‘Skill-based’ School Education in India – Past, Present, and Future

Even today in India, when we talk about skills in general, people connect them to vocational skills that give quick employment in informal sectors. These skills are acquired through short-term courses, such as ITI, without being part of formal education. Many of such skills are covered in PMKVY by the government. But we are not going to talk about these skills in this article.  We are going to talk about the skills that must be developed as a part of formal education – especially in the K12 segment.

Past: Journey from degree-driven to skills-driven jobs

Post the independence, formal education was not available to majority of the masses and having mere college degree could guarantee a job. But in next couple of decades, mere college degree could not give a job. As more students got formal degrees, it lead to competition and importance of academic performance and the college one graduate from increased. As a result, marks started mattering more to get a job than just a degree.

Then in early 90s Indian economy opened to the outside world through globalization and liberalization. This created massive demand for skilled graduates across major industry sectors. It also led to massive race to secure more marks and more degrees. At one point, having one degree was not sufficient to secure a job. Students needed a Master’s degree to differentiate themselves from others.

Up until mid-2000s, internet was not available to all. Post 2005, internet revolution quickly followed by mobile revolution made internet easily accessible to many of us. This change brought enormous opportunities to many job seekers in the formal and organized sectors. For the first, it opened numerous avenues for job seekers to learn the required skills from internet and hone them further in internships before joining a job. And second, it started reducing the sole dependency on formal degrees to acquire certain job-ready skills to join a formal job market.

Present: Gaps to cover to be a skill-driven society

From early 2000s, there was a constant national narrative that India is a young nation – we have close to 65% of citizens in the prime of their working age. There was a strong urge to leverage this demographic dividend. So much so that thought-leaders such as Dr APJ Abdul Kalam created India Vision 2020 to leverage this dividend and put India in the world leading order. However, looking back on last 20 years, many policymakers have realized that we have been missing the boat and we could not leverage this demographic dividend yet.

The world is moving toward skill-driven society and to secure place in the future for our kids, we also need to move to skill-driven society. But our schools and graduating colleges are still preparing students only for marks and competitive exams. Marks have long lost sheen in the eyes of recruiting companies. Also by simple logic, competitive exams can allow only handful of candidates to be admitted to the premier institutes in and out of India. What about the majority of the students who can’t make it to these institutes? How do we prepare each student from school to acquire skills needed for life and for the future work environment?

The World Economic Forum (WEF) have highlighted that globally the skills needed in the future workforce are very different than what they are acquiring now. Also, WEF has given the indicative list of professions that would be available from the next 5-7 years for which we are not training our school-going children and under-graduates. How we can fill this gap to ensure that our students are ready with the required skills when they graduate? Simply put, it must start from school so that when students reach their graduation, they already have a strong foundation of skills to leverage graduate studies for their future. Currently, schools are failing to lay that foundation for students.

Our experience at myNalanda in working with private schools in India suggests that schools are not yet geared up to inculcate 21st century skills among students. In K12-schools, ownership of quality education is very fragmented and fuzzy. Neither parents, neither schools, and nor the government policies are clear about what school education must do. Though government policies have clear directives on learning outcomes to be achieved at each grade, there are no efforts to ensure that learning outcomes (skills) are really inculcated and measured. What is measured regularly is the academic performance which does not guarantee skills and hence is not a true indicator of quality education. The decreasing percentage of employment-readiness of graduates underlines this fact.

Parents are not sure what they can expect from school education and how they need to act as a support to enhance students’ skills. After lot of efforts, they end up focusing on marks to secure the future of their child, all the while mostly unsure about what skills their child would need in the future.

Schools on the other hand are more input-focused and closed system. They assume that by providing XYZ facilities and exposure to students, students are inculcating required skills. This assumption nullifies the need to really measure the skills that are inculcated. This is the reason why most schools feel that they are doing everything right. Schools do take immense efforts to inculcate skills; but they are so focused on the efforts that they don’t feel a need to measure the effects of their efforts in students’ skills. Besides this, schools are highly regulated by government, leaving very little room for educators to do something really tangible. Just like students, schools are always trying to fit-in into the given policy framework.

If we think about teachers and school management, they are focused on inculcating very basic skills such as, class management, lesson planning, communication skills, and so on. Their efforts need to quickly shift to acquire 21st century competencies required in teachers. Skills such as ability to transfer knowledge, dialog-driven classroom learning, and teaching orientation are not only required to inculcate 21st century skills among students but they are acutely needed for advancement of teachers.

School’s ownership ends when students pass out with flying colors in board exams. What happens to them when they face the industry needs to be traced back to school. Industry shares its feedback with degree colleges; but the feedback does not trickle down to schools. Focus on skills is increasing every day and it is evident that schools need to focus on structured efforts to measure skills among students and teachers.

Future: Can we give skill-driven society to our future generation?

Our future as a nation and society depends on answer to this question – Can we give skill-driven society to our future generation? We like to accept it or not, skills would drive the future. Individuals and organizations that ignore this writing on the wall would soon be irrelevant.

What we need are clear and structured efforts to map, inculcate, and measure skills required among students and teachers to join the skill-driven world. Structured programs from myNalanda and other organizations can help to accelerate this process. It also demands right feedback given to schools, school management, principal, teachers, and parents. More importantly, we need a transparent and honest dialog happening among schools, colleges, and industry. Industry can’t ignore schools any more from this conversation.

We have right intentions in place; but we need to align our efforts and goals in the direction where future is headed. You may wonder – would degrees no more be required? They would; as long as they are inculcating skills. Degrees that won’t, would not find many takers.

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