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Education should be about critical thinking and commitment to constitutional values

Missing the bus in school education has been costly

Dileep Ranjekar

Published: Jan. 30, 2024
Updated: Jan. 30, 2024

IT was a cold midnight in December and many of us were patiently waiting for our turn to get a taxi outside Bengaluru airport. Since many flights were delayed, it was a long queue. Most passengers were keen on getting home as early as possible. A person (probably a senior IT professional) in the queue just ahead of me looked particularly restless. After some time, he took out a cigarette packet from his bag, lighted one, crushed the empty packet and threw it on the ground. The dustbin was just three feet away from both of us. As a reflex action, I picked up the empty packet, threw it in the bin and asked him in a low tone, “Brother, what are you doing when the bin is so close?” Others were looking on at this interaction. The smoker just gave me a quiet look and inhaled a few more puffs. Perhaps it was humiliating for him to be called out in this manner. After a few minutes, better sense prevailed, he turned around and, like an erring schoolboy, said to me, “I will not do it again.”

This is surely not an isolated incident. Most of us experience such incidents frequently in daily life. We see people jumping the queue, motorcycles and cycles on footpaths, cars under no-parking signs. The list is unending. Just a few days ago, the minister for transport submitted  statistics in Parliament showing that over 400,000 deaths occur yearly on our roads due to the sheer indiscipline of drivers and pedestrians. 

And we blame our education system for such behaviour. By way of comparison, we often talk about Japan and how from an early age a civic sense is instilled in children. They are taught to be good citizens, respectful of others. This orientation has led to the many strides that Japan has taken, which are so visible even to a casual visitor.

In India, however, the focus on scoring high marks in crucial exams has led to the exclusion of other goals that should be a part of education. Schools have become factories. Success is defined by jobs and money. Missing is a civic sense, respect for the environment and national priorities.

Interestingly, this reality is at variance with our policies. The 1986 National Education Policy (NEP) and the more recent NEP 2020 have clearly articulated that the core purpose of education is to develop responsible human beings with the ability to think independently. They should be creative, inclusive, respectful of others and understand our constitutional values.

When we at the Azim Premji Foundation chose to contribute to public school education some 23 years ago, it was with a clear understanding that education has a powerful and sustainable influence on multiple aspects of development. Most importantly, attainment of education goals should provide an equitable opportunity to individuals to participate in the social, economic and cultural growth of society.

Before 2000, the status of education in India reflected some frightening realities that included low literacy, very low rates of enrolment (59 million children out of 225 million were out of school), attendance and completion. There were several infirmities such as poor infrastructure (especially basic issues such as classrooms, toilets, drinking water facilities, etc), an adverse teacher-pupil ratio, meagre transition from school to higher education and, above all, grossly inadequate quality of teacher education. The gender differences in rates of enrolment, attendance and dropouts were alarming (25-30 percentage points between girls and boys).



The first 20 years after 2000 saw some very positive developments such as the launch of an integrated Sarv Shiksha Abhiyan that explicitly focused on dramatically increasing the number of classrooms, teachers, toilets, innovative programmes to improve the quality of education as well as teacher development, and so on. All these were backed by significant financial support that had been missing.

Acceptance of education as a fundamental right, the launch of the world’s largest mid-day meal programme (the fundamental link between nutrition and child development) and the Right to Education Act, were all backed by sound legislative muscle. The National Curriculum Framework 2005 was a significant step forward in changing the direction of the quality of education. Schools were opened at more than 95 percent of habitations, making education more accessible to children. The Sarv Shiksha Abhiyan was followed by initiatives for high school and university education. All this led to a dramatic rise in the number of educational institutions in the country as well as enrolment of children though attendance and dropout rates continue to be challenges of various degrees. 

However, several serious challenges still loom large. Achieving quality of education, envisaged in our education policy and curricular framework, is among the biggest of challenges.



The teacher education overhaul that is fundamental to achieving education goals can prove to be the single biggest contributor to the transformation of education quality in India. Unless we successfully implement it, the quality of education will continue to be illusive. Without an accountable and empowered teacher, achievement of curricular goals through appropriate classroom practices and pedagogy is unlikely. Given the current education department structures, school cultures rarely reflect autonomy and accountability of schools.

While we often sing positively about the diversity of our cultures, the multiplicity of languages, dialects and mother tongues poses a severe challenge.

Among the most important challenges is our seriousness and ability to have quality implementation of our policies and programmes. Illustratively, it is over 37 years ago that we clearly defined structures at various geographical levels to support educational institutions. These are State Councils, District Institutes of Education and Training, and Block/Cluster Resource Centres. But they lack the requisite number and quality of personnel who can improve the capacity of schools and teachers. 

