• Ayush Singhal

India's Schools Fail to Give Quality Education. Here's Why

Defining Quality Education

Under ideal circumstances, there would not be a warrant for the definition of ‘quality education’, as distinct from education. However, ‘education’ as understood today is seen more through an institutional perspective – as a formal service dedicated to regimenting the minds and habits of students. This perspective leaves out the holistic, philosophical meaning of education and its goals; indeed, the failure of educational institutions to converge towards these goals has led to the creation of the distinct concept of ‘quality education’.

Philosophically speaking, quality education – or just education in the ideal sense – is a process of psychological preparation of pupils towards the twin ends of making them capable of reason, critical thinking, introspection and meditation on one hand, and informing them of the state of affairs about the world in general as well as specialized knowledge in a field of their choosing on the other. The achievement of these ends renders individuals capable of living in a just society, distinguishing good from bad, truth from falsehoods, as well as creative thought for the purpose of scientific, artistic, social, political or other forms of achievements, which are essential for the progress of humanity.

The capacity to reason is arguably the most critical aspect of education. It implies the ability of an individual to think logically, which involves the imagination and mental conception of possibilities, as well as cause and effect. This could be used for the simple task of imagining how many oranges person A would have if he were given three more than five, or what could be the social consequences of gene-editing. The exercise of reason is important, as it allows us to (given certain contextual assumptions) derive true values about situations and circumstances, especially as it frees us from the fog of bias and prejudice. In the words of Hegel, “what is rational is real, and what is real is rational” (Hegel, Elements of the Philosophy of Right). Rationality may not be free from value judgments. After all, rationality can be of two kinds – value rationality and instrumental rationality, the latter of which involves value assumptions. But these assumptions can be made explicit, and even further deconstructed, using value rationality itself.

Reason and rationality help us combat our own biases and prejudices, the latter of which literally means ‘judgement before thought’. Thus reason involves critical thinking, and this thinking can be directed at any and all domains of knowledge, be they scientific, social or even artistic. Even our most basic sensory information can be critically re-examined, as exemplified by Kant’s distinction between noumena and phenomena (Kant, Critique of Pure Reason). Reason is hence the primary tool used to dig for truth, and the ability to see the truth precedes the ability to do any good in the world, including for one self.

This, however, is not enough, as reason may teach us to process information, but perhaps cannot in itself inform us of anything - the ages old debate between rationalists and empiricists. Thus, empirical knowledge is required to train the mind to use its rational faculties, as well as sensitize it to the realities of the world. These ‘realities’ yield their utility in various aspects of life, from the most mundane (metals conduct heat so don’t touch a kettle sitting on a stove), to relatively more sophisticated knowledge needed for exercise of public choice (Indian women are often economically dependent on their spouses due to generations of social dictation of their role as a homemaker, which is why the legal provision of alimony should perhaps not be abolished), to highly specialized knowledge (thorium-based molten salt reactors allow for the recycling of highly radioactive nuclear waste products) required for the advancement of human society.

Provision of knowledge in education also serves, as aforementioned, to train the mind to use its rational faculties. On top of that, it provides space for the appreciation of knowledge itself as a window to the wonders of the world. As an example, few students in any eighth grade class can be expected to go on to study chemistry in higher studies, yet they are taught stereochemistry, as it trains the mind to engage its visual-spatial intelligence while imagining the physical orientation of molecules, as well as brainstorm about the numerous possibilities in which they align with each other to make novel, useful materials. The creative process of the thought involved itself sharpens thinking skills, as well as provides a taste of the joy in thought and discovery, which serves to feed back into a stronger appreciation of education, besides cultivating an interest for what could be a fulfilling and rewarding future for the thinking student as a chemist / musician / economist / engineer / farmer / sculptor / politician etc. The pursuit of knowledge is in itself, even without practical applications, a pleasurable, sustainable human activity.

Thus, ‘quality education’, as understood as distinct from institutional, procedural ‘education’, is an all-round preparation of an individual meant to enable her/him to derive the maximum utility through their actions in the real world for their selves as well as for society. On the other hand, we shall define education more in terms of the bare presence of students in educational settings, complete with tangible inputs like classrooms, teachers and blackboards, while leaving out the intangible but equally important inputs like pedagogy, appropriate syllabi and classroom interaction. The achievement of bare ‘educational standards’ is a necessary condition to the achievement of ‘quality educational standards’, but not a sufficient condition.

To assess the access to quality education in India, we have to look at both the tangible/intangible inputs to quality education, as well as the expected output of the educational process, to get a better picture. Both the inputs and outputs have to be examined through the use of appropriate indicators, which are unfortunately not always available, if even gathered. However, there is sufficient data available to give us a rough idea of the state of access to quality education in India.

