Skill crisis or school crisis?

Nelson Mandela said, “Like slavery and apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is man-made, and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings.” The most sustainable action for poverty is education in its broadest sense; K-12 schools, universities, and skills. Much has been written about India’s skills and jobs crisis but with recent progress in job formalisation, green shoots in higher education reform, and a dedicated Ministry of Skills, we’d like to make the case that in a few years India’s binding constraint will shift from the lack of trained workers to the lack of trainable workers. Our skill crisis may actually become a school crisis; we need systemic reform that aligns all the actors to learning. 

School education is very important for India. First, nothing empowers more than the abilities of filling in a job application form, calculating correct change, or following a doctor’s instruction. Second, in the new world of work of automation and machine learning, the most important vocational skills are the basic ones (3Rs of reading, writing and arithmetic) or the very advanced ones (relationships, creativity, influencing, planning etc). Third, we now know we don’t know how to teach people in six months what they should have learnt in 12 years; repair can never substitute for prepare. Fourth, unlike China’s farm to non-farm transition which happened to factories, India’s transition is happening to service roles like sales, customer service and logistics where small differences in literacy and numeracy can lead to substantial wage premiums. Imagine a driver who can use Google maps, a security guard who can handle the phone during lunch, and a plumber who uses WhatsApp. Finally, we won’t be able to take jobs to people and must take people to jobs; migration outcomes are better if we take a solid school education to people before they migrate.

The problems of our schools are known. Most Class 8 students can’t do stuff of many grades below. Our regulation is input focused (teacher salaries, teacher qualification, and class sizes) and confuses school buildings with building schools. Our curriculum targets knowing rather than learning but Google knows everything; education must target Poet Yeats quip that “education is not the filling of a bucket but the lighting of a fire”. And performance management for teachers — a fear of falling and hope of rising — is hard everywhere but is complicated in government schools by transfer policy politicisation, minimum assured career progression, pay commissions etc. 

A wonderful recent World Bank report on learning offers a good template to think about the problem and solutions. It suggests that schooling isn’t learning for four reasons; unskilled and unmotivated teachers, unprepared learners, school inputs that don’t affect teaching and learning, and governance or management that does not pull it all together. It suggests three strategies; a) assess learning and use the results to guide action; b) act on evidence by using it to guide innovation and practice; and c) align actors to make the system work by tackling the political barriers to learning at scale. The third one is particularly relevant for India because “many education actors have conflicting interests beyond learning; politicians like to target particular groups (geographic, ethnic, or economic), bureaucrats often try to keep politicians and teachers happy, and teachers may fight to protect employment and incomes. Unfortunately, potential beneficiaries of better learning — students, parents, and employers — often lack the organisation, power, information or short-term incentives to push for change”. Consequently, systems like India are stuck in traps characterised by low accountability, poor learning outcomes, and high inequality.

India must find her own solutions, but many are obvious. The Right to Education Act must be replaced with a Right to Learning Act that focuses on outcomes. We must remove the Delhi alibi from state governments by decentralising school regulation (like the replacement of the No Child Left Behind Act with Every Student Succeeds Act in the US). Our board exams need a curriculum that strikes the right balance between soft and hard skills. We shouldn’t give up on government schools but give them governance that holds teachers to performance and outcomes (Delhi, Rajasthan and Tamil Nadu may have some transferable lessons). 

Mahatma Gandhi advised young people to live your life as if you will die tomorrow but learn as if you will live forever. Many of our schools today don’t enable our children to learn as if they will live in the next decade — forever is far away. This isn’t a problem like cancer or climate change but a plumbing problem. Now that we know fixing skills will not happen without fixing our K-12 system, we need a school system that prays to the one god of learning.
Sabharwal is with Teamlease Services; Kumar is with Teamlease Skills University


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