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“As a parent, I want to get rid of all schools, all board exams in India”

As a founder of one of India’s prominent educational think tanks, Dr Parth J Shah has been at the forefront of formulating several education policies of the country. But it was his experience as a parent that changed the way he looks at education today. In an interview with The Peeper Times, Dr Parth J. Shah, Founder – Centre for Civil Society & Director – Indian School of Public Policy, tells us that Indian education system is completely broken and needs a complete overhaul. Read on to know more about what’s ailing the Indian education sector and why the career prospects of policymakers in the country are bright.


What according to you is ailing the Indian education system?

I can answer it both as a policy person as well as a parent. To my surprise, the two views are quite different, which I would not have expected if you had asked me this question a few years ago. For me, that has been a huge revelation.

As a policy person, I would say the first thing that is ailing our education system is the minimal or non-existent role of parents. I feel that parents should have a larger role in the system, not just in terms of complaining to teachers or principals about school-related activities, but have a larger say in matters that matter. I haven’t seen any parents’ representative sitting on any policy decision panel that I have been part of, over the last 20 years. Not a single person in the capacity of a parent has been invited to these discussions. How can you have a discussion about education policy without parents being present at the table? Also, there are no teachers. You can see the committees we have formed. You may have professors, but no school teachers. Take the example of the New Education Policy (NEP) that we are in the process of formulating. It is headed by eminent space scientist Krishnaswamy Kasturirangan. He is a renowned name, but is he a teacher? Does he know what happens in a class or what should happen in a classroom? Has he taught in a school? I don’t know. So, I don’t see either parents or teachers at the table. How can you talk of reforming education without talking to teachers? It’s like me talking about changing the working culture at CCS (Centre for Civil Society) without involving any employee of CCS. This makes no sense. In a country of more than 1.2 billion people, there are only a handful of people in the education sector who have a role to play in policy making. If that’s the level of policy discussion we have in the country, then obviously, we are not really doing a decent job of it.

Second, shouldn’t economically challenged parents have a voice? There’s no denying that we all empathise with them, and want to do something for them, but what about their role? An ‘educated’ parent may still be asked for his/her views, but what about other parents? I think this also distorts the whole policy debate.

As a parent, on the other hand, I feel the whole system is completely broken. As a policy person, I can fix the system, tweak it, make teachers more accountable, bring parents at the table, etc. But, will it change anything on the ground level? The parent in me says, “No, things will not change. What happens in a classroom will not change. The rote system will continue.”

So as a parent, I feel the system is broken at a fundamental level in terms of our own understanding of how and what education should be like? I am coming to believe that what we need is a building called a school which has no teachers, no textbooks and no syllabus. If we can run something like that, then that makes more sense because that will be the kind of system which will serve the needs of children.


So, do you agree with former HRD secretary Anil Swarup, when he says, “There are too many policies in this country but what we lack is an action plan?”

I think what he means to say is that the debate on policies doesn’t go anywhere. We can keep debating about policies all our lives. You can have one view, I can have another; and we can have a healthy debate over it. But what happens today in a classroom has nothing to do with that debate. It is a very different thing that takes place in a classroom. We should worry about that. So, I think, what Mr Swarup meant was that let’s solve what we agree on. Things at a higher level are always going to be a part of the debate and that’s not going to get solved in a country like India, given our diversity, size, etc.

We will never be able to develop a policy which will be acceptable to all in the country because no matter what policies we may frame, some people will oppose it. Take the example of the Right to Education Act (RTE). There are some people who are completely against it. They think it is the biggest mistake we have made. But there are also people who are celebrating it. In a country like ours, policy making is going to be difficult. So, let’s not waste our energy and time on that. And let’s do whatever we can to fix the system through whatever policy we have at present.


Educational reforms should be done in the same manner as we did economic reforms in the country in 1991

What to do to fix the system? How do we ensure emphasis is laid on learning outcomes and not on rote learning?

At the fundamental level, you really have to revamp the system. Unless you get rid of the board exams, it’s going to be 12 years of preparation for the exam. That’s what ultimately matters if life is decided by what percentage we get in the board exam. If that’s the parameter by which we are going to judge our students, then that’s what our system will produce. So unless we change that, we can’t really change the system.


CBSE tried that by introducing Continuous and Comprehensive Evaluation (CCE). But it didn’t last long. What do you think went wrong?

Many of these things cannot be piecemeal. It has to be – yes or no. Either you agree that it’s a broken system and needs revamping, and you revamp it completely; or you disagree. You cannot tinker around with it because this creates too much of confusion in the system. The system is designed in a particular way, and has been functioning in this fashion from past 70 years. When class X board exams were eliminated, there was chaos – parents were worried about how their children were going to prepare for class XII board exams (which is where the course of life is going to be decided). There are several other arguments also. What I would say is that educational reforms should be done in the same manner as we did economic reforms in the country. At that time, clear-cut decisions were made by the government, that is, whether to abolish license raj or keep it; whether to open up the economy or remain a closed one. There were no middle grounds taken. Education needs reforms of that kind.