Table 1: Estimated Population of India by Age Group of Educational Attainment - 2015 and 2016 (in thousands). Source: Educational Statistics At A Glance 2018, Ministry of Human Resource Development.

Inputs for Quality Education

Let us adopt the theory of change framework to identify and then assess the factors or inputs that go into the realization of quality education. These inputs include quality pedagogy, quality syllabi, adequate amenities in the educational institution, a comfortable learning environment, and most fundamentally, access to education itself – geographic, financial, as well as social.

If we were to look at the state of pedagogical quality in Indian education, we see a picture which is not flattering. Pedagogical quality is low for most educational services in India, especially government schools, where teachers are focused more on meeting the targets of syllabus completion and adequate grades in examinations (NEP 2016). This is worsened by the fact that examinations are not designed to test analytical skills, but to jog the memory of the pupil. On top of that, the no-detention policy has nullified a powerful incentive for the teacher to teach well. Teacher training programmes have been designed by the state in India, both centrally by the union government as well as state governments, but their success is yet to be seen. DIETs (District Institutes for Educational Training), BRCs (Block Resource Centres) and CRCs (Cluster Resource Centres) have mostly failed to impart pedagogical training to teachers to get them to adopt a student-centred mode of teaching.

Institutional strength of teacher training programmes is also abysmally weak as state governments are increasingly dependent on para-teachers and contract teachers, which comes at the cost of institutional reform and learning of the state departments of education and the enhancement of the competencies of their teacher cadres. Because of these realities, teaching is mostly a one-way process dictated by the teacher who is incentivise to make sure that the student does well in examinations designed to measure a very narrow bandwidth of learning. Teaching is not open-ended and discursive, but linear and instructive. This is also true of higher education in India, although to a lesser extent. Poor pedagogy and poor learning are two stops in a vicious cycle – we cannot have better pedagogy without better teacher training, which in turn requires better human resources, which is itself a product of better learning. While one might expect a slow, positive, incremental feedback between the two over years, a sudden expansion of the public education system of India after the Right To Education Act of 2009, under the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyaan, has led to a worrying concurrent slump in teaching quality (NEP 2016).

Private schools perform better when it comes to pedagogical quality, and this has several reasons. Firstly, private schools pay, on an average, higher salaries to teachers and are thus able to attract better teachers. Secondly, students in private schools are typically better-off than their government school counterparts, and this adds to teacher motivation. The second reason is proven by the fact that even in government schools, teachers are seen to devote more energy engaging with students who themselves engage more, and students who they know would perform well.

The poor quality of pedagogy is thus also exacerbated by the inequity in pedagogical quality between urban and rural education, as well as private and public education. It must be kept in mind, however, that private educational institutions, while faring better than public institutions, still have a long way to go.

Another contributor to the lack of access to quality education in India is the rarity of wholesome learning environments in educational institutions. Once again, the problem is far more severe in public schools as compared to private schools, while private colleges often fare worse than government colleges – although this pattern is not consistent. A wholesome learning environment consists of learning tools, amenities and a general ambiance that all come together to synthesize an ecosystem that is conducive to learning and meditation. These tools and amenities could include libraries, playgrounds, well-lit classrooms, study halls, internet-enabled computers, provision of clean drinking water and hygienic toilets, proper ventilation and cooling, and noise-free, filth-free settings. Most educational institutions in India, including higher education institutions, compromise in one way or the other on at least one of these factors (NEP 2016).

Table 2: No of Recognized Institutions in India (2015-16).

Source: Educational Statistics At A Glance 2018, Ministry of Human Resource Development.

The importance of optimizing learning environments and their various factors is often underestimated, but it can go a long way in motivating learners as well as teachers to do better, and invest more time and effort willingly in the educational process.

If we look at the geographic access to schools in the year 2016, we see that the distance from a secondary school for rural households is between 1km and 2km for 23.6% of them, between 2km and 5km for 27.5%, and more than 5km for 12.2% (MHRD, Educational Statistics At A Glance). This goes to show that geographical access is still a major issue in Indian school education. If we look at the tables of population of age groups according to educational attainment, and number of education institutions by level of education, we see that there is one primary school for 155 children of that age, one for 171 children who should be in upper primary, one for 353 children who should be in secondary schools, one for 394 children who should be in senior secondary, and one for 3550 individuals who should be pursuing higher studies. The school-to-population ratio keeps decreasing. The gross enrollment ratio also shows a corresponding decline, with 99% for primary schools, 92% for upper primary, 81% for secondary, 56% for senior secondary and only 24.5% for higher education (see tables 1, 2, 3, and 4).

