacefully side by side as one nation.

The Kothari Commission: education for modernization, national unity and literacy

Drawing on Nehru’s vision, and articulating most of his key themes, the Kothari Commission [i] (1964–66) was set up to formulate a coherent education policy for India. According to the commission, education was intended to increase productivity, develop social and national unity, consolidate democracy, modernize the country and develop social, moral and spiritual values. To achieve this, the main pillar of Indian education policy was to be Free and Compulsory Education for All Children up to the age of 14. Other features included the development of languages (Hindi, Sanskrit, regional languages and the three-language formula [ii]), equality of educational opportunities (regional, tribal and gender imbalances to be addressed) and the development and prioritization of scientific education and research. The commission also emphasized the need to eradicate illiteracy and provide adult education.

The Need for Change: the National Policy on Education

In 1986, Rajiv Gandhi announced a new education policy, the National Policy on Education (NPE), which was intended to prepare India for the 21st century. The new policy was intended to raise education standards and increase access to education. At the same time, it would safeguard the values of secularism, socialism and equality which had been promoted since Independence. To this end, the government would seek financial support from the private sector to complement government funds. The key legacies of the

1986 policy were the promotion of privatization and the continued emphasis on secularism and science [iii].

Another consequence of the NPE was that the quality of education in India was increasingly seen as a problem, and several initiatives have been developed since in an attempt to counter this:

Other schemes specifically targeted at marginalized groups, such as disabled children, and special incentives targeting the parents within scheduled castes and scheduled tribes have also been introduced.

In 1992, when education policy was re-examined, the NPE was found to be a sound way forward for India’s education system, although some targets were recast and some re-formulations were undertaken in relation to adult and elementary education [iv]. The new emphasis was on the expansion of secondary education, while the focus on education for minorities and women continued.

The Development of Non-Formal Education

Despite Nehru’s visions of universal education, and the intentions of the Kothari Commission to provide all young children with free and compulsory schooling, a significant proportion of India’s young population remained uneducated by the 1970s. To address this problem, the Centrally Sponsored Scheme of Non Formal Education was set up to educate school dropouts, working children and children from areas without schools. It started on a pilot basis in 1979 and expanded over the next few years to cover ten educationally backward states [v]. In the 1980s, 75 per cent of those children not enrolled in school resided in these states.

The 1986 National Policy on Education built upon this scheme and recognized that a large and systematic programme of non-formal education was required to ensure access to elementary education. The NPE developed the system of non-formal education, and expanded it to urban slums and other areas beyond the initial ten states. It also revised the system, involved voluntary organizations and offered training to local men and women to become instructors. For instance, the Non-formal Adult Education for Women based in Lucknow (UP) opened 300 centres in rural areas with financial support from UNESCO. As a result of many such local programmes, literacy rates improved significantly between 1981 and 1991.

An Overview of Chronology/Events in Education Policy in India

Stages of Evolution
What ensued/Major Actions
Setting up of the Education System in India

The Directive Principles of State Policy 1950

Education (Kothari) Commission (1964-66)

State to provide free and compulsory education for children till age 14.

Formulation of National Policy on Education, 1968ii

Introduction of the concept of neighbourhood primary schools.

Vocationalisation of secondary education.

Goal of primary education (at least first seven years) for all in the next 20 years.

Establishing the common school system, 10+2+3 through out the country.

Scheme based approaches
in 70s & 80s


Constitutional Amendment 1976.

National Policy on Education 1986. 

Centrally Sponsored Scheme for Non Formal Education launched.

Teacher Education Programme

National Adult Education Programme 1978 (later revamped to National Literacy Mission in 1988).

Education shifts to Concurrent list, increase in the role of Central government and focus on Central-State Government partnership.

Operation Black Board launched.

District Institute of Education & Training (DIET) set-up to provide pre-service and in-service training.

Area based approach in 80s and 90s.

Andhra Pradesh Primary Education Project launched in 1987.

Bihar Education Project launched.

Universalisation of Elementary Education in Rajasthan.

Decentralized planning for expansion, improvement and training begins.

Alternative Education

Shiksha Karmi 1987

Mahila Samakhya - 1987

Jan Shala

Lok  Jumbish Project 1992

District Primary Education Programme (1994) for contextual education by 2002 in 271 districts in 18 states.

Rights based Approach

In 1993 the Supreme Court says Basic Education a fundamental right.

Constitutional Amendment in 1997, made a law in 2001.

Dakar Declaration in 2000: Education for All.

