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Draft New Education Policy and Schools for the Skilling Age

Students at the Corporation Girls' Higher Secondary School in Madurai on September 05, 2019. Photo: R. Ashok

The Draft National Education Policy, 2019, which aims to reform the education system in India has evoked a mixed response. In this article, Akila Radhakrishnan, Social Policy Specialist, UNICEF-Tamil Nadu and Kerala, looks at how the Draft addresses the crucial building block: school education. The Draft, she points out, must be read in the context of the current economic and educational climate in order to chalk out the trajectory required to make this vision a reality. For this, "it is a time to be cautious that we do not miss the woods for the trees."

The draft National Education Policy, 2019 (DNEP) envisions an "India-centred education system that contributes directly to transforming our nation sustainably into an equitable and vibrant knowledge society, by providing high quality education to all". 1 This agrees well with global and national documents for achieving the Sustainable Development Goal of Education (SDG 4) and other related goals such as building inclusive and peaceful societies (SDG 16). The NITI Aayog particularly has shifted the policy focus from inputs and programmes to outcomes from education. It has promoted competitive federalism among States to improve their educational indicators that are measurable by a battery of tests on students 2 . Nevertheless, the low learning attainment level in the country has continued in an uncompromising manner. Any serious work on ‘No One Left Behind’ (NOLB) may ask for new and reformistic approaches. The DNEP has provided some hopes, but it calls for further examination of rhetoric and reality.

Related Interview: Rajendran, S. 2019 . "Students need to develop 21 st century skills which are analytical, applied and outcome oriented": M.K. Sridhar , The Hindu Centre for Politics and Public Policy, September 16.

The DNEP must be read in the context of current economic and educational climate in order to be able to gauge the essential path and pace needed to take to make its vision a reality. India wants to be a $5 trillion economy in 2024, and a $10 trillion economy by 2030, from being a $2.8 trillion one at present. The ask is for doubling its present economic growth from six per cent to 12 per cent. On the one hand, we are in another new age of industrial revolution or the skilling age. On the other, at present, roughly one million young people enter the workforce in India each month 3 , but a majority of them are just raw hands without professional technical knowledge or practical vocational skills. The weak linkages between education and employment carry the potential risk of turning India’s demographic dividend into demographic disaster.

The merit of education as an invaluable public good is well recognised but public investment has remained low.

In the education sector, the elusive conundrum of the quantity-quality-equity triangle has remained unresolved. Although the merit of education as an invaluable public good is well recognised, the public investment for it has remained low 4 . It is relevant to explore how the DNEP has addressed some of the major areas for policy intervention in school education, namely (i) Access, which can be measured by the size and flow of students moving across the education system, (ii) Equity, which can be gauged by the reduction or persistence of developmentally deprived population, and (iii) Quality,  which can be understood from teaching-learning processes and developmental outcomes for children that are more conveniently implied by attainment scores.

1.  Access:  According to information provided by the national database for education, U-DISE, in the year 2017, there were close to 190 million children (actually 189,887,008) in elementary classes 1 to 8 across India; but only one-fifth of that number (38,823,856 children) transited to or were found enrolled in secondary classes 9 and 10; and a smaller number (24,735,234) continued in higher secondary classes 11 and 12. The net enrolment ratios gradually fell from 86 per cent at elementary level to 80 per cent at secondary level to just 31 per cent at higher secondary level.

While several reasons beyond mere physical availability of schools operated behind these numbers, access to schools—especially secondary schools (class 9 to 12, according to DNEP)—is an issue in many parts of the country. There is roughly one secondary school/section to every 2.52 upper primary school/section. The DNEP says, ‘for many children, the closest secondary school is at a prohibitively large distance—too far to walk, with no safe and practical conveyances available to reach school’. 5

Juxtapose this with the recent trend of closing down of government run elementary schools for reasons of declining child population, poor enrolment in government schools compared to private schools, and the overall economic non-viability of small schools. Euphemistically, the Economic Survey of 2019 6 has suggested merging of small schools located within one to three kilometres in a move to shift policy emphasis from quantity to quality and efficiency, and the DNEP advices conglomerating schools based on geography for shared resources and better governance, under what it calls as ‘the school complex’ 7 . The advantages of this reformistic idea is well discussed in the DNEP, but the discussion does not adequately include the lens of those who could be left behind.