Education quality will not sustain unless we have a very competent and committed group of almost 150 persons in every district that engages with capacity enhancement of schools and teachers.

In summary, while we, as a nation, have articulated the right intent to achieve education of a kind (through policy and curricular framework) and imagined practical structures at the Centre, state, district, block and cluster level, the quantitative and qualitative implementation of our programmes has been woefully inadequate to achieve the desired results.

The Azim Premji Foundation’s work on the ground comprising tight, continuous and large-scale engagement with teachers, school leaders, teacher educators and education functionaries has been of tremendous value in our learning over the past 23 years. In our journey in the education domain, we came across several exemplary teachers and school principals, who, despite all odds, have achieved commendable results through their deep commitment to education and children.

Probably because of our learning and understanding in education, the government was comfortable in closely involving us in the making of policies and curricula which in turn led to further insights into what it takes to contribute to the national agenda on education with far-reaching implications for India’s development as a progressive society.



How do we see the next 20 to 25 years of education evolving for India? The first and foremost requirement is to have a huge political commitment to develop a long-term vision (at least for the next 20 years) for India and to agree to drive that vision, irrespective of which political party is in power. This needs to be backed  by necessary political will to realize the vision. This must lead to providing necessary budgets, creating institutions to develop high quality personnel, including teachers, school leaders and competent enabling educators. Political will must constantly reinforce commitment to public education and inspire quality implementation of policies and practices.

We need to create a culture of empowerment, trust, integrity and accountability up to the last mile. Illustratively, mere tinkering of structures and empty motions of implementation are just not enough. An overhaul and re-design of the system are needed.

Priorities for education transformation:

1. Teacher education overhaul

2. High-quality early childhood education

3. Foundational literacy and numeracy

4. Emphasis on conceptual understanding, critical thinking, innovation, commitment and practising of constitutional values

5.  Focus on real learning instead of examination/marks driven education

6. Genuine last mile delivery of programmes and benefits announced — especially for marginalized members of society.

The nation must realize that education cannot be viewed in fragments. It should be a continuum. Early childhood education has a deep positive influence on the development of children — contributing to their learnability at the primary level and subsequently in high school. Schools feed into college education and quality higher education is a resource for school education.

Only when we have education that develops independently thinking individuals who are committed to our constitutional values will we have a responsible society. We will not be required to tell people to put their empty cigarette packets in the dustbin. Commuters on roads will follow traffic rules without coercion by the law-and-order machinery. People will think twice before creating environmental pollution and organizations will not be required to invest in employee training to teach basic issues like communication, interpersonal relations, integrity and teamwork. Belief in pluralism, gender sensitivity and rational thinking will be part of the DNA of society. Conflicts between religions, castes, communities will significantly decrease when people resolve issues through reason and democratic means.

High quality education at all levels is fundamental to our attaining the status of a truly developed and happy society!


Dileep Ranjekar is founder CEO and Advisor, Azim Premji Foundation.



  • himanshu rai sharma

    himanshu rai sharma - Feb. 26, 2024, 9:52 a.m.

    Besides working with the state government teachers of APF should also assist grassroot organizations in training their workforce in areas of pedagogy and classroom practices.

  • Joe Saldanha

    Joe Saldanha - Feb. 4, 2024, 5:21 p.m.

    The generosity of Ajim Premji and work of the AZ Foundation has and continues to make a great contribution to the building up of grassroots education in India and is similar to the contribution of the Tata family and Trusts in the last century. India is indebted to them for taking up a much neglected segment of our educational infrastructure and enhancing it. Keep up the good work!

  • Janaki Subramaniam

    Janaki Subramaniam - Feb. 2, 2024, 9:40 a.m.

    Very well penned. Education for sure is the need of the hour for our country's peace and prosperity. Wish the politicians realise this and don't interfere in the educational policies.

  • arvind n agrawal

    arvind n agrawal - Feb. 2, 2024, 6:46 a.m.

    Very well articulated, Dileep. Draws our attention to the monumental task in front of us. Gives perspective on where we should be focusing to improve the overall quality of education in the country .

  • Manmohan Panda 1

    Manmohan Panda 1 - Feb. 2, 2024, 4:11 a.m.

    Sir, you have rightly addressed the current issue and the root cause of that. Education has become a business in modern times, I have been noticing that schools are more focused towards revenue than instilling values in children. Discipline, respect, and continued learning are few important points that the current and upcoming generations need to imbibe. You have been a great mentor to the society and articles like these will help in understanding the issue and take appropriate action. I hope people will pay attention to this and design an education system that not only helps to develop values but also encourages more people to choose teaching as a profession so that they can help shape our future generation to represent India better. Wishing you and your team good luck.