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Topic / Education, Training and Labor

The Capacity Building Imperative to Improve India’s Public Education

The Annual Status of Education Report 2023 (ASER 2023) reports that a concerning 25% of India’s youth aged 14-18 struggle to comprehend grade 2 level text in their regional language, and more than 50% cannot perform basic division.1 Moreover, with evolving workforce demands, the expectations from India’s education systems, particularly public schools, have expanded beyond achieving universal enrollment and basic literacy and numeracy. The call now is to equitably equip them with 21st-century skills, a vision that has been outlined in the country’s National Education Policy Plan (NEP 2020).2

However, the reality is far from ideal. Poor physical infrastructure, outdated curricula, subpar pedagogical standards, and dismal learning outcomes as highlighted in ASER 2023, plague India’s public education system. This prompts a critical question: What factors hinder India from delivering the required quality of education through its public schools? Is it a lack of political will, inadequate funding, poor system capacity in implementing policies, or perhaps a combination of all these factors?

While one might argue that each of these crucial elements is lacking to some extent in the public education system, the issue of poor system capacity is one of the most formidable barriers to achieving the ambitious goals and objectives outlined in NEP 2020.3

System capacity is the ability of a system, in this case the school education department, to effectively implement policies and programs. It is a crucial factor in determining how successful the education department will be in achieving its real goals. For instance, the department may build schools and enroll students, yet it may fail to provide quality education to those students.

Release of the NEP 2020 was heralded as a major reform in India’s education.4 The Policy was the first major revision made to the education policy landscape of India since 1986 and brings several evidence-informed policy proposals. It recognizes the centrality of achieving universal foundational literacy and numeracy, focusing on teacher effectiveness and reforming school organization and management.5 However, the policy was supposed to only be the first step towards the transformation of India’s public education. Real success was dependent on the systems’ capacity for effective implementation of all the points of reform proposed in the policy. This raises the question: Are sufficient efforts being made to simultaneously enhance the institutional capacity of the relevant departments?

Who Is Responsible and Where Are We Going Wrong?

Within India’s current institutional framework, there is no single authority with a clear mandate to ensure that the respective education departments possess the necessary capacities to realize their institutional vision. One of the key players is the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT), who is responsible for providing pre-and-in-service training to teachers, school leaders, and other educational personnel. National Institute for Educational Planning and Administration (NIEPA) is another key institute, whose mission is to provide “capacity building, research, and professional support services to governments”. It has played a pivotal role in drafting the NEP 2020, and the conceptualization and launch of the Management Information System of the Department of School Education and Literacy (UDISE).

A new but potentially vital player in building capacity of India’s public education systems is the Capacity Building Commission (CBC) of India.6 Recently, the CBC, in collaboration with the Department of School Education and Literacy (DSEL), formulated an Annual Capacity Building Plan (ACBP) for the department, which was released in August 2023. The CBC also plans to deploy program coordinators to the DSEL to support the implementation of capacity building initiatives identified in the ACBP.

It is important, however, that the efforts by these institutes reflect a more holistic approach to developing capacity. The existing capacity-building initiatives, such as DSEL’s NISHTHA primarily focus on providing one-time or sporadic skills training, rather than offering continuous, on-site coaching better suited to the nature of work undertaken by educational personnel. This gap has also been highlighted by the CBC in its approach paper wherein it emphasizes the need for more practical and on-the-ground experience informed, experiential learning opportunities to truly enhance the capabilities of those within the public education sector.7

Furthermore, as part of its capacity building efforts, the department must resist the temptation to simply bring in external ‘best practices’ into their system. Matt Andrews, a Harvard Professor and public management expert describes this kind of adoption as ‘isomorphic mimicry.’ He cautions against such reforms that are adopted merely to align with an institutional agenda rather than to genuinely enhance functionality of the system.

What remains to be seen is how these institutions avoid these pitfalls going forward. They must rise to the occasion to ensure that their efforts are directed towards supporting all the departments with developing the right skills and mindset.

