The ASER 2017 (Annual Status of Education Report) study, conducted by non-profit Pratham, yet again documented what we already knew intuitively—that the education system in India does not work. It reveals that almost half of our 14-year-olds cannot read a simple sentence in English, and only 43% can do a simple division correctly.
So, what’s wrong with our education system? What is it about our system that does not work? Which parts should we try to fix? In short, the answer is—everything.
The Indian education system is like a virtual reality game. Just like the Clash of Clans or the March of Empires, here too you acquire points (grades and marks), pass through levels (10th, 12th, graduation), acquire titles (BTech, PhD), only to realise that it means nothing at all. Just like the game, the points, levels and designations do not help you gain anything real, like food and shelter, job and money. It is an out-and-out sham.
Board exams are a joke
The most important charade at the centre of this gigantic hoax is our board exams. Like an important milestone in virtual reality games, board exams are something we Indians take very seriously. Each year, tens of lakhs of students sit for these exams through various boards. In some state boards like Bihar, it’s an outright joke—where the toppers land straight in jail. In others, like CBSE or ICSE, the joke is a more subtle one.
Why are they a joke? Is it because they sit at the heart of the sham which does not prepare our children for life or work? No—the harm inflicted by them is not limited only to that. They are the cause of a very grave additional ailment—unscrupulous rent-seeking players in the education sector.
This requires more explanation.
Board exams are intimately linked with the most important evil in our education system—rote-learning. Board exams from even our so-called better boards put the focus squarely on memorisation of textbooks. Agreed, even though there are some questions that do test conceptual understanding and thinking, most questions can be answered if you memorise your textbook properly.
Why do students need to memorise textbooks? The answer lies in the subjective nature of the question papers in board exams. Subjective questions are difficult to evaluate—as a result, detailed guidelines are given to the examiners to ensure uniformity in marking schemes. To ensure objectivity, those marking schemes typically mention several keywords and phrases that need to be present in the answer. If you have most of the keywords in your answer, you get better marks.
As a result, examiners are best placed to write textbooks (or revision guides, notes, whatever you call them), which contain explanations, definitions and answers exactly in the format that contain those keywords. You memorise them verbatim, and bingo, you end up with top marks.
Having concept-based, objective-type questions (something like SAT subject papers) will surely get rid of the bane of memorising textbooks. However, the objection may be—if we get rid of subjective tests, how will the children learn to write and express themselves?
The truth is, through the Indian education system, students do not learn to write and express themselves anyway. Board exams, through their subjective papers, do not prepare us to write analytical essays, express logical arguments or write a creative story. They just teach us to memorise answers to routine questions—that’s not called ‘writing’. If we want to teach and test writing, maybe we can just have a writing-focused test?
Objective-type question paper
An objective-type question paper will test understanding, eliminate rote-learning, and even promote skill development. It will reduce pressure on students—they would not need to burn the midnight oil and cancel family vacations to spend time memorising formulae and definitions, only to be forgotten as soon as exams are over. Concepts, once understood, tend to stay in your mind.
The textbook mafia
Other than eliminating rote-learning, an objective question paper will also help our society get rid of the textbook mafia. You do not have to be a talented writer like Khaled Hosseini or Yuval Noah Harari to write a textbook—yet your textbook can sell lakhs of copies. All you need is a convenient arrangement with the school management. The profits extracted by the textbook publishing business have not given us any social benefit, rather these have inflicted huge social costs upon us.
Fee hikes by private schools
Textbook publishing business is not the only way board exams encourage unscrupulous rent-seekers. Board exams are also at the heart of the pricing power exercised by private schools. We often complain about arbitrary fee hikes by many private schools. Governments often try to put fee caps on them, which is absolutely the wrong way to solve the problem. Rather, we need to delink board exams from schools.
Because a student necessarily needs to be enrolled with a school to sit for a board exam, schools have a certain monopoly power. If, like a SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Test) or a CAT (Common Admission Test) exam, board exams are just a standardised test that anyone can take without any school linkage, a lot of the monopoly power of schools will go away. Schools will then be judged by parents only on their performance, rather than their affiliation.
This might enable the boards to become just an exam administering body, rather than an affiliating body. The affiliation process is a charade, anyway. It measures inputs rather than outputs. With such stringent quality regulations in place, one wonders why India ranks at the bottom of education rankings. Clearly, quality cannot be dictated by rules and policies.
BEd is a large, legalised scam
One of the biggest jokes in the affiliation system is that schools are required to mandatorily hire BEd trained teachers. This means anyone aspiring to be a teacher has to get a BEd degree. Eager to seize this money-making opportunity, many BEd colleges have sprung up in various corners of India. Most of them impart no education. These are just degree-selling outfits—making BEd possibly the largest legalised scam in the country.
If we are to reform our education, we must bust some myths. One of the biggest myths in the minds of the population is the sanctity of board exams, textbooks and the affiliation process. It is sad that the very forces which are dragging the Indian education system down are taken so seriously by most. It’s time we stop worshipping those false gods. It is time to call out the hoax for what it is.
Arghya Banerjee is founder, The Levelfield School, Suri, Birbhum, West Bengal. Views are personal