Sunday Read: All That is Wrong with Indian Education System

Note: It has been two weeks since I posted my last article. So this time I decided to write quite a long article. However, it wasn’t like I wasn’t flexing my writing muscles all these days. I wrote an article reviewing New Education Policy 2020 for Aurum The Global School’s website, and this is an elaborate version of that piece (3 times the length of that one). If you are low on time, you can read that piece here. If you have already read that one, please forgive some repetition. Also, It is quite tedious to write 2,200 words articles so show your appreciation by subscribing to get the next post in your mail (it’s free!).


Just after the Independence, Industrial Sector was chosen as the Prime Moving Force (PMF) of Indian Economy by India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru.  PMF in an economy refers to a sector which has the potential to drive the growth of the entire economy. Then, Nehru along with P.C Mahalanobis, honorary statistical adviser to the government of India at that time, came up with the second Five-Year Plan which sought to boost the economy of the poor country by setting up large Public Sector Enterprises. For that, students were trained and institutions regarded as the ‘Temples of Modern India’, the IITs and the IIMs were set up. These institutions continue to make India proud in the global forum by producing CEOs of firms like Google and Pepsi. As Shashi Tharoor writes in the Elephant, the Tiger & the Cellphone,

“Nehru was always fascinated by science and scientists. He made it point to attend the annual Indian Science Congress every year, and gave free rein (and taxpayers’ money) to scientists in whom he had confidence to build high-quality institutions… [He] left India with the world’s second-largest pool of trained scientists and engineers, integrated into the global intellectual system…”

But, what both Nehru and Tharoor neglected was the primary education. And this negligence resulted into a mess our education system today is. Primary education is the foundation of learning. Just as every food chain starts with green plants, every successful education system starts with quality primary education. With very little efforts put into strengthening the schooling system as a whole by Nehru and successive leaders after him, Indian education system broke down. Even Nobel laureate Amartya Sen described Nehru’s approach to primary education ‘lamentable’. This problem was realized after 60 years of independence when an act called the ‘Right to Education Act (RTE)’ was passed in Lok Sabha in 2009. It made education a fundamental right of every child. Was RTE successful in achieving the goal of universal education?

When Good Intentions Leads to Bad Results

In my previous article, I quoted Milton Friedman that every policy should be judged by its outcomes and not intentions. Well, RTE is the perfect example of this. Morally, everything under the RTE sounds very good to human ears, but there are numerous problems created because of it. Vivek Kaul, author and economic commentator, writes in a column,

“It (RTE) ordered schools to have infrastructure like playgrounds and toilets … Many “bottom of the pyramid” kind of private schools have been providing education at a rock bottom fee. If they are asked to suddenly create adequate infrastructure which meets the criteria set under Right to Education, their cost of operation goes up. Their only option is to pass on this cost and increase the fee that they charge.”

Of course, this resulted in many schools (public as well private) closing down, and many parents from humble backgrounds taking their kids out of the budget private schools. This means less competition among schools (as many low budget private schools can give better education than many government schools), and poor education (as researches have shown that private schools arise due to poor government schools in the area).

Another problem with RTE is the pressure to complete the syllabus. A teacher has to rush through the syllabus to complete it till the end of the year. Weather a student has understood anything or not isn’t the matter of importance. On top of that, he/she has to be pushed to the next class regardless of what he scores in the tests, again, under the RTE. Therefore, when a child reaches high school, the parents cannot see much development in him and think it is better for him to work, for instance, in a certain store. This also explains the high drop-out rate in the country. Hence, RTE seriously needs many reforms that may come in the New Education Policy 2020.

Time For Some Graphs

However, one can say that we have come a long way in terms of literacy rate.

Source – World Bank

From around 39% literacy in 1980 to 72% in 2017, we have also been slightly ahead than average literacy rate in South Asia in the same period. This may look good, but the whole picture isn’t clear without looking at the mean years of schooling.

Source –

The above graph shows that average years of schooling in India is much lower than developed nations and other developing nations such as Bangladesh are catching up rapidly. This also confirms the drop-out point I mentioned above.

The Problems

Students in India are behind their age in terms of knowledge. Karthik Muralidharan in the book What The Economy Needs Now shows a study conducted using mindspark software in Delhi and Rajasthan. He concludes:

“There are three key patterns illustrated by this graph:

 1) By the beginning of Grade 6, students are, on average, 2.5 years behind in Maths

 2) By Grade 9, this gap is even larger, at about 4.5 years in Maths and 2.5 in Hindi, and

3) In any given grade, the learning levels of students spa four or five grade levels.”

This can be because of variety of reasons such as the flawed curriculum (as we will see next) or the problems discussed above.

Flawed curriculum has been a problem of Indian education system for many years now. Although, efforts have been made to sort it out, but we need to have a big reform rather than small efforts. As Murlidharan points out that our education system “is driven by “sorting” rather than “human development”… [and] is perhaps best understood as a “filtration” system rather than an “education system.”

He goes on to write,

“An obsessive focus on exams and marks has led to an education system characterised by rote learning to pass exams (often through cramming of past exams)”

And this is very true. I have been part of this system for over a decade now. I still remember cramming of notebooks before the exams when I was in lower standard, and now notebook has been replaced by previous year question papers.

Vocational skills not being a part of the curriculum is also a big disadvantage. The lack of skilled labour in our country is a result of this.

