India's Education System. History, current issues and major public initiatives

Term Paper, 2011

24 Pages, Grade: 1,7


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. The history of India’s education system
2.1 British era
2.2 Post-independent period

3. Governance of the education system

4. Schooling patterns

5. Problems of Education in India
5.1 Literacy rates
5.2 School Enrolment
5.3 Learning achievements and efficiency of education
5.4 School facilities
5.6 Exclusion
5.6.1 Exclusion of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes
5.6.2 Other factors leading to exclusion

6. Public education initiatives
6.1 Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA)
6.2 The national Mid-Day Meal Scheme (MDMS)
6.3 Other major initiatives

7. Conclusion

8. References

1. Introduction

The Republic of India (in the following shortened with India) has 15% of the world’s population with more than 1.1 billion and is one of the youngest countries among large economies with a median age of 25. About 70% of the populace live in more than 550, 000 villages. The country has the world’s 12th largest economy with an expected GDP growth of 9% (U.S. Department of State, 2010). India’s recent economic growth has spurred the enthusiasm about the country’s overall development. Education is a major variable in influencing this development as it has tended to play a critical role in development stories for nations (Nilekani, 2009). So far, the progress of Education has been of mixed success. While the country made major progress in raising literacy rates and has emerged as an important player in the worldwide information technology there are still various issues in the education system such as social or gender gaps. This paper provides an overview of the current situation of school education in India while its main part will focus on major problems the education system is facing. Firstly, the paper gives information on the historical background on the education system in the Republic which helps to understand the present-day schooling system which is described in more detail in the second part of the paper. Subsequently, the paper focuses on major issues the schooling system is facing nowadays and places them when possible against the achievements and problems of other BRIC economies. Following this, an outline about major public initiatives that are trying to tackle prevalent problems in the schooling system is presented.

2. The history of India’s education system

India is often classified as one of the most ancient nations with rich legacies of culture and literary pursuits. According to experts the history of education in India is nearly 5000 years old and can be classified as follow (Pathak, 2007, p. 28):

Table 1: History of Education in India

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Traditionally, only the highest caste – the Brahims – were taught to read and write. To say it more precise: the traditional Hindu education served only the needs of boys who belong to Brahim families. Education was similarly elitist under the Moguls who favored the rich rather than those from high-caste backgrounds. Under the British colonial rule these elitist tendencies were even reinforced (Lall/House, 2005, p. 2). In the year 1600 The East India Company came to India mainly to explore business possibilities but it also thought to establish its own empire in the country. While the supremacy of the British in India increased with the establishment of East India Company, education in general was neglected (Singh, 2007, p. 56).

2.1 British era

In order to spread Christianity, a number of missionaries came to India and established institutions for education (Jayapalan, 2005, p. 51) where they propagated the spread of Christian religion through English medium (Singh, 2007, p. 57). The increasing efforts of the missionaries with regard to English education led to dissatisfaction among the populace thus, this matter was raised in British Parliament. This resulted in the enactment of the Charter of 1813 which threw light on the policy of education in India and accepted the responsibility of government for spreading education (Singh, 2007, p. 57). The charter of 1813 created a controversy known as “the occidental-oriental controversy”. The supporters of the Oriental view were in favor of the old Indian system of education whereas the Occidental view ridiculed the Indian system and attempted to introduce English literature and Western science through the English medium (Pathak, 2007, p. 45). In 1834, Lord Macaulay came to India during the violent Oriental and Occidental controversy as a Law member of the council of Governor-General (Sharma/Sharma, 2004, p. 80). Lord Macaulay played an important role in resolving this controversy and his famous Minute (Macaulay Minute) paved the way for the British system of education in India (Singh, 2007, p. 61). Macaulay strongly criticized the eastern system of education and culture and ridiculed it by saying “A single shelf of good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia” (Singh, 2007, p. 61). Macaulay’s Minute expressed his mission to create a class of persons who should be “Indians in blood and colour but English in taste, in opinions, in morals and in intellect” (Jayapalan, 2005, p. 56). Even though Macaulay’s Minute was presuming, it ended the Oriental-Occidental controversy and laid the foundation-stone of modern education system in India and further marked the real beginning of bilingualism in the Indian education system (Sharma/Sharma, 2004, p. 83). The British were not primarily interested in the education of masses and, therefore, introduced the idea of Downward filtration. This means that only the Indian elite or top class people would be educated and through them the lower class would also benefit (Pathak, 2007, p. 45).