2005 Right to Education Bills: Right to Education from age 6 to 14; fundamental duty of parents to provide education.

Education Guarantee Scheme launched in Madhya Pradesh.

Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan 2000-2001 aiming at Universalisation of Elementary Education by 2010.

Focus on education as a “right”.

Focus on Early Childhood Care and Education, Free and compulsory education particularly to girls, minorities, etc. by 2015, Equitable access to appropriate learning, Efforts for Adult literacy and Quality Improvement.

Focus on decentralised, participative planning, community ownership.

(Note: The categorization is not water tight, but aims to enable analysis and comprehension. For sources for further readings/short histories please see endnoteiii.)

Emergence of international instruments on the educational rights of the child, and shifts in philosophy within human services profoundly affected the development of policies and practices in India in the 1990s. The Government recognized that children are the future and it must make investments to prepare children for productive lives. It also recognized that important guidelines for such investments are legally binding documents that protect the rights of children. Though these documents have limitations, such as failing to provide specific operational guidelines by which particular policies may be implemented, they helped to establish the vision, context, and parameters of responsibilities and expectations.iv

The Emerging Paradigm For Inclusive Educationv

From an international perspective, the "new movement" or paradigm shift in primary schooling in developing regions has several elements that can be unified into a central framework that builds on the principle of equal educational opportunity for all children.

The framework incorporates seven major principles:

The Gap between Policies and Programmes

Education was and will always be a key issue in Indian politics. Successive governments have dealt with inherent problems in the education system by developing and implementing policies which are in the best interests of their own long-term political survival.

A Lack of political will

The gap between policy and programmes results from different reality situations - most important are balancing demands of mainstream economic growth as well as political exigencies. Political will to implement the policies and recommendations; of various committees seems to be very selective, those which are on the one hand populist and disjointed on the other.

The present government in its Common Minimum Programme, pledged to raise public spending on education to at least 6 per cent of GDP, impose a Cess on all central taxes to ‘universalize access to quality basic education’ and reverse the creeping communalization of school syllabuses of the past five years. Both the budget and the Independence Day address stressed the importance of education as a key to tackling poverty, one of the main causes of which is illiteracy. The President, Abdul Kalam, has called for expenditure on education to be raised by 2–3 per cent of GDP.

In spite of all this, the same difficulties that existed nearly sixty years ago remain largely unsolved today for example, the need to safeguard access to education for the poorest and most disenfranchised communities of India.

In terms of priorities, the two goals: education of the marginalised, and elite/higher education seems to be mixed and interchangeable. This dichotomy is also reflected in approach paper to the 11th Five Year Plan, significantly titled “Towards Faster and More Inclusive Growth”. It sets out the two major challenges related to education:

- Providing Essential Public Services for the Poor

- Developing Human Resources

Each of these goals is pulling resources in different directions.

Currently, while Indian Institutes of Management and Technology are world-class, primary and secondary schools, particularly in rural areas of India, face severe challenges.


Under the Constitution, responsibility for education is shared between central and state governments. The central government sets policy, stimulates innovation and plans frameworks. The state governments are responsible for running the education system on the ground. This has exacerbated problems since states have differing resources to allocate to education. It is the inadequacy of resources that has recently become the most pressing and central issue. Allocation is another issue. When resources are scarce, what are the state’s priorities? [vi]

Also negotiating the need to share the burden of funding higher education between the public and private sectors has been a continual problem for the Indian government. The balance between the public and private sectors becomes almost synonymous with a balance between excellence and access.vi

Quality and relevance of education

The challenge of quality in Indian education has many dimensions, e.g. providing adequate physical facilities and infrastructure, making available adequate teachers of requisite quality, effectiveness of teaching-learning processes, attainment levels of students, etc. Education in India needs to be more skill-oriented – both in terms of life-skills as well as livelihood skills. Besides the physical availability of institutions, other barriers to access – e.g. socio-economic, linguistic–academic, physical barriers for the disabled, etc. – also need to be removed.vii

The PROBEviii report quotes notes from Learning without Burden “…our textbooks are not written from the child’s viewpoint. Neither the mode of communication, nor the selection of objects depicted, nor the language conveys the centrality of the child in the world constructed [by the school]…Words, expressions and nuances commonly used by children in their milieu are absent…and an artificial style dominates, reinforcing the tradition of distancing knowledge from life. The language used in textbooks thus deepens the sense of ‘burden’ attached to all school-related knowledge.” PROBE also says, “since the notion of ‘teaching’ in our education system is reduced to ‘giving information’, in a typical school, in a remote village, the act of teaching is normally limited to a set of actions which include asking children to read on their own, making one child read out aloud, sometimes writing a few words on the board, or dictating correct answers to questions given in the book. This is how the teachers themselves were taught, even by their best teachers, and this is what they perceive to be expected of them. In a functioning classroom there are rarely any normal happy sounds – of joyous laughter, creative composition, active participation, excited discovery, curious questioning, music or poetry.”