Getting Capacity Building Right for India’s Education Systems

The much-celebrated Delhi Education Revolution, which put capacity building of its institutional agents at the center of its reform efforts, serves as a great example of a public system that has made a remarkable turnaround of its institutional capacity.8 The Delhi government leveraged momentum provided by its policy introductions, to change the business-as-usual approach of its demotivated administrators and teachers. It tapped into the unique capacities and experience of its mid-tier  teaching staff to set-up a unique Teacher Development Coordinator programme. This serves as a good and successful example of deviating from the usual one-time training model to a more effective coaching model.9

Moreover, implementation does not happen in an organizational vacuum and any capacity building strategy of an institution must consider all tiers of its personnel.10 Therefore, a focus on building the capacities of other organizational agents (bureaucrats and education administrators) becomes as important as that of teachers and school leaders. Which capacities of education administrators are to be developed, must be determined based on the challenges faced by them in their respective geographies or department. The CBC, in its advisory to ministries and departments, also recommends that any training and capacity development program must follow a proper needs analysis. However, while carrying out such a needs analysis, the departments concerned must ensure that they bring in voices from the front-line to better understand the capacity needs of various agents in our public education system.

Another remarkable introduction by the CBC is its push for looking at capacity building beyond just individual’s capacity. It does so by also emphasizing organizational and institutional level reforms in a department or ministry’s capacity building initiatives. For the department of school education, an organizational level reform may include setting up a process to build impact evaluation into the design of every program that the department carries out. For example, the department is not just rolling out a program on foundational literacy and numeracy but also actively measuring progress and course-correcting on the basis of the formative results it gets.

To effectively achieve the goals of NEP 2020, India needs a comprehensive strategy. A strategy that transcends traditional one-time training sessions, encompassing all levels and departments, and addressing parallel systemic bottlenecks to significantly boost productivity of all agents of our public education system.

Way Forward

The CBC’s initiatives serve as a cornerstone for this transformation, aiming to ensure that the public education systems possess the requisite capacity to implement reforms effectively. For this to materialize, a concerted effort by all stakeholders, including the NIEPA, the DSEL, and other departments of the Ministry of Education, is essential.

The effectiveness of these efforts hinges on a multi-pronged strategy. First, NIEPA’s research and insights must be leveraged more effectively to inform the capacity-building work of the DSEL and other education departments. This involves translating research findings into actionable strategies and ensuring that these strategies are aligned with the ground realities of India’s diverse educational landscape.

Second, the implementation of the ACBP needs to be pursued with vigor. This requires not only diligent execution but also robust monitoring and evaluation mechanisms. Such mechanisms will enable real-time adjustments and ensure that the initiatives have a tangible impact on enhancing the capacity of educational administrators, teachers, and policymakers.

A simultaneous push to focus on a comprehensive approach to capacity building is indispensable for India’s public education system. Only this will ensure that India moves ahead on the ambitious journey of transforming its public education system and successfully bridges the gap between educational aspirations and the stark realities faced by millions of students in our country.

  1. ASER Centre, “Annual Status of Education Report (Rural) 2023: Beyond Basics,” January 17, 2024, ↩︎
  2. Urvashi Sahni, “India’s National Education Policy 2020: A Reformist Step Forward?” Brookings Institution, October 2, 2020, ↩︎
  3. Niranjan Sahoo, “Five Challenges That Would Shape the Outcome of NEP 2020,” Observer Research Foundation, ↩︎
  4. Ritika Chopra, “Explained: India’s National Education Policy, 2020,” The Indian Express, July 31, 2020, ↩︎
  5. Karthik Muralidharan and Abhijeet Singh, “India’s New National Education Policy: Evidence and Challenges,” Science 372, no. 6537 (April 2021): 36–38. ↩︎
  6. R Balasubramaniam and Praveen Perdeshi, “Making India More than Capable via Capacity Building,” The Economic Times, September 30, 2022, ↩︎
  7. “Annual Capacity Building Plans Approach Paper,” Capacity Building Commission, November 2022, ↩︎
  8. Vishal Talreja and Suchetha Bhat, “The 4 Pillars of Delhi’s School Education Reforms,” November 11, 2020, ↩︎
  9. David Childress, “Supporting Teachers from the Middle Tier: The Teacher Development Coordinator Programme in Delhi,” Instructional Leaders at the Middle Tier of Education Systems (New Delhi: IIEP UNESCO, 2021). ↩︎
  10. Yamini Aiyar et al., “Rewriting the Grammar of the Education System: Delhi’s Education Reform (A Tale of Creative Resistance and Creative Disruption),” Research on Improving Systems of Education (RISE), November 25, 2021, ↩︎