In 1854 a charter was issued by Charles Wood who was then the Chairman of the Board of control of the Company. Thus, the charter is known as Wood’s Despatch of 1854 as he was the main architect of it (Pathak, 2007, p. 45). This despatch helped to provide education a definite structure, base and shape. The Wood’s Despatch defined educational policy in India as the diffusion of European knowledge (Singh, 2007, p. 86). It is said that the Wood’s Despatch laid the foundation of the present system of education in India (Sing, 2007, p. 90). Due to the despatch education had a structure with indigenous schools and primary schools at the base and universities at the top. Further, departments were installed in each province to look after the state of education and it recommended the foundation of graded schools (Indigenous Primary schools, Middle schools, High schools, Colleges and Universities). The despatch introduced a system of grant-in-aid and therewith sought the cooperation of private corporations in the field of education (Singh, 2007, p. 90). Further it made recommendations for the expansion of general women’s education and vocational education and to establish two universities of Calcutta and Bombay (Pathak, 2007, p. 46f). Wood’s recommendation to make the mother tongue the medium of instruction was not followed and English was made the medium of instruction and got firmly established throughout the country. However, the main contribution of the Wood’s Despatch was the formation of a system of education from primary school to University. Since then, serious efforts were made by the Government to promote education at all levels but the journey for the government to establish a system that was able to satisfy every section of the society was neither simple nor smooth (Reddy, 2010, p. 1). Due to dissatisfaction of the people that started surfacing when the outcomes of educational measures undertaken by the government did not seem to match their expectation, several measures for educational reconstruction followed. Some landmark developments in the history of modern Indian education were made during the pre-independence period which cannot be explained further in this paper.

2.2 Post-independent period

The prevalent educational system in India is a legacy of British education with some influence of North-American tradition of higher education and a few indigenous innovations to respond to socio-cultural needs of the contemporary society (Achuthan/Agrawal et al, 1993, p. 20). When becoming independent in 1947, India inherited an educational system with great educational disparities between men and women, upper and lower classes and urban and rural populations. In a badly battered and shattered nation full of historical disparities among various regions and communities, education was seen as a vehicle to bring about justice, liberty, equality and fraternity among the populace of a multilingual, multireligious and multiethnic country (Achutan/Agrawal et al, 1993, p. 21). The first mile stone in the development of education in independent India was the enactment of the Indian Constitution in 1950 which laid down broad educational policies for the country (Biswas/Agrawal, 1994, p. 655). In innumerable conferences, committees and commissions, educationists, State Ministers of education and other educational experts were called to discuss the problems of education and offer programs for reconstruction of education in independent India (Biswas/Agrawal, 1994, p. 655). One of the most important policy statements was the policy statement of 1968 which was a sequel of the Report of the Education Commission (1964-1966), popularly called Dr. D. S. Kothari Commission. The Kothari Commission was built to formulate a coherent education policy for India and according to the commission, education was intended to increase productivity, develop social and national unity, consolidate democracy, modernize the country and develop social, moral and spiritual values (Lall/House, 2005, p. 2). To achieve this aims, the main pillar of the Indian education policy was free and compulsory education for all children up to the age of 14. Other features included the development of languages, the equality of educational opportunities and the development and prioritization of scientific education and research (Lall/House, 2005, p. 3). In 1986, Prime Minister Rajiv Ghandi announced a new education policy: the National Policy on Education (NPE). It laid stress on the need for radical reconstructions of the education system in general, to improve its overall quality and gave great attention to science and technology (Kumar, 2004, p. 54). Even though the central government declared with the policy of 1986 that it would accept a wider responsibility to enforce a national and integrative character of education, the states retained a significant role, particularly in relation to the curriculum. The key legacies of the 1986 policy were the promotion of privatization and an emphasis on secularism and science. Another consequence of the NPE was that the quality of education was seen as a problem and thus, several initiatives have been developed to counter these problems (Lall/House, 2005, p. 3). As a result of these initiatives changes are being made on the ground. A massive infrastructure development and a teacher recruitment drive were initiated nationally. The NPE not only focused on improvements to school environments but also to instructional material and teacher training (Create, 2009, p. 2). Various government schemes target disadvantaged children such as the Alternative, Innovative and Education Guarantee Scheme which provides education in smaller, isolated habitations in rural areas or urban slums and schooling to difficult-to-reach groups such as working and migrating children. A mid-day meal scheme was introduced which aims to provide a cooked mid-day meal to all children attending primary school. Additionally, Sarva Siksha Abhiyan (SSA) is a program which aims to achieve universal elementary education of satisfactory quality by the year 2010 (Create, 2009, p. 2). The Indian government is preparing the universalization of secondary education (USE) with the main aim to provide high quality secondary education to all Indian adolescents up to the age of 16 by 2015 and senior secondary education up to the age of 18 by 2020 (Nordic, 2006, p. 5).