2.  Equity:  There are deficiencies in the educational delivery which affect the enrolment, transition and learning attainment levels of children from the marginalised social categories, more harshly than the other children. Lately, poor learning outcomes or low attainment scores in tests were cited by more than 25 states of the country which demanded the introduction of examinations for students in classes 5 to 8. This is not in line with the stipulation of the Right to Education Act, 2009, not to fail or detain any child until he/she graduated up to class 8 over each consecutive year of schooling. But, in July 2018, the Lok Sabha passed a regressive Bill to throw away the no-detention clause of RTE, which the Rajya Sabha also passed, amid walk out by the Left parties. The amendment 8 has been notified in January 2019. Only a few States like Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Telangana are considering to hold the no-detention policy as a way of protecting the historically excluded groups from falling off the education radar. In this context, it is relevant to note the weak reference to affirmative action for the socially marginalised groups of children in the DNEP, and to what it calls as ‘the under-represented groups’, the URGs.

3.  Quality:  The country has been fixated on students’ achievement scores as an indicator for educational quality during the last decade or more. NITI Aayog has introduced a School Education Quality Index that competitively ranks states on their educational performance and also gives a delta ranking to the states based on their improvement from the base year 9 . Its real-time monitoring of ‘aspirational’ districts also places weightage to educational performance indicators. This is perhaps in cognizance of the ASER (Rural) data which has shown very low learning levels during the decade of 2008-18. ASER noted that across India, less than 50 per cent of government school children in class 5, and 70 per cent of those in class 8 could read at class 2 level. On the other hand, the learning level among children in private schools has also not been a matter to rejoice. Similarly, in arithmetic ability, only 40 per cent of class 8 children in government schools and 54 per cent of them in private schools could do division. The National Achievement Survey (NAS) which uses a different methodology of learning assessment also confirmed the poor learning and arithmetic ability at Class 8. In context, the DNEP also has discussed the critical crisis of learning in several exclusive chapters. However, rather than making a departure from obsessively testing the students’ learning outcomes, the DNEP has proposed the conduct of ‘census examinations’ (or simply, public board exams) at classes 3 and 5, followed by bi-semester pattern examinations during class 9-12. Whether this an adequate and essential way forward to maintain quality is a question that cannot be left undiscussed.

The rest of this paper discusses some of such reformistic suggestions proposed by the DNEP (as indicated above) as a way forward to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the school education system. These proposals are discussed, particularly from the lens of ‘no one left behind’.

The case of URGs: Social equity through public schools

The draft DNEP’s call for the expansion of the Right of Children to a Free and Compulsory Education (RTE) Act to include all children aged 3-18 is welcome. It is an important step towards expanding educational opportunities for children in India, especially for educating the most marginalised.

Notwithstanding the diverse populations that inhabit the country with their own unique strengths and limitations, the policy seems to have an overarching ‘one-India’ lens.

However, the first concern is regarding the DNEP’s choice of language to express commitment to the most marginalised. In a democratic system with a level playing ground for all, if there are some missing groups of players, they could be referred to as ‘under-represented’. But here is a case where centuries of overt and subtle deprivations through caste, gender, geography, disability, and overlapping multiple deprivations have kept certain groups of people to be unequally developed in their capacity to enter the playfield, let alone play the game with gusto. Is it a case of unreached group or under-represented group? The plea is, therefore, to shift the language of usage to consciously trigger stronger commitment to reach out and adopt culturally suitable interventions that can integrate the so far excluded groups into the mainstream. Notwithstanding the diverse populations that inhabit the country with their own unique set of strengths and limitations, the policy seems to have an overarching ‘one-India’ lens. Even so, the strategy to build such a country through education in an inclusive manner is not adequately explained.

