Designing a new education policy is no less than a battle

It must be designed for success, but it’s a challenge in a country as diverse as India

Meeta Sengupta
Updated: Oct 22, 2015 08:38:06 AM UTC

Meeta Sengupta works at the cusp of policy and practice across the education and skills spectrum and enjoys sharing her gleanings via her writing for a wider audience. She has been an investment banker, a researcher, an editor, a teacher and school leader across continents. A keen observer of how economics, foreign policy and investments affect the policy and thence practice of education, she works with leaders to design interventions that improve the quality and process of education. Designing education processes to realise the potential of individual students is at the centre of her education philosophy. Meeta has worked both as a policy observer, and at the coalface of education across the board and across countries. She has served as a governor of an aided school, part of the management committee of a residential school, managed an academic centre in an elite post graduate management school and led a business school supported by a community college. She has worked with children, teenagers, business school and PhD candidates and has also worked with those seeking to rebuild their lives via education. Meeta W Sengupta is a Fellow of the Salzburg Global Seminar, among others and can be contacted via her personal blog at

Standardised tests all over the world have failed as predictors of performance, have forced schools and students to cheat and have skewed attention away from true learning

Image: Shutterstock

It popped up again, this question. If a large number of poor children in government schools have been identified as highly intelligent, indeed geniuses, then should there be a policy to give them extra support? Of course, yes, is the first response. In a meritocracy, all talent must be nurtured. And then I thought again for a minute. It was right for the child, or at least for most of them. But to be identified as a genius very young is an emotional burden that most children should not have to bear. It gets hard. Then, if the genius is to be supported with more mentoring, as is proposed in Delhi, and they get advanced level work, are they not being overburdened? Who draws the line and says, go and play child, you can have your childhood even if you are clever. In a perfectly calibrated system, the genius would have the mentoring while managing the pressure - but when has any system ever been perfectly calibrated for anyone?

Then, think of the other ones, the others in the class who are the same cohort. Early on, they have been left behind, for if some are ‘more’ intelligent, are the others not ‘less’ intelligent by comparison? Do they not need more mentorship if they are flagging, being left behind by those who have the natural intelligence and talent to make it to the top? Would it not be creating a class system by streaming kids differently? World over, they have stopped discriminating like that, as they have in India. What of the late bloomers, the ones who showed their intelligence late? Or those who showed early promise, who showed better results because they were on the autistic spectrum, or even those who just had a good exam day?

What is the right thing to do for all?

This is the type of conundrum that Education Policy design throws up all the time. Can there be a right answer to this one? An answer is required, and it must be funded. The response to this must become a scheme, with resources allocated, and outputs and outcomes defined. It is not a mere philosophical discussion, it will impact real lives. There will be a child there facing extra work sheets with joy or with a sense of burden, and there will be another child who will be craving that attention and validation but will not be able to access it. This is what policy does. It changes lives.

Is there a way through this maze? Yes there is, but it depends upon much. In every case, it depends upon the resources deployed and how they are called to account. In this case, much depends upon the people resources deployed - do we have the teachers who can manage multiple levels in the same classroom with empathy and humanity so that the advanced learners feel supported and the others feel no stigma at not having been able to attempt the advanced work? Can we do this system wide, across the tens of thousands of schools? Will it scale? Or will the results be dramatically different when replicated with different people and contexts? Can this principle advance to post secondary and higher education too? Does meritocracy meet equity in the same way in compulsory and post compulsory education?

And so on. As the questions get bigger, they seek consistency in principle. As the same questions get smaller, they present paradoxes. There is possibly no greater challenge than designing education systems for a large and diverse nation. As India prepares its New Education Policy, here are a few challenges that it must surmount at the design stage. Each of these represents a paradox, a choice. Even if there was data, there were pilots done on each of these issues, at the end of the day, these would have to be choices. “Take a call”, as we used to say in the finance industry. Taking a call has consequences, and these consequences can only be judged in hindsight. Yet it becomes incumbent upon all of us here, present and sentient at the moment of the formation of an education policy to recognise these challenges and support good decision-making as best as we can.

The dilemmas keep coming. Here are a few samples. Take the question of Standardisation. Standardised tests all over the world have failed as predictors of performance, have forced schools and students to cheat and have skewed attention away from true learning. Yet, in a country such as India, it is a standardised testing regime that has kept classrooms focussed and delivery of output (not outcomes) on track. This is a system that has been trained to deliver basic efficiency via rote learning with scant regard for in-depth learning which can be delivered as a bonus by some schools and teachers. It does the job well. Yet, we know that both, the greater goals of future global competitiveness, and the local contexts require something better than standardisation. It is good to have standards for all, but standardisation is a step towards dysfunctional outcomes. What should education policy do then? Design so that everyone understands and delivers to ask, or build risky autonomy and local decision-making and create an unmanageable behemoth? It is a choice today, and a tough one.

There are a myriad other choices that seem impossible - and these are not just about trade-offs in resource allocation. For example, the issue of Future Readiness - does one focus on the fundamentals and drill the students into delivering on higher standards with a narrow focus, or does one give each class and teacher autonomy to foster creativity and new ideas? One can be monitored with simple output measures, the other requires a degree of trust and wider outcome-based measures to judge for systemic success. On the policy stage, one declares that Access, Equity, Excellence and a few other grand words are the pillars of education policy, one also declaims on the connect between national goals and education policy goals. But the business of matching them cannot be left to operational level minions - it has to be included at the design stage if one wants to get it right. In the example here, of course one wants to be able to grow a generation that knows its fundamentals but is not bound to them. Yet, to create that, we clearly recognise operational dependancies - e.g. teachers. A few excellent teachers do not a national programme make. Absenteeism, poor learning levels of teachers (regardless of certifications and qualifications) and misguided incentive systems make it difficult to allow for the desired autonomy in the classroom. Mere governance systems as recommended by the perfect education policy may be inadequate in the face of such brazen defaults in the teaching commitment. One cannot wave these aside as operational issues when one is designing a holistic policy for success. One must design for success.

Similarly, the question of qualifications, certification, knowledge, learning and assessment. The rote learning culture has fed the certification game, and in turn, has been fed by it. Both rote learning and the assessment to certification loop have narrowed learning to be just a jot better than merely functional. Certificates are useful because they are currency, and thus they are desirable. The Certification Raj that rules all appointments today ensures that hard bureaucratic structures continue to exist and internal power plays, especially in higher education, continue to retain value. A PhD programme may not deliver a quality candidate, but the certificate will get them a job. This is a faithless, trustless system that is closed to ‘outsiders’ and thus doomed to live in the past. Can a new education policy be designed for lateral growth - this is the way industry has evolved. New disciplines created by disruptors with little validation and nothing to vouch for them. Can Higher Education Design incorporate such a breath of fresh air for its own good? The MIT Media Lab is a classic example of this, so we know it is possible. This is when the politics of higher education meets the needs of the future - and one expects the complex web of circumstance to win this particular policy battle.

Designing a new Education Policy is no less than a battle. All policy is about interests, principles, ideas and goals, but education policy becomes tougher because you are not working with commodities such as steel or power, nor are you working only with operational processes. Here your product, process, resource and outcomes are all people. And people are not widgets to be manipulated. There are no rules for people. People cannot be bound into a unit - to do so would be to deny the persons that make up people. A sensitive, inclusive and progressive policy is one of the toughest battles there ever could be - and that is where we find ourselves today - in the middle of it.

The thoughts and opinions shared here are of the author.

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