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The concept of a National System of Education implies that, up to a given level, all students, irrespective of caste, creed, location or sex, have access to education of a comparable quality. This has sought to be achieved by successive governments in India. In achieving this aim, the guiding forces are the National Policy on Education documents of 1968, and 1986 under the Prime Ministership of Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi, and most recently by the Right to Education Act which came into force in 2009.
The 1968 policy was the first significant and major step in education in post-independence India. “It aimed to promote national progress, a sense of common citizenship and culture, and to strengthen national integration.” The emphasis was on the need to radically overhaul and reconstruct the education system, with a focus on quality improvement. Yet, it was noticed that there were problems with the policy at the level of implementation – with “problems of access, quality, quantity, utility and financial outlay.”
The 1986 policy sought to address the lacunae observed in the 1968 policy by focussing on education for women, for the marginalised sections, minorities, the differently abled and also adult education. The policy defined and recommended Universal Elementary Education (UEE) embodying the concepts of universal access, universal retention and universal attainment. In order to address the widening class distinctions, and social segregation, NPE also recommended Common School System, where "children from different social classes and groups come together under common public school and thus promote the emergence of an egalitarian and integrated society”.
In 1993, in a PIL ‘Unnikrishnan versus state of Andhra Pradesh’, the Supreme court of India ruled that, “Education is a fundamental right that follows from the Right to life in Article 21 of the Constitution”. However, there was no legislative follow up from this for many years, primarily due to a volatile political situation at home in the following few years. In 2002, the 86th Constitutional Amendment of India added Article 21A stating that, “The state shall provide free and compulsory education to all children of the age 6 to 14 years in such as a way as the State may, by law, determine”. This led to the formulation of the Right to Education Act, which was passed by the UPA Government and became a law in 2009.
Today, the results of the Right to Education Act and allied education policies like Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan and the mid day meal scheme are there for all to see. More and more children are now going to school, literacy rates are rising. The provision of seats for the EWS category has ensured that students from the economically deprived sections are not deprived of the benefits of education. Yet, we notice that gaps do remain – not only at implementation level, but recent figures have also pointed out how dropout rates are increasing in the post ‘compulsory’ period, how the mid day meal scheme is being manipulated etc. The recent mid day meal tragedy in Bihar is just a case in point of problems with implementation.
Today, as we have a new generation of youngsters, the education system in this country needs a drastic overhaul. There have been a number of attempts to streamline and review the CBSE in keeping with the times, but it has also often been seen that students scoring impossibly high marks in the CBSE often have no real grounding in the concepts. Students with nearly 100 marks in English often cannot string together a paragraph of correct English. Education in India needs to focus less on rote learning, and ‘keywords’ and more on concepts and processes. Similarly, the higher education system too needs an overhaul. The recent shift by Delhi University to a Four Year Undergraduate Program has been controversial. This new system, along with the move to a semester based system, rather than an annual system does have its benefits, which however, have become eclipsed due to an apparent lack of proper planning. For instance, how useful would a basic Foundation course in English be for a student already pursuing an Honours degree in the subject? Or a course in Maths for someone who has had no contact with the subject since Class VIII? The focus in India needs to shift to the higher education system – radical changes are the need of the hour, but these need to be well thought out and then implemented. Education needs to be equitable. Students need to feel that they are gaining something from the system that will empower them in the future. More skill development and vocational courses, employment generation opportunities need to be provided by the education system. A number of these ideas have been articulated in the 12th Plan for Education, but it is upto the people of this country, especially the youth, to ensure that implementation does not fail. These are the challenges and opportunities facing Indian education today.