In so far as not paying high priority attention to reducing the manipulative influences of ascriptive features such as religion, caste, community, gender and, for that matter, physical disability, the new education system may potentially promote the social reproductionist role of education. There remains much scope to improve the discourse of the policy to promote a more transformative role of education. There is strong need to advocate for education as a social leveller, as it has the best potential to change the socio-political circumstances that have continued to keep certain castes and communities entrenched in backwardness, and also vulnerable to new shocks such as unemployment, migration, etc. An activist with a passion to build a new India may thus ask for mission mode marching orders to reach the unreached.

It seems like tokenism in the DNEP to identify and label traditionally underdeveloped pockets of educational deprivation as ‘special education zones’ and propose the already not-so-well-designed social protection schemes and services to target them. There is, in fact, urgent need for evidence-based approach to improve the demand and supply of social protection provisioning in education, their delivery processes and the expected versus actual outcomes from them.

The case of School Complex: Sharing the scarce resources

In the spirit of evidence-based policy, the U-DISE data on small and economically unviable schools is quoted by the DNEP that about 30 per cent of elementary schools in the country have less than 30 students on an average, and these small schools must be conglomerated for economic efficiency of administration and governance. Similar tunes are sung by NITI Aayog documents and the recent Economic Survey.

The DNEP’s solution, in the form of establishing School Complexes, is about sharing the scarce public resources among schools. The resources include regular as well as special teachers, counsellors, social workers, volunteers, local crafts-people, and also libraries and laboratories among a set of geographically adjacent clusters of schools conglomerated into a single school complex. Is it practical? Would it not dilute the presently hard-groomed yet feeble voice of the local citizens, the SMCs, or the panchayats as a rare case may be, to ask why a teacher was not in their remotely located school? Could the policy silence them by the solution that a teacher—be he/she the subject teacher, sports teacher, arts teacher or counsellor—was not supposed to be in their one school only! She/he will come when the need for their presence is voiced out with data and evidence about these remote schools, when the administrative authority in such cases has issued the necessary order of visit, when some sort of travel arrangement is actually available to reach there, when—alas—the travel and working hours can practically accommodate the actual reach and teach, and when entitlements like leave will not adversely delay or dismiss the teacher’s visit.

It is important to notice that the increasing streams of in-migrant and seasonal migrant populations in several states need teachers and schools to come to them. The psycho-social needs of children need to be factored in and they cannot be expected to cope with the scarce facilities for accessing schools. In fact, even for non-migrant sections, the teaching-learning process must be more organically planned. If a child with the fundamental right to education asks why isn’t there a science laboratory in the unreached pocket school that he/she is attending, the answer cannot be that he/she must go to another distant school to access it. Such practical difficulties must be given urgent attention, as special case for redressal. 

While it is not difficult to imagine that such school complexes will be established more in certain remote and underdeveloped pockets, called the ‘special education zones’  by the DNEP, how far can this geographic zoning help to reduce the exclusion and multi-dimensional deprivations in the scattered last mile pockets of development remains a critical concern.

The case of input vs output in public and private education

The importance of emphasising educational outcomes cannot be overrated. What are the inputs and how relevant are they for expected outcomes is a matter discussed in the DNEP as well. However, while the diagnosis about poor quality of education at all levels is well-presented, the reformistic discussion around it seems to ask for serious re-consideration.

In terms of inputs, the DNEP makes a critical dig at the RTE for undue insistence of inputs such as physical and infrastructure provisions as per norms, be it in the size of classroom, availability of playground, or the 25 per cent reservation of poor students in private schools—all of which the RTE has been championing for against several odds.

The Draft’s stance on private schools does not sit well with the overall concern of equitable education.

