Just over a month ago, amid considerable fanfare, India launched a new National Education Policy. The commotion surrounding its launch is fitting, given that its predecessor had aged a generation. The bulk of the new Policy re-envisions “Efficient Resourcing and Effective Governance”. This emphasis is fortuitous, as getting governance right is the key to unlocking a viable school education system. However, the National Education Policy is troublingly light on some key details.
The National Education Policy’s discussion of governance covers topics like school size, availability of resources, cross-school and cross-sectoral collaborations, and more. But it lacks a comprehensive understanding of governance that can bind those topics together and create an overarching frame with which to help conceive, plan, and coordinate specific tasks. And its absence in the document is conspicuous.
Improving policy capacity is one such task that would benefit from a more in-depth discussion of governance. Policy capacity refers to the ‘skills and resources’ or the ‘competences and capabilities’ necessary to perform governance functions. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has proven how resources and capabilities drive the effectiveness of government responses: resources can be financial, infrastructural and technological; capabilities, on the other hand, might include the analysis of case data, drawing on previous experience and enforcing mobility restrictions. The National Education Policy also emphasises the importance of financial, physical and human resources, from lab and sports equipment to library books and teaching-learning resources.
However, stakeholders and organisations at different levels of India’s education system must be able to capitalise on these resources. For example, the National Education Policy expects teachers to cultivate knowledge and skills in their students. Given that expectation, teachers need to know what capabilities will allow them to accomplish this mission, and how the National Education Policy and subsequent policies guided by it will help them develop and strengthen those capabilities.
The necessary policy capacity is multi-dimensional. It requires thinking about political capacity, analytical capacity, and operational capacity. The National Education Policy shows remarkable political capacity by signalling top-level commitment. Such commitment is further joined by the endeavours of the state level — evident in reforms of school systems in Delhi and Rajasthan — and local stakeholders including teachers, principals, private education providers and NGOs. Buy-in from these stakeholders, which is central to political capacity, helps secure support for the National Education Policy’s subsequent reforms.
In contrast to the government’s political capacity, the National Education Policy exposes that the government’s analytical capacity — its ability to track progress and identify gaps within the sector — is lagging. The document has received criticism for lacking connection “to the ground reality” and for ignoring entrenched inequalities. Notably, where infrastructural input or student learning outcomes are discernible through objective indicators with the help of management information systems, the experiences and needs of students or frontline workers are instead discernible through more subjective and consultative avenues. Yet according to a few studies, policymaking rarely pays heed to the difficulties that frontline officials face or teacher capacity development needs.
The National Education Policy insufficiently accommodates operational capacity, too. The document recommends strengthening a central expert body, securing financing, and delineating principles for implementation. But beyond these, the document is silent on instruments such as the communication of information across different stakeholders. For other arrangements such as the creation of school complexes and pairing public and private schools, one wonders how to complete these initiatives. The National Education Policy also treats implementation as a separate issue. A more appropriate alternative to strengthen operational capacity, however, would be to anticipate implementation challenges as integral to the calibration of informational, regulatory, fiscal and organisational tools.
As a high-level vision-setting document, perhaps it makes sense that the National Education Policy was light on the details when discussing important issues such as effective governance. But now is the time to enhance capacity on various dimensions and across different levels, so as to strengthen education governance. After all, India cannot afford another three decades before getting education right for school-age children.
Note: This article gives the views of the authors, and not the position of the Social Policy Blog, nor of the London School of Economics.