In 2016 we, at Centre for Civil Society, argued that India needs an education policy that will keep children in school and ensure consistent and high learning outcomes. To do this, we recommended that the government of the day applying new public management strategies to education, away from ‘mission mode’ to systemic transformation - building capacity, encouraging competition for quality improvement, insisting on innovative and effective delivery, monitoring accountability, and targeting resources to individual students. Such a shift would involve a rethink of the governance and regulatory frameworks guiding school operations, public or private.
The 2019 Kasturirangan Committee Report tables a Draft National Education Policy, that gets us closer to this vision of an education system. Two proposals of this Draft National Education Policy are worth highlighting. The Draft policy accurately diagnoses the system pathology, and proposes correction through a paradigm shift in how all schools are governed, and not solely through an intensification of effort on running public schools. Its first proposal is the sound public policy approach of regulatory neutrality, and its second proposal is to rewire public administration through the separation of functions in the government education administration.
The first of these proposals is an implicit recognition that parents are aspirational and voting with their feet to choose schools of all shapes, sizes, and philosophies. This includes high performing government schools, budget private schools, alternative schools, and home-based schooling. The Draft Policy implicitly recognises these choices by emphasising on the principle of regulatory neutrality in the oversight of all schools, and by prizing flexible entry into and exit from the system through detached board examinations, expanded open-schooling, core-competency oriented National Curriculum Framework and other measures.
The principle of regulatory neutrality is a time-tested principle that holds all competing market players to the same standards, emphasising service quality standards and performance as criteria to stay in the system and encouraging flexibility on how to deliver on that performance. In the case of school education, the Draft Policy applies this principle by raising questions around the effectiveness of an input-oriented recognition system for non-government schools. The Draft Policy wisely recognizes parental aspirations by promising an enabling regulatory environment for private schools, one focused on minimum infrastructure, safety standards, flexible curriculum and pedagogy, and disclosure standards. It promises to correct information asymmetries through a rules-based regulatory framework that will support parents to make an informed choice on behalf of their wards.
It begins by laying out in clear terms that the objective of revamping the school recognition system is so India’s school education system is invigorated through effective regulation and accreditation mechanisms that ensure integrity and transparency and foster quality and innovation for continually improving educational outcomes. It recognises the inherent irony of expecting to raise autonomous free-thinking individuals through a regulatory and governance culture is sclerotic and disempowering.
Since 2009 when the Right to Education Act came into force, there has been wide disagreement with its prescriptive input requirements that stifle the ability of schools to manage operations. Funnily enough, even government schools have been unable to meet these input requirements. The only difference is government schools are given a long leash on these requirements, while private schools face the threat of closure. The Draft Policy through the principle of regulatory neutrality will create an enabling environment to allow multiple models for schools, and particularly if its recommendations on loosening the input restrictions of the RTE Act are adopted.
In proposing that the School Quality Assessment and Accreditation Framework (SQAAF) will be the basis for school accreditation setting basic minimum standards for all schools, public and private, the Draft policy levels the playing field, and forces the system to train its eyes on learning outcomes of all children across the country. The Committee’s diagnosis of the system pathology and prescription for correction could not be more correct. One only need observe the serpentine lines of tired frustrated parents outside schools at admission season, to understand that we do not have enough good quality schools to service their aspirations and needs. We welcome the Committee’s far-sighted approach in taking this public policy stance.
The Kasturirangan Committee’s second proposal to improve the functioning of the system is to rewire the administrative apparatus at the central and state level by separating the different functions performed by education administration functionaries. At Centre for Civil Society, we have long argued that the time-tested public administration strategy of separating the roles of policymaking, provision, regulation, financing, and assessment, will improve the functioning of government schools, reduce conflicts of interest, and increase the bouquet of choices available to parents and government alike.
On this recommendation too, the Draft Policy takes a detailed and thoughtful approach. It recognises the federal nature of school education management in India and proposes a structure that will enable the state government to easily and effectively separate the functions of different administrators in the system. The lynchpin of this proposed system is the State School Regulatory Authority, an independent body vested with the responsibility to monitor existing schools, government and private, and allow new schools to rise. This body is to apply the principle of regulatory neutrality in recognising or derecognising schools. Alongside, the Draft Policy recommends that the state-level Departments of School Education be responsible for the running of government schools and focus their attention to quality improvement. Our view is that such a separated system can be enhanced further by thoughtful agency design, clear operating principles, and regulatory reporting lines to the legislature instead of the Chief Minister.
In keeping with the Directive Principles in the Constitution of India, the government has been working towards providing universal access to and participation in education. The government has since endeavoured to build a National System of Education through certain instruments of large public purpose schemes that include several influential and high-level expert committee reports, two National Policies and an Action Plan on Education that built on each of these, an earmarked cess to fund education, and lastly passing the Right to Education Act. The government has built a formidable institutional architecture around the overarching goal of a National Education System comprising curriculum development, research & planning, and teacher training. Each measure has brought us a step closer to universal education, mass literacy, and skilling of the general population.
In the last decade, India and the world have undergone dramatic changes that demand a voice and recognition in the National Education Policy, not just as a footnote but tactically to improve quality and better returns to public investment in education. The Draft National Education Policy does just this. The recommendations of the Draft Policy if implemented will put students and their interests at the centre and not the comfort of those who run the education system. These recommendations if executed correctly and soon will give us an education governance structure that promotes autonomy and innovation with clear accountability.