Is unaccountability the salient feature of Education Ministries both at Centre & States?

Last year, the unprecedented scenario of health and migrant crisis led to shared understanding that it isn’t the time to think about the education.  While acknowledging the gravity of COVID crisis and human loss, it is critical to understand why Education did not become priority of state even when the first wave slowed down. The answer lies in “Nature of Education”. If a hospital and health ministry fail to provide infrastructure, it becomes news because people loose life immediately or its bad consequence are immediate and explicit whereas if ministry of education fails to respond to learning crisis, its consequence are never explicit or immediate and the impact is hardly assessed.

Therefore, the news highlights in last year or two are postponement of examinations, launching of National Education Policy and our middle class discussion of how virtual learning is a respite, its limited access or its limitations.  But is it enough?

Last year also witnessed the vibrant debate and discussion on New Education Policy 2020, a buzz towards restructuring the schooling and emphasizing on foundational literacy. The policy also proposed to start National Foundational Literacy Mission to kick start universal foundational literacy goal by 2025. While it is understandable no education policy has been shaped not just in India but across the world considering the impact of Pandemic, but it is not surprising to see “think-tank groups” within government and outside never anticipated an alternate reality of schooling and education for last two years.

Therefore, the school and colleges remained closed, formally education boards mostly responded to examination calls.  Scenario did not change for students appearing for IIT/JEE & Medical examinations. Lakhs of students have been appealing for postponement of examination last year and this year amidst unprecedented COVID surge. Our Education Minister Ramesh Pokhriyaal’s continued silence and our Prime Minister’s address to students appearing for examination on 7th April, was sharing tips to overcome pressure instead of coming up alternative plan of assessment with Ministry of Education. Institutional incompetence was explicit as not even a single board of examination could came up with alternate plan for assessing students or cancelling examination on its own before Prime Minister announced it to the nation for CBSE board on 14th April.

While education may not be our priority in current COVID surge, but here are some critical areas to which Ministry of Education and its associated institutions under central & state governments should be held accountable for.

  • What should be the primary role of Ministry of Education at Centre as well as in states? While in last one year, Ministry of Education have made progress on NEP consultation by releasing the final draft, what are the steps being taken for facilitating learning in primary schooling if 2025 is set as the target year for achieving universal literacy and numeracy . Apart from planning for NEP framework, ministry and its associated institutions came up with digital platforms like “Diksha”, “E-gyan kosh” which can only be accessed by student having infrastructure for virtual learning. The ministry at Centre as well as in states have not even estimated the reach of these platform by gathering data thus remained ignorant to learning loss which is reported in different studies by non-governmental institutions such as Azim Premji University. It reported not just learning deficit but also “regression of learning” that is student forgetting skill already learnt in previous academic years.  Imagine life of students studying in grade 1 to 5 in year 2020 in some remote village of any state. Grade 1 student does not have basic skills to understand instruction given virtually even if he has access to virtual learning infrastructure and in most of the cases they don’t.  Teachers conducted community based and virtual classes as well but none of these efforts resulted into formal structure of learning. Government’s inaction to address the immediate need for addressing learning deficit continued for two years especially for primary schools.
  • The Minister of Education at Centre has never addressed the schooling scenario and initiatives taken to address the learning loss due to inaccessibility to virtual learning in last one year. His twitter timeline is full of appreciation for Prime Minister Narendra Modi for vaccination like any other minister in his cabinet. He also credited the exam cancellation to PM Modi and was never held accountable by the press for institutional incompetence to take these decision on his own or by any different autonomous board. Once again, PMO centralized power for decision which should be federal/concurrent/decentralised in nature.
  • If education is not the priority of the ministry then what were teachers doing in the last two years. The first wave of Covid led to schools’ shut down, teachers along with other government officials handled migrants quarantine facilities during mass exodus, continuously distributed mid -day meal to students, and in several states conducting voluntary and sometimes forced community and virtual classes. Yet, they were never considered as frontline workers even with high risk of daily exposure. The silence over their efforts continued even in several unseen administrative duties. At the core, school in a village is considered as administrative unit of the state and therefore, teachers and its staff discharge multiple seen and unseen responsibilities as administrative officer within that locality and outside.  We became attentive to their misery when we read 700 plus teachers died in Uttar Pradesh during Panchayat election duty. Minister of Education (U.P) Satish Chandra Diwedi rejected this claim but we ask this question which state can go for poll without school teachers discharging polling duty even if numbers of several states are yet to be investigated?

Thus, the inaction continued in shutting schools for 260 million children across India. No state government had considered teachers as frontline workers and no protocols were set at state level to identify the scope in a state or district to re-open schools if COVID number reduced. The education leadership whether political or bureaucratic understood the limitation given by its own institutions but never worked for restructuring/ appropriation of curriculum for coming year. The business of inaction ran as usual. Schools remained closed even when political rallies were organized. None of our political leaders felt disappointment seeing teachers at polling booth and children in rallies instead of schools.

When India is reporting over 4 lakh infections and 3000+ fatalities daily, the 700+ number can be seen insignificant. The critical question for us as a society to reflect upon is that death of our teachers in polling duty made us think about them rather than functionality and purpose of their profession that is “educating”. In this crisis, we are grateful to our healthcare and other frontline workers but it is unfortunate that our educational leadership has proved that education and educating children is not critical for society and they could only respond in the matters of “examination”. The unfortunate reality is we have to choose between life and education because of unaccountable governance at multiple levels. When the numbers of COVID cases in our rural demographies were not significant, schools remained closed because we did not have decentralised decision making when insignificant numbers were being reported in most districts. Not a single educational institution could be held accountable for inaction, inefficiency and disastrous ignorance for decades and especially for last two year. And yes we can be patient till COVID surge gets over because Education has never produced immediate impact in society. But how long should we wait?

Seema Sirohi
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Seema Sirohi is a Policy Analyst and Alumni of Azim Premji University. Her interest lies in Education, Policies and Governance.

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