What Makes India’s Primary School Education System Fail, And How To Solve It

Posted by Vj Agarwal in Education
June 30, 2017

A week or two back, The Economist published a compelling, factual, depressing and deeply-shameful story about India’s ‘failing’ school system which educates around 260 million children. While universal access to primary education in India may be true on paper, the sad reality is that neither can all of these children attend school nor do they learn much while in school.

I have visited dozens of schools, and have interacted with nearly 100 teachers and leaders in government primary schools for our work under the Vidya Gyan banner.  Here are some observations.

The Competitive Pay

Today’s ‘decent salary’ for government primary school teachers is noteworthy. However, barring a few exceptions, this has not helped attract committed, compassionate and caring teachers to these schools.

Our teaching force appears to have lost the ‘purpose in life’. As Ralph Waldo Emerson says, “The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honourable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.”  The society must therefore restore the respect and dignity it owes to the noble profession of teaching. On the other hand, the teachers have to earn this through building relations with the community and gaining its trust.

Teachers And The Local Community

It seems that most teachers commute to village schools from a city or town, which may be as far as two hours away. While there is nothing wrong in raising a family in bigger and better towns, commuting from a distance often leads to hassles.

These teachers often arrive late for the classes, get tired easily and try to leave school before the end of the scheduled time. I have even heard that some teachers hire ‘substitutes’ to take classes, when they don’t show up. These practices exist primarily because there is no accountability. Moreover, the so-called school management committees hardly meet to discuss issues, but the minutes are concocted.

While the proposed installation of biometric systems might reduce the absenteeism, my biggest concern is that most teachers never set foot in the village (apart from the school premises), and therefore hardly know anybody. The teachers often blame parents for not showing up when they are invited to meet. However, when these teachers are asked whether they visit the homes of the students and their parents, the common answer is that they (the teachers) don’t have time.

A teacher teaches students at a government primary school in Madhya Pradesh
Should the teacher’s role be simply limited to teaching the students? (Photo by Pankaj Tiwari/The India Today Group/Getty Images)

Perhaps the simple truth is that they have little or no interest in visiting the village, with its dirty roads and untidy homes. On the contrary, in my assessment, wherever teachers and the community around them have better ties – the schools are better maintained, fewer students are absent, parents are better-informed and are willing to collaborate and cooperate – thereby making the process of learning more effective.

Teachers’ Qualifications

Most teachers in village schools have the necessary teacher-training credentials. Many of them are ‘overqualified’ with master’s, MPhil and PhD degrees. These ‘overqualified’ teachers may even be frustrated with just being a ‘teacher’ and not a ‘professor’, IAS officer, state civil service officer, or any such person with a greater pay, respect and more authority.

A conversation with a district education officer revealed an interesting issue. If one only needs a Bachelor’s degree to sit for high-stake competitive exams such as the IAS and state civil service examinations, why does one require a bachelor’s degree and teacher-training credentials to be a primary school teacher? This is a good point. Perhaps, passing the 12th grade along with teacher-training credentials should be the only requisites for those aspiring to be primary school teachers. This way, they are likely to be less frustrated and more committed to teaching students.

I wonder why many ‘overqualified’ but ‘less-motivated’ people are teachers. I don’t know all the reasons, but I can guess a few. Perhaps, some bought their way with money, connections, or both – mainly because the salary here is decent and the government guarantees lifelong employment and associated benefits. Furthermore, they are protected by the unions with little or no accountability of what they do or whether they show up or not. They may have been unsuccessful in the more lucrative jobs of their dreams, and might have taken up this job because of the low expectations and the minimal work hours.

The government policy of automatically promoting students to the next grade without actually evaluating whether they have the necessary reading, writing and other skills is only making things worse. The teachers are always off the hook, because the assessment of student learning, or its lack, has no consequence whatsoever. The system lets children move up the ladder, without teaching them how to face failure in the future.

Mid Day Meals In Schools

Providing mid day meals in schools was one of the government’s landmark decisions. After all, it ensured that children of impoverished families got at least one meal. Besides, eating together helps with social interactions, which leads to better community-building. But, how well it is working?

Today, this appears to be a major distraction for teachers, and is also a source for corruption in many schools on several fronts. One or more teachers have to be involved in and co-ordinate with others, regarding the buying of groceries, supervising the cook and ensuring proper distribution on a daily basis. Someone must manage relations with the village head (pradhan), who controls the budget for the meals.

Children in Juggaur fell ill after consuming poisonous food in mid day meals
Compromising on the quality of mid day meals have endangered the lives of students in the past (Photo by Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

Funds are skimmed for personal gains by serving meals to fewer students (than those present) and then charging for the entire lot. Serving nutritionally sub-standard meals, or buying poor quality ingredients also increases the profits of these dishonest individuals. Finally, the unspeakable truth is that the school’s headmaster and the pradhan often collude in this profit-making, thereby showing India’s unending appetite for corruption. It is important to note that the pradhan also oversees whether the teachers are in the school, but this is often overlooked. Why?


1. Teachers must be held accountable for the student’s learning (and not just teaching). For this, the government must do away with automatic promotion of students and introduce more stringent yardsticks of assessment.

2. Teachers of schools in Uttar Pradesh generally spend 30 hours per week if they come every day. To this, at least one ‘non-teaching’ hour should be added each day, which must be used for building relations and meeting with parents/community, and managing all the logistics (including groceries, etc. for meals) on a rotational basis.

3. While the governance of schools through a pradhan is the cornerstone of a strong democracy, the government needs to re-evaluate its effectiveness. Instead of good governance, this practice seems to have cultivated deep-rooted corruption.

4. Effective systems and accountability measures need to be implemented to ensure that teachers are present in school and perform their duties responsibly and with dignity and pride.

A version of this post was first published here.