Even in cities, children are pushed from one grade to the next with little care taken to ensure they attain grade specific competencies. As a result, we can find children who reach grade five without knowing how to read or write! This is an example of the interpretation and mindless use of the “no-detention” policy at the primary level. Recommendations to do away with meaningless and competitive examinations and replace it with a teacher and perhaps self-assessed “milestones” in learning, is now an instrument of teachers not taking any responsibility to ensure that students move ahead in the learning.

Lack of importance to education

Then there are other ground realities. Despite the apparent priority paid to education, the reality on the ground betrays the lack of importance paid to education. Schools are closed at the drop of a hat, for local festivals, preparation for national celebrations, and other official and unofficial reasons. School buildings are requisitioned for all kinds of purposes, while overall maintenance, and development, are given low priority even when budgets are sanctioned.

John Kurienix says, “Innovations, like better textbooks and better teacher training, will continue to be important and necessary. But their contribution to significant improvement in children's learning will be limited, when so little teaching actually takes place. Is there any hope for change? The good news, for example, is that among other measures, the present government has reconstituted the Central Advisory Board on Education (CABE) and committed itself to significantly increasing the elementary education budget. But we must be clear that even exponentially increased funding for our non-functioning government schools will not prevent them from collapsing.”

References/Endnotes in the Maria Lall Article (endnote 1) used in this section:

  1. For a detailed analysis of the Kothari Commission, see R.N. Sharma, Indian Education at the Cross Road (Delhi: Shubhi, 2002).

  2. By which all children learn Hindi, their state language and English.

  3. For more details on the NEP and the problems of Indian education in the 1980s and 1990s, see N. Jayapalan, Problems of Indian Education (Delhi: Atlantic Publishers, 2001).

  4. A. Ram and K.D. Sharma, National Policy on Education: An Overview (Delhi: Vikas Publishing House, 2005), p. 1.

  5. Andhra Pradesh, Assam, Bihar, Himachal Pradesh, Jammu & Kashmir, Madhya Pradesh, Orissa, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal.

  6. For a detailed analysis on the dilemmas of resource allocation and planning see J.V. Raghavan, ‘Educational Planning in India’, in Tilak (ed.) (2003), pp. 49–62. (See note 12 above.)

i The Challenges for India’s Education System, Marie Lall,chathamhouse.org.uk, April 2005

ii National Policy on Education 1986 (As modified in 1992) National Policy on Education, 1968, Government of India, 01/01/1998 [ R.N00.34]

iii The Cosmos of Education Tracking the Indian Experience Kohil, Mamta Asian South Pacific Bureau of, 01/01/2003 http://www.aspbae.org; [R.N00.24]
         Elementary Education for the Poorest and other Deprived Groups: The Real Challenge of Universalisation Jha, Jyotsna & Jhingran, Dhir Centre for Policy
         Research 01/06/2002, [R.N00.23]
         Compulsory Primary Education: Opportunities and Challenges, Jayakumar Anagol, Indian School of Political Sch,01/01/1901,Pg:54,[R.N21.605]

iv Adapted from Enhancing Participation, Expanding Access: The Double Axis of Sustainable Educational Development, Carol A., Kochhar Malati, I.Gopal, Institute for Education Policy Studies, Occasional Paper Series March, 1998, [C.ELDOC1.0610.ED1_Enhancing_Participation_Expanding_Access.html]

v Source: Enhancing Participation, Expanding Access: The Double Axis of Sustainable Educational Development :The Emerging Paradigm For Inclusive Education, Institute for Education Policy Studies, Occasional Paper Series March, 1998, [C.ELDOC1.0610.ED1_The_Emerging_Paradigm.html]

vi Adapted from The Challenges for India’s Education System, Marie Lall, chathamhouse.org.uk, April 2005

vii Adapted from “Challenges”, Responsibility of the Centre, States and Local Bodies for Education
Publication: Department of Higher Education, [C.ELDOC1.0610.ED1_Responsibility_of_the_centre.html]    http://education.nic.in/Sector.asp

viii Public Report on Basic Education in India, 1999, [R.N21.604]

ix Teach First, John Kurien, Times of India, 27/10/2004, [C.ELDOC.N20.27oct04toi1.pdf],

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