Education, in general, and school education in particular, is passing through an exciting, albeit, critical stage in India. The country is home to 16% of the world's total population and the impact of info-dynamics and globalisation has converted India into a vibrant emerging economy.
There are profound changes everywhere and there is a radical transformation in the field of work and employment. These challenges have a direct impact on the schools and also on the education being provided to our 21st century learners.
Two news items, diametrically opposite to each other, need special mention. On one hand, today's global-based economy provides numerous opportunities unlike before and there is a strong perception that most of the opportunities world over would be grabbed by young graduates from India and China, provided we churn out graduates with quality. On the other side, there is a belief that 70% of our young graduates do not have employable skills.
Thus, there is critical and urgent need for universal access to quality education, which is missing in our system. Though we have created islands of excellence, these are not enough if our students have to succeed both at the national as well as global level.
The future growth and stability of our economy depends on the ability of our education systems to prepare students for career opportunities and help them attain higher levels of achievement. Education is not for living but for life.
But, in order to lead a decent life, our children need to be confident and competent enough to avail the opportunities that the world has given them.
There have been numerous efforts to improve educational standards in the recent past. But, the educational system in India is struggling to meet the demands of the 21st century learners and employers.
Young people world over, India being no exception, are increasingly relying on social networking technologies to connect, collaborate, learn and create and employers have begun to seek new skills to increase their competitiveness in a global scenario. In another 10 years, we may require skills, which we do not even recognise today. The pace at which the requirement of knowledge and skills is changing is mind-boggling.
Education, however, has not changed much. With a few exceptions, schools in India are yet to revise their pedagogy to reflect current trends and technologies. At the college and university level, less said is better. At best, what is being done is simply repetitive and stereotypical.
In order to overcome this challenge, a bold and timely response from the education systems is required so that schools and colleges can incorporate the skills required by the 21st century into the existing curriculum, new subject areas and flexibility with regards to choice of subjects at higher education and a good vocational education programme after class 10 and 12.
This requires a holistic transformation of the education systems. We have been trying to reform our education systems since independence. But, the efforts are not sufficient and we need a paradigm shift from the reformist mindset to a transformative approach.
This will require a comprehensive roadmap of curricular and assessment reform, vibrant classroom management, recruitment of new teachers and training strategies, leadership empowerment programme and integration of technology that encourages innovation, collaboration and helps student apply their knowledge and creativity in solving real-life problems.
We need to understand that learners are changing and students today live in a world that is very different from the one, which we all have grown up. It is important that our students leave school prepared to meet the opportunities and challenges set before them. The globalised world requires 21st century skills for success.
These include core skills covered by the existing curriculum of language, maths, science and arts and combined with new themes such as environmental awareness and the impact of globalisation. These are to be complimented by problem solving and decision making, creative and critical thinking, technology skills and life and career skills.
Whatever has been said above may relate to 40 million children in the age group of 14-18 years enrolled in our schools. There are about 57 million children who are out of school and not enrolled in any formal/non-formal schooling system.
Unless and until they are put into any quality-schooling framework within a reasonable and acceptable time frame, their employment potential cannot be generated.
India cannot sit comfortable with such huge unskilled human resource. So, it is very essential to ensure that every child in India gets education and the number of students who graduate goes up dramatically. But, quantity is only half the story.
The bigger concern is ensuring quality, particularly if India has aspirations of matching China and the United States in terms of technology and the size of its economy.
Let us now look at the ground realities of government and government-aided schools where less than 60% of children complete grade 8 at the lower secondary level (class 9-10), the Gross Enrolment Ratio (GER) is 52% while at the senior secondary level (class11-12), it is just 28%. India's GER at the secondary level is far inferior to GERs of its global competitors.
Even countries like Vietnam and Bangladesh, which have lower per capita income than India, have higher GERs. India needs to increase public investment both in secondary and higher education to remain globally competitive.
While latest Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) performance rates students from Shanghai as the best in reading, science and mathematics, we are still shy of participating in such international assessment programmes in a big way.
So, there is no denying the fact that if we do not improve our education system in a given time frame, our students may not be able to grab employment opportunities available globally and our unemployment scenario may remain grim. On one hand, we need to improve the quality and efficiency of school education making all stakeholders responsible and accountable; on the other, there is no rationale in pushing all students into 'one-size fits all' general education.
We know that about 94% of employment is in the unorganised sector where they look for varied and specific skill areas, not providing the acceptable vocational education option to class 10/12 passouts/dropouts is not understandable. If China and Germany have developed huge number of such courses over a period of time, our limited efforts in this regard need adequate support and expansion.
Thus, if India has to compete with global competitors as an 'economic power', it cannot have the luxury of more than half of its young graduates being either unemployed or simply unemployable. The time is ripe for creating a holistic approach to a system transformation in the entire spectrum of education.
It is important to ensure that efforts in education do not simply result in schools being built or opened and teachers are recruited but that the students learning well and education system leaders have the competence to teach the skills required to succeed in the 21st century economy.
Besides the core skills covered under the existing processes, it is increasingly important to nurture the development of 21st century skills such as innovation, collaboration, thinking and problem solving, information and communication and self-directional skills.
The Right to Education Act and the Rashtriya Madhyamik Shiksha Abhiyan are steps in that direction but need to be implemented within a reasonable and acceptable timeframe. The opening of secondary schools under the PPP model has not yet succeeded.
Private participation is necessary but it has simultaneously accentuated the trend of consumerism, which needs to be checked. Not every student is to be pushed into general education.
There must be skill based courses at the secondary level, vocational education option after class 10 and 12 and entire refurbishing of higher university education. The skewed and sub-standard mushrooming growth of professional engineering and management college needs to be regulated.
Alignment of all key stakeholders is necessary for achieving system-wide transformation. We require educational leaders to develop a compelling vision of 21st century learning, embedding 21st century skills, communicating it with passion and ensuring that it is translated into action.
We have to take the challenge of putting every child into the schooling system and preparing every learner for the 21st century.
Let 2012 be the year to make a beginning for this holistic transformation.