The Draft’s stance on private schools does not sit well with the overall concern of equitable education. It ethically preaches that private schools must be not-for-profit, but in the same vein has also allowed private schools to set their own fees and, furthermore, make any so-called reasonable increase in fees depending on inflation etc. Going by its recommendation, if the government schools cannot afford to provide the needed schooling facilities for all, and the private schools will also be let free from admitting 25 per cent of disadvantaged students into their schools, what is the plight for the students and parents aspiring to use education as a vehicle for social mobility? There is need to ensure that structural ways of exclusion will not be re-paved. Otherwise, the well-intentioned equitable and quality education for all may remain a rhetoric.

In the discussion of public and private institutions, there could have been reference to policy thinking on the availability and sharing of education technology by private schools. Given the digital world that we live in, and the motivation for disruptive innovations using digital technology expressed in the DNEP, one may expect that technology will reach out to all in different ways 10 . It mentions 100 per cent electrification of all schools and there is tendency to extrapolate that computers, smart classrooms etc. will consequently follow at some point to all schools, inclusive of those in the special educational zones. Even if so, do public schools have the digital content to capture the interest of students? Is the appetite for digital learning tested and are students at ease with use of technology? What behavioural changes are expected and who will communicate with them and how? How is it that any child, rich or poor, masters the mobile phone but not the computers even when freely provided by schools? The DNEP is silent on most of these concerns.

The case of skilling and vocational education

A ray of new hope in the Draft is that it talks about integrating vocational education into the secondary education curriculum and aligned to the National Skills Qualification Framework (NSQF), and not leaving it as parallel stream to regular education. It proposes to offer to all students a flexibility of vocational courses, so that school leaving students have multiple possibility of job avenues rather than the present situation where the path is rigid once a choice is made. It thus also makes a departure from the 2015 National Policy on Skills Development and Entrepreneurship which said that 25 per cent of educational institutions would target vocational education. DNEP says that all schools, colleges and universities must integrate vocational education.

At the secondary stage, it asks for education in at least one vocation, where the students would make a choice based on availability of hands-on training facility and educators/local trainers. It also proposes that the ‘school complexes’ must collaborate with ITI, Polytechnics, local business houses, be they industry, agrarian or service, hospitals, artisans and experts in local crafts, for linking with vocational education for the secondary age students. This is not an area for which teachers and teacher-educators have been oriented so far. Their motivation to take this extra mile, compounded with students’ lack of functional life skills, would need sharper attention to strategies that can translate the recommendation to reality.

The policy discusses life skills in terms of 21 st century skills, which is very welcome, and also vocational education in an exclusive chapter and in few other places.

The policy discusses life skills in terms of 21 st century skills, which is very welcome, and also vocational education in an exclusive chapter and in few other places. These things will not automatically happen for all. The continuing caste and gender influences that will determine student choice for certain courses and vocations need a more direct policy intervention. Skills for employability and empowerment for adolescents, more so for girls and marginalised groups, will need greater attention if skilling and vocational education have to go at scale. Available data for 2017 says that only five per cent of the Indian workforce in the 19-24 age group has received some form of vocational education, while the same in USA is 52 per cent, Germany is 75 per cent and South Korea is 96 per cent. Therefore, identifying the target student population who are expected to pick up the tools for different skilling is an urgent matter for clarity in assessment, analysis and action.

Several in-built expectations would also need the contribution of other partners besides the national or State governments. Sadly, the discourse on role of elected local governments is very weak or nearly absent. Besides, the areas of potential action by other players are also not spelt out. For example, there is need for skill gap analysis, mapping of local opportunities, induction of experts to teach the vocational course, conduct of assessments of the skills trainings that partners may offer, capacity development of students to move horizontally and vertically with skills training and career guidance, linkages with industry and trade, and funding support at all stages. Who is going to take up these big ticket items?

The case of funds: Where is the money?