Table 3: Per 1000 distribution of households by distance (d) from schools.

Source: Educational Statistics At A Glance 2018, Ministry of Human Resource Development.

A mature individual walks at an average speed of about 5 kmph. Thus, it would take about 24 minutes for a mature individual to walk 2km, and about an hour to walk 5 kmph. It should take a lot more for children. Considering this, perhaps we can link lower enrollment ratios with geographical access, at least for rural regions, where the poor cannot afford to send children to school on private transportation, and commercial public transportation may be rare.

Outputs from Quality Education

Before looking at the relevant indicators for quality education, let us look at some of the indicators of basic educational goals. The Annual Status of Education Report of 2017 shows that while enrollment has increased steadily, especially after RTE 2009, the learning outcomes have plummeted. In fact, only less than half of the students of class 8 can do simple division. More than 25% of students in the age group 14-18 cannot read a simple sentence in their vernacular language. Only 60% of 14-year-old students could read a simple English sentence. Less than 60% could tell the time right after looking at the clock.

Sustained enrollment is a sign of a barely adequate involvement in the educational experience, yet even here the Indian scenario disappoints. If we look at the table of average annual drop-out rates in school education for the year 2015, we see that close to 17% of students drop out in their secondary education phase. This sudden spike can be attributed to the fact that many government schools offer only elementary education, and the no-detention policy exists only up to class eight. Because of this, students who would otherwise have been detained in the same standard, are allowed to progress further, until they are not able to perform satisfactorily enough for class nine, upon which they leave school. Another factor is the fact that the mid-day meal scheme only extends to elementary education, and students beyond class eight do not receive free mid-day meals.

Table 4: Average Annual Drop-out Rates in India, in School Education (2014-15).

Source: Educational Statistics At A Glance 2018, Ministry of Human Resource Development.

Outputs of quality education, as opposed to education itself, are very difficult to measure, as they incorporate several subjective aspects, but they can be indirectly assessed with cruder indicators such as decline of enrollment ratios. Gross enrollment ratio does not only drop from 92% in upper primary education to 81% in secondary education, but also drops from 81% to 56% in senior secondary education. This means, that of the total students who study through upper primary education, 11.9% students drop out during secondary education, and of the total students who study through secondary school, as much as 30.8% students drop out during senior secondary education (see table 16 above). This is a sign that education at previous levels is not imparted adequately, due to which students are not able to deal with more advanced subject matter at higher levels.

Output of research is also an indicator of quality of higher education. According to a report by the Indian Express, the total research output of all of India’s 39 central universities, which are deemed the best universities in the country, is less than that of the University of Cambridge alone. In fact, just the research output of the University of Delhi alone accounts for 21% of the total research output of all 39 universities. This is a disappointing state of affairs for a country with a population of 1.3 billion people.

So what will change?

Indian education has a long way to go before quality education can appear on the horizon for the country’s youth. Even basic conditions for minimal educational standards, as defined with crude attributes which do not capture the true depths of quality in education, have scarcely been met.

There is no quick fix solution to this problem, as the quality of education for one generation depends on the quality of education of the previous generation. Education is thus partially trapped in a vicious cycle of mediocrity. One way is to create a stronger, more flexible, more autonomous, and more accountable bureaucracy to deal with problems in public education, especially school education. Strength and flexibility are intuitively diverging concepts, and so are accountability and autonomy, but striking the right balance between the two through institutional reform, both at the union government as well as state government, is key to education reform in India.


1. Kant, Immanuel (1820). Elements of the Philosophy of Right

2. Hegel, Georg W.F. (1781). Critique of Pure Reason

3. Ministry of Human Resource Development (2016). Some Inputs for the Draft National Education Policy 2016. Retrieved from http://mhrd.gov.in/sites/upload_files/mhrd/files/nep/Inputs_Draft_NEP_2016.pdf

4. Ministry of Human Resource Development (2018). Educational Statistics At A Glance 2018. Retrieved from http://mhrd.gov.in/sites/upload_files/mhrd/files/statistics/ESAG-2018.pdf

5. Pratham Education Foundation (2017). Annual Status of Education Report 2017. Retrieved from http://img.asercentre.org/docs/Publications/ASER%20Reports/ASER%202017/aser2017fullreportfinal.pdf

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About the Author

Ayush Singhal is a poet, a social worker, a debater and a student of Public Policy. He holds an undergraduate degree in Political science from Kirorimal college, Delhi University. He has worked with Public health foundation of India, Pratham, Centre for Indian Political Research and Analysis, among others. He has interests in Indian Political History, Policy implementation and development, Education and Urbanization.

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