Last year, in an interview to us, the then HRD secretary Anil Swarup mentioned that they are unable to make drastic changes in the curriculum as it is the demand of the people. “The curriculum is determined by what ultimately does the child need? At present, there’s a clamour for IIT, medical colleges, etc., – it is a social requirement,” he said. So, how can we abolish it when people want it?

The question is why are people demanding it? They are demanding it because that’s how they can get into IIT or medical colleges. If you change the parameters based on which you qualify for IIT or medical college, then people will demand those. They are not in love with exams; they are in love with the results of the exam which enables them to get into IIT, etc. For example, if you make dancing as a pre-requisite for getting into IIT, then people would do dancing. I, as a parent, would train my children to dance because that’s the parameter that has been set for the entrance.


But when we talk about India, parents often discourage their children from taking a career in arts. Possibly, because they find the job prospects and salaries paid in this sector pretty discouraging. Plus, there is a great degree of respect for engineers or doctors, as compared to other professions. How can you change that mindset?

As a policymaker, I would like to look at it in the following way – what should I put value on, as a society, which would then begin to be valued by the people. For example, take the case of IIT. We can’t change people’s perception about the institute, but what we can change is what brings people to IIT, what qualifies one for it. If results of board exams or entrance exams determine one’s entry into IIT, then obviously that’s going to be the life goal of a student – to do well in board exams or entrance exams. It’s not that a student has some attachment with these exams, but that’s the route that has been defined to get into IIT. You define a different route and a student will chase that.

The question is how do other countries do it? There are very few countries in the world that have a board exam. Countries have aptitude tests like SAT. So, you finish your class XII, take these tests, and present the test scores before the college admission committee, along with a bio about various other things that you have done in these 12 years of life. The college then decides whether you qualify for it or not. But in India, in order to make life easy for the college admission committee, we have decided to have board exams. Based on the marks scored in exams, the college comes up with cut-offs. Why should we make life easy for the college admission committee while it becomes difficult for everyone else? Life of a college admission officer is always very difficult everywhere in the world where a good education system exists. That’s because they have to judge many things, not just one exam score, and then decide whether a student is worthy of admission or not.

There is no justification for having board exams. I think this is why they had got rid of it in class X. But we didn’t take it to its logical conclusion. If we had done that, we would have got rid of these exams, for both classes, X and XII, in just one go.

If you change the parameters based on which you qualify for IIT or medical college, then people will demand those. They are not in love with exams; they are in love with the results of the exam which enables them to get into institutes like IIT

The government did take some revolutionary steps, like the ‘no detention policy’ under the RTE, but it was severely criticised, and eventually scrapped…

In my view, the only good thing in the RTE was this policy. That was the only thing that we had (in our law) which held schools accountable. It said unless you make sure every child meets the minimum competency for that grade, you cannot put him/her in the next grade. You can’t withhold the child, so you had to make sure that he/she learns well. If the child was unable to comprehend something, teachers were supposed to teach him/her again, in extra hours. It was the job of a teacher, of a school. Nobody liked that.


So the life was made difficult for teachers, and they made sure it goes…

Yes, and they convinced politicians that it was a bad idea. It was more like, “Look at these children, how bad they are (in studies). They are worse than they were before. And that’s because, now, we are promoting them automatically.” Law didn’t say promote them automatically. Law said that competency should be acquired by every child before they are promoted. I was surprised that teachers were powerful enough to convince all politicians, irrespective of the political parties.


Talking about the RTE’s provision of 25 per cent reservation for EWS students in private schools. While the intention deserves praise, there was also fear that children coming from poor families may develop an inferiority complex or some other psychological problems. Has any research been done in this regard?

I had the same question when the RTE was passed, “What would happen to kids coming from slums while other students are from affluent families?” We ran a programme to study the effect on these kids (25 per cent EWS category) in three hi-fee schools in south Delhi. The results were pretty interesting.

We worked with these schools to see how they address children hailing from different backgrounds and ensure that they stay at par with each other. Most of the parents (belonging to the EWS category) we met in DPS (RK Puram), could speak in English. The ‘poor’ is not just one category. There’s a whole spectrum of ‘poor’: from a person who is struggling to make ends meet to someone who has a decent job with a regular salary (low-income group people). The guy who’s not getting even two-meals a day is not even dreaming about putting his child in these schools. They are happy sending their wards to a government school.

When I met these parents, my image of ‘the poor’ completely changed. These parents were well-dressed, quite a few spoke in English. What this provision has done is give hope to low-income groups to slowly, yet steadily enter into the middle class group. Mostly, they are the ones who opt for such schools. Yes, there may be a few who are very ‘poor’.