After Independence in 1947, governments have tried to address the limitations of the Indian education system in the framework of its Constitution, and have introduced various policies and programs for widening the access to education, for enhancing the overall quality of education and to promote literacy throughout the country (Sinha, 2006, p. 105). Although the Indian education system has improved considerably since independence it still is facing manifold problems. Before presenting and discussing these problems it is important to gain insight into the structure of the present day education system in India.

3. Governance of the education system

India is a federation of states and the powers are divided between the federal government and the states. The Constitution clearly specifies the powers and duties which can belong to the union, to the states or to both simultaneously. In 1976, a resolution was passed to make Education a concurrent topic of the federal government and the states. However, the governance of the school education systems is traditionally with the states, whereas the central government makes national level policies (Mohan, 2010, p. 11). As already mentioned above, a national policy on education was announced in 1986 and modified in 1992 and a Central Advisory Board of Education has been in place since the British period, which acts as a consultation mechanism between the center and the states (Mohan, 2010, p. 11). States have to meet a major part of expenditure on school education from their own budget but the central government gives grants to states for taking up projects as conceived, outlined and approved by it. The central government uses the central funding as a powerful tool to set the direction of the development of education in the whole country. States or single schools also receive grants through other ministries especially for different groups of children; for example the Ministry of Scheduled Castes and Tribes gives grants to schools especially opened for these groups of children (Mohan, 2010, p. 12). The National Council of Education Research and Training (NCERT) defines the National Frame Curriculum for classes I-XII and State Councils of Educational Research and Training (SCERT) are the main research and development institutions in the single states (Nordic, 2006, p. 5). At secondary level, school boards in each state affiliate schools and set examination standards in accordance with the national framework (Nordic, 2006, p. 5). An educational bureaucracy operating at state, district and sub-district levels controls, under the broad supervision of the political leadership, almost every aspect of school education. These aspects include curriculum and textbooks; recruitment, deployment and training of teachers and certification of children graduating at secondary and senior secondary stages (Mohan, 1010, p.12) The sovereignty of the states explains wide variations in the school education in the different states: The Census of India in 2011 found that Kerala has become nearly literate (93.91%[1] ), whereas Bihar has a literacy rate of only 63.82% (Census India, 2011, p. 12).