In summing up, and as a final question: Does India have the funds to meet these noble goals through education? Will raising the tax-GDP ratio automatically improve the allocation and efficient spending in education?  I recall an illustrious old Education Commission called the Mudaliar Commission on Secondary Education in 1953 11 , that had proposed some clear public financing ideas to ensure that the then new India’s low economic base should not obstruct the practicality of its recommendations. It forcefully argued for (i) collection of an ‘industrial education cess’ to be levied on industries, to go directly into the furtherance of technical and vocational education at the secondary stage, (ii) a percentage of the net revenue from national industries and enterprises like the Railways, and Posts and Telegraphs was to contribute to technical education in certain fields, (iii) surplus from religions and charitable endowments  to be diverted to secondary education, (iv) exemptions from levy of property taxes on educational institutions and exemption of customs duty for purchase of scientific equipment and library books,  to expand the fiscal space for secondary education, and (v) philanthropic contributions to the development of secondary education to be exempted from Income Tax.

Is the policy actively engaging in the scenario of preparing the nation for $10 trillion economy by 2030, or is it true that such a result does not need any active educational engagement for all?

I will leave behind these thoughts for reflection. It is a time to be cautious that we do not miss the woods for the trees. Is the policy actively engaging in the scenario of preparing the nation for $10 trillion economy by 2030, or is it true that such a result does not need any active educational engagement for all? Leaving that as it may, can we rest assured that the education system envisioned in the policy will create well-rounded students and happy citizens? If we are convinced of the discourse in the DNEP to lead towards that, India is ready to walk the talk. Until then, achievement scores and rankings will keep the country’s children uncompromisingly dabbling their worth with examinations of sorts.

[ Akila Radhakrishan , is Social Policy Specialist for UNICEF in Tamil Nadu and Kerala. She has earlier  worked in academic institutions,  bilateral and multilateral organizations in India and abroad. In Education, her work during the Education For All movement, the process evaluation of Activity Based Learning for Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan ('A Trigger for Change in Primary Education'), and the first model perspective plan for Rashtriya Madhyamik Shiksha Abhiyan (RMSA) are recognised. Her recent focus is on influencing policy and programmes at scale for quality of education at secondary school stage.

She holds a PhD degree in Sociology from Madras Institute of Development Studies. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of the organisation she represents.  She can be contacted at  [email protected] ]


1. Government of India. 2019 . " Draft National Education Policy, 2019 ", Ministry of Human Resource Development, New Delhi, P. 41. []. Return To text.

2. Niti Aayog. 2017 . " Three year action agenda 2017-18 to 2019-20 ", pp. 131-132; 138. []. Return to Text.

3. There are different interpretations of data on employment and unemployment released by the Labour Bureau. Even if the lower estimate of 4.75 million is accepted as the number that joins the labour force each year, the concern remains that the number of jobs created are not adequate to absorb this labour force.

Dewan. 2018 . " Do 12 mn Indians join workforce annually? Data peg number at less than half ",Business Standard, May 21. []. Return to Text.

4. The expenditure on education in India was low at 2.7% of GDP in 2018, remaining far shorter of the aim of 6% GDP. The Union Budget of 2019 has proposed about Rs 94 thousand crores education budget, with 60 percent of it to go into school education. Return to Text.

5. Niti Aayog. 2017 . " Three year action agenda 2017-18 to 2019-20 ", pp. 131-132; 138. []. Return to Text.

6. Indian Economic Survey, 2019 . "Chapter: 'India’s demography at 2040: Planning public good provision for the 21 st century’", pp. 143. Return to Text.

7. Draft National Education Policy, 2019 . "Chapter: 'Efficient resourcing and effective governance through school complexes'", pp. 157-76. Return to Text.

8. Ministry of Law and Justice. 2019 . " The Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education (Amendment) Act, 2019 ", The Gazette of India, January 11. []. Return to Text.

9. Niti Aayog. 2019 . " Education: School Education Quality Index(SEQI) ". []. Return to Text.

10. Ramanujam, R. 2019 . " Technology in the DNEP and science education ", Indian Academy of Sciences . []. Return to Text.

11. Ministry of Education, Government of India. 1953 . " Report of the Secondary Education Commission – The Mudaliar Commission Report ", pp. 206. []. Return to Text.

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