In fact, whatever study has been done on these students in these years have shown positive results on kids, in general. That’s because students (all of them – rich, middle-class, low-income groups and poor) are getting exposed to each other. It also has to do with the schools. Schools have put in place certain rules. For example, a student cannot bring a gift for a birthday that is beyond a pre-determined amount. These rules are very important. We also thought through some of these rules, along with the schools. One very simple rule, which we seldom give thought to, is the language in which a note is sent by school to parents. It is, almost always, in English. But what about those parents who can’t read English? So, schools then began to send notes in both Hindi and English to all parents.

This provision in the RTE was a huge social experiment, and the results have been positive. But yes, nowadays, some schools are not happy. That’s not because there are ‘poor’ kids in the school, but due to non-payment of their fees by the state. This is causing a lot of angst.

We are now blaming schools for being greedy. My questions are: have they become greedy in the last few years? Weren’t they greedy before? We need to understand why the fee is increasing. That’s because schools are now finding it difficult to manage finances. You can’t discriminate against children. Frankly, no school wants to do it. But who’s going to pay for the schooling of these ‘poor’ kids? Schools may absorb some of financial burden from their surplus, but at the end of the day, they have to pass the costs to other parents. And that’s why fees are going up or schools are charging more for uniform, textbooks, etc. It’s not that schools have suddenly become greedy. It’s that things have changed for them and nobody wants to acknowledge that. It’s very demoralising for schools. They feel that they are looked upon as culprits, there is no respect left for teachers. In their zest to look good, politicians too are putting schools down, cracking down on them for fee rise. In this whole process, the credibility of the whole education system has been destroyed. Nobody trusts anybody in the system. Schools see parents as culprits, who don’t want to pay even the legitimate fees; parents view schools as culprits. I don’t know how can you rebuild the trust?And how can you build a system without trust?


We are now blaming schools for being greedy. We need to understand why the fee is increasing. That’s because schools are now finding it difficult to manage finances due to non-payment of fees (for the schooling of ‘poor’ kids) by the state

Last year, we witnessed the launch of the Indian School of Public Policy (ISPP), which is said to be the first school of public policy in India focused on policy, management and design. What’s the scope of such a course in India? And how has been the response so far?

The reason why we are doing it is because we feel that there’s a need for policy professionals in India. Right now, those who are interested in the subject go abroad to study. Most of them find it difficult to return to India because they have taken an education loan. It is very hard to pay back the loan by working in India, so they end up working abroad for international agencies.

So, to fill this gap, we started the institute. We need people who can not only work in Delhi, but also in other parts of the country, at the local level which is where life gets affected. But we don’t have people who can think systematically, can debate ideas with evidence, and be able to make recommendations. And thus, we need to build that cadre of public policy professionals.

Second, we also feel that the federal structure in the country is getting more and more entrenched. There’s more money flowing to the states now. So much of the action would be at the state and local levels. And that’s why we need policy people to help the local state governments design better systems, think more effectively and systematically. Therefore, we decided to have a programme which is not too demanding. It’s not a two-year programme, but one.

We are mainly focussing on skills. We are in talks with industry people who are likely to employ our students, both in the private sector as well as the government sector. We want to provide both theoretical as well as practical knowledge to our students, so as to ensure that right from day one of their job, they deliver value to their employers.


What are the skill-sets that a person needs to possess to build a career in policymaking?

One, commitment to work in this profession.You should be very clear that this is what you want to do in life. You should not treat this as a timepass. Also, you should be willing to work at a local level and not just aspire to be at the World Bank or the UN or Niti Aayog, etc.

Second, academic credentials are important as they help us judge you better, that is, whether you would be able to do well in the academic rigour that we are going to have, and be able to handle the pressure, since it is a tight programme, as we are clubbing 2-years into one.

Third. It’s about who you are, what values you have. Are you a good listener or someone who’s jumping the gun, always wanting things to be done your way? Are you thoughtful and recognise that, maybe, you don’t have an answer to every question?

One key thing that we want to do in our programme is that we don’t want to give answers to our students. We want to train them to think, understand the problem, talk to people concerned, understand all perspectives of why the problem exists, and then design its solution. Actually, solutions are very easy to design, everybody has a solution. What we don’t have is an understanding of the problem. We are hoping to develop that kind of ability. We are also bringing design thinking into the picture. How do you think systematically? One good thing about design thinking is that it puts the customer at the center, so you think from a customer’s point of view. For example, if I want to design a phone, how would I do it so that my customer is able to enjoy the experience? Similarly, how do I design a policy so that the customer (perhaps a parent or a widow in a small village), whoever he/she is, is benefitted?


What do you think should be the future of Indian education system?

As a parent, I want to get rid of all schools, all board exams…


We already have parents opting for alternative education system like homeschooling…

Well, then alternative should become the mainstream. That’s the good way to put it. What’s currently alternative should become the mainstream, and what’s mainstream should become extinct.

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