4. Schooling patterns

The structure of the current education system in India is based on various stages of learning and is familiarly known as 10+2+3 pattern. It dates from a National Policy of 1966 and is in force in most Indian states today. In this schooling system, students are expected to enter school at the age of six, and after ten years of schooling, which are devoted to general education, they make their Secondary School Certificate (Bénéi, 2008, p. 275). After this, two years of senior secondary education with streams of science, humanities, commerce or vocational curriculum can follow which qualify students for admission into liberal undergraduate course in the universities for three more years (Mohan, 2010, p. 14). The first ten years of schooling is further divided into three stages: primary for five years, upper primary for three years and secondary for two years (Mohan, 2010, p. 15). The first two stages (primary and upper primary) make up elementary education which lasts for eight years and is considered as the period of compulsory schooling, with the Constitutional amendment making education a fundamental right (Nordic, 2006, p. 6). The secondary stage consists of Classes IX-X and senior secondary stage of schooling (+2) compromises Classes XI-XII[2]. The first twelve years of education is called school education (not including pre-primary education) which can be followed by three years (+3) for degree programs (Mohan, 2010, p. 15). Following chapters of this paper will concentrate on school education.

Typology of school-types in India

Three main school types can be identified in India: government, aided, and private. Schools run by the central or state governments are called government schools whereas schools which are run by private managements but funded largely by government grant-in-aid are known as private aided or aided school. Even though these schools are run by private management, their teachers are paid directly from the state government treasure at government-teacher salary rates and are also recruited by a government commission (Kingdon, 2005, p.2). Thus, government and (private) aided school are very similar. Schools run by private managements without receiving aid from the state are referred to as private unaided schools. These schools entirely depend on fee-revenues and have almost no government interference in matters such as teacher recruitment. Private unaided schools can be divided into recognized and unrecognized schools. To qualify for government recognition, a school is required to fulfill certain conditions by law (Kingdon, 2005, p. 2f). However, Kingdon (2005, p. 3) argues that hardly any of the private schools that actually receives recognition by the government, fulfill all the conditions. For example the ownership of the school building is a mandated condition of recognition, yet, many recognized unaided private schools in Uttar Pradesh rent their buildings (Kingdon, 2005, p. 3). The main aim of private schools to get recognized is that through the recognition they get empowered to valid Transfer Certificates which are required for admission into upper primary and secondary schools (Kingdon, 2005, p. 3). According to Muralidharan & Kremer (2006, p.3) there is reason to believe that not aided private schools increasingly cater to a substantial fraction of the primary-school going population in India. Especially in rural India, particularly in areas where the public school system is dysfunctional, unaided fee-charging schools are widespread. Further evidence presented in the ASER Report (2005) confirms the increasing role of private schooling especially in the rural areas by showing that 15.5% of children aged 6-10 living in those areas attend a private school (Muralidhalan/Kremer, 2006, p. 8). Compared to the urban area these enrollment rates are quite modest as a household survey data from 1993 shows that 26.2% of pupils entering primary level are enrolled in unaided private schools (Kingdon, 2005, p. 5). The lack of systematic data on private schools has made it difficult to estimate their true share in enrollment but regardless these data deficiencies it can be assumed that there has been a massive growth of fee-charging unaided private schooling in the recent past (Kingdon 2005, Muralidhalan/Kremer 2006). Evidence suggests that unaided private schools in India are more effective in imparting learning at a fraction of the unit cost of government schools (Kingdon, 2007, p. 1). The recent growth of private schooling indicates that that there are several inefficiencies in the Indian education system which are examined in the following chapters of this paper.


[1] Depicted here is the effective literacy rate according to the Indian Census 2011 which takes into account persons who are aged seven or above, only. It is derived as following: Effecive Literacy Rate = (Number of Literate persons aged 7 and above x 100 / Population aged 7 and above).

[2] Sometimes there are variations in the number of years and names given to different school stages within the various states or private schools.

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India's Education System. History, current issues and major public initiatives
Friedrich-Alexander University Erlangen-Nuremberg
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school system, India, education in India, BRIC economy
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Helen Schropp (Author), 2011, India's Education System. History, current issues and major public initiatives, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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