Source – Economic Survey 2019-20

Before coming to any conclusions, let’s see another graph.

Source – Business Standard making a graph out of Geeta G. Kingdon’s research paper here

The above graph tells us that student enrollment in government schools dropped from 126.20 million in 2010-11 to 113.08 million in 2015-16. While enrolment in private schools increased during the same period. It is evident that even the poor are paying from their pocket to send their children to a budget private school. This has happened despite boosting expenditure on public schooling as was shown in the previous graph. Why has this happened? Talking to the principal of a Primary school in a small village in Uttarakhand (India), I found that they receive ₹30,000-40,000 per year from the government, which is more than enough for a small school like that. This expenditure doesn’t include other expenditure like on meals, and teacher salaries. Also, India has one of the highest GDP to teacher salary ratio. Clearly, we have to become more cost-effective and spend on things that would enhance the learning outcomes. Unlike a teacher’s training programme we have today, a more practical way of training should be adopted, says Murlidharan in a podcast. Also, the aim should be of achieving foundational literacy and numeracy till grade 3.

The Covid-19 Pandemic

We are facing a horrifying pandemic right now. This has also disrupted education of millions of children across the country. Many could not get proper education whereas some couldn’t get any education at all. This is when education went online. And hopefully, increasing number of children had a smartphone or were able to arrange one from their neighbours or relatives.

% of school enrolled children in rural areas having selected assets at home
Source – ASER 2020 Wave 1

Students having a smartphones in rural areas increased from 36% in 2018 to 61% in 2020, according to the survey. This although is a good news, but my personal experience tells me that it was difficult to study online even when you have good facilities and live in cities. Thus, the online study in remote areas would have posed many problems such as weak Internet connectivity. Also, these students will be passed automatically to the next grade this time even when they haven’t read anything. How will they able to cope up with the syllabus of next class when they don’t know anything of the current syllabus? This is a question well worth asking.

Solutions – The New Education Policy 2020

Now that we have talked extensively about the problems of the Indian education system, let’s talk about what we can do to fight these problems. National Education Policy (NEP) 2020 came with very interesting ideas. Some of them are adding vocational studies in the curriculum, reducing importance of board examinations (while focusing on the skills), no hard distinction between streams (commerce, science or arts that exists today), teaching students coding from grade 6, and first time ever the introduction of pre-primary education in government schools. I liked the last point very much as pre-primary education would provide a level-playing field for private and government schools. But, NEP is rather too aspirational. The goal for complete implementation of the whole policy is the year 2040.

Source – News Karnataka

Also, it would have been better if some pilot projects were done before unleashing the whole policy in the entire country. But, the current dispensation at the centre doesn’t believe in doing that. It likes taking enormous steps at one go which have a huge impact on people’s lives (doesn’t matter good or bad). What we need to understand is educational reforms like cutting costs and increasing cost-efficiency, changing the content of the textbooks, and public-private partnerships are something which can’t be figured out easily. One has to read more and more about it. However, the impact of these things is huge on the future earnings of a child.

Being Cost-Efficient

Pratham, a remarkable education NGO in India, tries to fix many flaws of the education system using surveys and Randomized Controlled Trials. Pratham was running its Balsakhi program in the year 2000 in the cities of Mumbai and Vadodra. They selected twenty children in each classroom who most needed help for this. The results were surprising. As Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo writes in their book Poor Economics,

“Despite an earthquake and communal riots, the program generated very large gains – in Vadodra, about twice the magnitude of the average gains from private schooling. Yet these balsakhis were much less educated than the average private- (or public-) school teacher – many of them had barely ten years of schooling, plus a week’s training by Pratham.”

Something similar happened in the city of Jaunpur, Uttar Pradesh, where a set of volunteers – mostly college students – emerged to help younger brothers and sisters of their community, and again the results were very impressive. This shows us that we don’t really need professional teachers to teach primary students. Even a school passed out (from the same area) could teach better than government or private qualified teacher (if proper training given). This helps us to become cost-efficient and reduces teacher absenteeism (as these volunteers would be from the same community as compared to the teachers who travel from urban to rural areas). Thus, the results are twofold.

Charter Schools – the next big step

Researches over the years have shown that private schools function much better than their governmental counterparts. There are many small private schools which provide very good education, but they don’t have the capacity to expand rapidly. Whereas there are government schools which don’t have to care much about the expenses, as they are funded by the government. Intellectuals have come up with a model by intermixing the two: Charter Schools. A charter school is one which is funded by government and is managed privately (of course, with some government regulations to check that management doesn’t maliciously exploit the funding). With this, the effectiveness of the private schools will be backed by government funding. This will result into better education penetration in the country. There may be some flaws in the model, but implementing them at smaller level and evaluating at each step will lead to a successful future.


Clearly, our education system is ineffective. As Banerjee and Duflo writes, “The Curriculum and organization often date back to a colonial past, when schools were meant to train a local elite to be effective allies of the colonial state, and the goal was to maximize the distance between them and the rest of the populace.” This is the reason why we produce nobel laureates and Google CEOs along with the largest number of primary education completing students who aren’t functionally literate and numerate. This needs to stop, and we are going forward with the help of NEP 2020. Whether this will happen or not will depend on politics of the day. You see, not every time good intentions transform into good results.  

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