The aspirations of the next generation race ahead, transforming our urban corridors and rural fields. Ambition drives our growth, breaking social and cultural shackles. The system struggles with bureaucratic inertia and budget misallocation, leaving the demographic dividend astray with millions left under-skilled and underemployed. Our evolving job market stratifies, keeping the masses in disguised unemployment, by offering little in access, equity or quality of education. Newly-built schools are proudly inaugurated, with little attention being given to instructional materials or teaching quality. In terms of Mathematics and English literacy, we are at the bottom of the pack, with the Program for International Student Assessment rankings and the Annual Status of Education Report (53.2% of all children in Class 5 are unable to read a Class 2-level text) highlighting so. There is little accountability, rampant budget siphoning and little accreditation. Critical thinking, problem-solving and progressive moral values are ignored, with rote learning and grade-focused competition emphasised. We are building a nation of labourers and call centre workers.

With little accountability or community participation, school governance is a sham. School Management Committees (SMC), promoted by the Right to Education law to oversee school operations, are easily captured by local principals and promoters.

Central and state institutions that set standards should focus on building guidelines that address local and sectoral needs. SMCs need to be kept independent, with participation from parents, educationists, teachers and local authorities. SMCs and parent-teacher associations should have the right to conduct school and teacher performance reviews, linking them to incentives and promotions. Since the optimal catchment area for a primary school is at a village or municipality level, accountability and monitoring mechanisms should be decentralised, with parents given the power to discipline or reward school leadership.

Competition is bred for seats, but not for the subsequent process. Quality is restricted to the elite or the bright — with a large rural-urban divide in access and gender inequity. Our teachers are marked by absenteeism, poor quality (the majority failed the latest Central Teacher Eligibility Test) and low motivation, particularly in government schools. Our teaching evaluation system is outdated, with the BEd requiring just a year to qualify, and focused on rote learning instead of critical thinking.

As recommended by the World Bank, the quality of teaching could be vastly improved through a longer BEd programme and the utilisation of locally trained and inexpensive district professional teachers to provide supplemental instruction to children at their level of learning (as opposed to the level dictated by the curriculum or assumed by the textbook). The Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan’s funding can be utilised to promote this capacity augmentation. Hiring could be conducted on a renewable contract basis, with individuals progressing from an apprentice to an associate and then a permanent teacher. Greater autonomy to teachers should also be provided, enabling them to customise instructional materials to the physical infrastructure and local educational needs. We also need to encourage creativity, through the establishment of innovation centres in districts that enhance teacher training along with national innovation scholarships that help identify talented children at the school level. Design innovation should be encouraged as well, particularly in technical institutions, helping to develop university clusters that provide a platform for industry and academia links.

The National Skill Development Corporation (NSDC) has done excellent work in catalysing linkages between institutions and ambitious private sector players, but needs to build more capacity, particularly in crucial sectors like textiles and construction. Having a school adopted by a corporate firm or a local NGO, particularly from an operations perspective could help reduce agency issues. Distance and online education must also be expanded, with the rise of massive open online courses and NSDC’s innovative partners leveraged for vocational education.

Families skirt penury as the cost of education rises. A national student financial aid system needs to be setup, able to dispense long-term loans, with institutional eligibility gradually tied to accreditation and quality measures. We should continue efforts to expand funding for competitive grants to individual researchers, particularly with peer reviewed research grants. The introduction of innovative Public Private Partnerships (PPP) models, tax incentives and a flexible accreditation policy will help induce greater high quality private sector participation and endowments.

We speak about innovation often, aspiring to become a knowledge-based economy. A cultural shift is needed, with our hunger for quality education transforming into guidelines and mandates that help monitor and enforce its provision. The urgency to reform must be channelled into building on what already exists, instead of scrapping the existing system. Balancing local control with higher level support for training, professional standards and monitoring will require iterative community participation. Millions cry out for access to opportunities, a chance for social mobility.