The education system in India: promises to keep. Picture children praying at a schoolSchoolchildren praying in a schoolyard in Mysore, Karnataka, India. [Photo: Frank Metois/ Alamy Stock Photo]

[This is an excerpt from an article in The Round Table: The Commonwealth Journal of International Affairs.]


The completion of seventy five years is an occasion to celebrate, a moment to rejoice for a country of the size, diversity, and complexity of India, which started its journey as a newly decolonised democratic republic three-quarters of a century ago. With a population of more than 360 million, but an average literacy rate of just 18.3% and female literacy rate of 8.9% (Census of India, 1951), India had a long way to go. Today, the average literacy rate is 73% and the female literacy rate is up to 65.5% (Census of India, 2011), with more than 1.5 m schools catering to over 200 million children (U-DISE, 2017-18). The education levels of Scheduled Castes (SCs) and Scheduled Tribes (STs) – among the most educationally marginalised communities – have also shown a substantial increase to 66.1% and 59% (Census of India, 2011) respectively in this period.

In addition to improved access to education, this period has also seen a variety of innovations in pedagogy and teaching practices that have added great value to the fundamental debates around what constitutes a good education, especially in the context of a country like India, which is characterised by multiple layers of disparities and continues to struggle to build itself as a new nation.

More from the ‘India at 75’ special edition

India at 75 – India’s foreign policy: shift, adjustment and continuity
The Indian economy at 75
The expanding role of majoritarianism in India
The state of the Indian military: historical role and contemporary challenges

Amongst the new ideas of this period, the ‘Nai Taleem’ (new education), pioneered by Mohandas Gandhi, is notable. In making a case against the colonial system, Gandhi called for a ‘national education’ based on a revolutionary shift in approach that was grounded less in books and more in manual skills. As reported in Young India (11 July 1929), Gandhi believed that ‘When our children are admitted to schools, they need not use slate and pencil and books, but simple village tools, which they can handle freely and remuneratively’. And again, in Harijan (9 January 1937), ‘The utterly false idea that intelligence can be developed only through book reading should give place to the truth that the quickest development of the mind can be achieved by the artisan’s work being learnt in a scientific manner’.

Unsurprisingly, these ideas were met with resistance, most famously by Tagore, who was in favour of learning English as well as modern science and technology from the West. Nehru’s modernising vision, for a nation eager to establish itself as part of the modern world by shedding its image as a traditional and unscientific, rejected Gandhi’s ideas, perceiving a modern Western education as the way forward instead. ‘Nai Taleem’ was never therefore formally adopted, but its contribution to enhancing understanding of education in a wider sense is worth considering.

Other innovative ideas were also tried in different parts of the country at different points in time over the next few decades, but they too remained experiments without being scaled up or even continued beyond their trial period, for instance, Nalli Kalli in Andhra Pradesh and its modified form, activity-based learning (ABL) in Tamil Nadu. While these and other innovative ideas have all had their merits and improved the quality of education for the time they were in use, they were unable to be adopted on a larger scale. The reason for this probably lies in the manner in which the Indian education system has been conceived and structured.

In this article, I take a closer look at the Indian education system – its strengths and weaknesses and how it has contributed to where we are today in terms of educational achievements and shortfalls.

An overview

The Indian Constitution deems education a ‘concurrent’ subject – within the federal system of India, with both the central and the state structures having a say in its governance. The 73rd and 74th amendments to the Indian Constitution, introduced in 1992, created an additional tier of government, because of which education was further devolved to the panchayats (village councils) and local urban bodies – the third tiers of rural and urban governance respectively.

India’s place in America’s world under the Biden presidency: decoding the China factor
India–China relations – the present, the challenges and the future

The three tiers of Indian governance are aided by various bodies. The national and state level councils for research and training (National Council of Education Research and Training – NCERT, and State Council of Education Research and Training – SCERT) provide support in curriculum formulation, textbook preparation, and teacher training. The National Institute of Education Planning and Administration (NIEPA) and the Central Advisory Board of Education (CABE), advisory bodies at the national level, guide the Ministry of Education in policy matters, with the District Institutes for Education and Training (DIETs), at the district level to bring training closer where it is required.

The Indian state oversees 1.55 million schools. Additionally, it has jurisdiction over a system of Central schools (Kendriya Vidyalayas) and Sainik schools for the children of central government employees and the armed forces respectively; Sarvodaya Vidyalayas (SVs), Navodaya Vidyalayas (NVs), and other ‘model’ schools for especially talented children; as well as residential schools for children of tribal families and Kasturba Gandhi Balika Vidyalayas for girls in educationally backward blocks (EBBs).

The Indian state has also launched various flagship programmes to make education inclusive, accessible, and standardised. The Midday Meal (MDM) Scheme, the largest school feeding programme in the world, caters to approximately 116 million children every day. The Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA) or Education for All, launched in 2000, set up a structure of state-level ‘societies’ which provide academic support to schools. It has its own separate cadre and resource set which extends from the state to the district and even cluster level. The District Information System for Education (DISE) produces ‘report cards’ outlining basic information on schools, available at the click of a button.

Special editions of The Round Table Journal:

India at 75 
Special edition introduction: Falkland Islands – 40 years on
COP26 special edition

It is important to note that the Indian education system is not reliant on state provision alone. Non-state actors have always had a place in Indian education, and in the last few decades their role has increased substantially – in the creation of schools and the provision of services and policies.

There can be no doubt that the improvements that have taken place since 1947 have been made possible by this elaborate structure of state and non-state actors that oversees and advances the Indian education system. However, India is far from fulfiling the constitutional promise of universal education, as required by the 86th amendment to the Constitution which made elementary education a fundamental right in 2002, as well as the 2009 Right to Education Act (RTE), which added a legal mandate to the provision of elementary education based on a set of minimum standards and norms (Government of India, 2022). Further, India has been unable to meet the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) relating to education.

In fact, there are at least 32 million Indian children that are still out of school. This is amongst the highest rates – in the world (NSSO, 2017-18). Those that are in school have learning levels that are far short of required levels (ASER Report, 2020). Dropout rates are staggering: the average annual dropout rate is 17.06% at the secondary level (U-DISE, 2017-18). Marginalised communities are especially disadvantaged, with their dropout rates standing at 21.8% for the Scheduled Castes (SCs), 22.3% for the Scheduled Tribes (STs), and 24% for Muslims, implying that few from these social groups make it to higher levels of education (U-DISE, 2017-18).

Fault lines in the system have been brought sharply to the fore as India grapples with COVID-19, the worst health crisis it has faced since becoming a nation – a crisis that has extended into the education system. In the words of UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, ‘We already faced a learning crisis before the pandemic. Now we face a generational catastrophe … that could undermine decades of progress and exacerbate entrenched inequalities’. These words could not be truer for India, where schools were shut for a year. Thousands lost access to education (Azim Premji Foundation, 2020), many may not ever return to school (S. Seethalakshmi, 2020). Clearly, the system, as elaborate as it appears, has failed to deliver on its goals and promises.

Kiran Bhatty is with the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, India.