Cover Story

Public education in the marketplace

Print edition : July 08, 2016

At a school in Allahabad. At a school in Allahabad. The much-lauded 25 per cent admission for children from the economically weaker sections in private schools in the RTE Act started the PPP model which allows transfer of crores of public funds to high-fee charging and low-budget private schools alike. Photo: Rajesh Kumar Singh/AP

The state of a Government-run school for Dalits (Adi Dravidar) at Thulasingapuram, Chennai. Photo: M. Vedhan

Successive governments have failed to meet their constitutional obligations in the field of education and have, instead, systematically deprived, then disparaged and now demolished state-run schools, and this has had the effect of reinforcing rather than removing class, caste and gender inequalities.

A war of words is going on between Human Resource Development Minister Smriti Irani and former Cabinet Secretary T.S.R. Subramanian over the report of the New Education Policy (NEP) committee headed by him. Subramanian is threatening to make his report public; Smriti Irani says this can only be considered after the States have sent in their responses to it. In fact, the tug of war is symptomatic of the manner in which the entire exercise of the NEP has been carried out.

Smriti Irani claimed that the Narendra Modi government’s NEP was going to be the unique result of more than 2.6 lakh consultations around 13 themes earmarked for school education at gram panchayat, block, district, State, groups of States and national levels. The HRD Ministry supplied a list of questions to elicit recommendations which would serve as inputs for each of the themes for the Draft NEP document. Clearly, the document would not be the work of experts, which explains the surprising composition of the committee itself. Headed by a former Cabinet Secretary, it includes three retired government Secretaries and a former Director of the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT), J.S. Rajput, whose credentials stand compromised by his role in the project for “saffronisation” of textbooks during Murli Manohar Joshi’s tenure as HRD Minister in the previous National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government.

Available information, and it has to be hearsay given the Ministry’s cagey attitude, suggests that the scheduled meetings simply did not take place, that gatherings orchestrated at higher levels were used to legitimatise claims that recommendations represented “the voice of the people”, and that officials and education officers dominated proceedings at meetings where school principals, teachers, government invitees and some school management committee members were herded together. Not surprisingly, the HRD Ministry has failed to make the content of the “people’s” recommendations publicly available. A similar lack of transparency shrouds the national and regional debates held by the University Grants Commission (UGC), the National University of Educational Planning and Administration (NUEPA), the NCERT and other national-level institutions.

The methodology adopted by the HRD Ministry is deeply problematic. There is no analysis of previous policies and no substantial overview of the consequences of putting into practice changes introduced by the National Policy on Education (NPE) 1986, its companion Programme of Action, and their modified versions (1992). Before the NPE, democratic goals and the guiding principles of equality and social justice articulated during the freedom struggle informed policies, although it soon became evident that successive governments failed to meet their constitutional obligations. The changes introduced by the NPE coincided with the adoption of the economic reforms programme by the Narasimha Rao government in 1991.

The NPE’s focus was on implementation of a series of missions and abhiyans to impart market-oriented “skills”, the lowest one being “functional literacy”. This involved a conceptual and curricular delinking of cognitive and aesthetic aptitudes from acquisition of the practical skills which were deemed sufficient for making the mass of citizens employable. Violating the constitutional obligation to ensure universal free and compulsory education of comparable quality, the NPE introduced a policy provision for low-cost, poor quality, non-formal education (NFE) which was to be treated as “equivalent to schooling” for those children who could not “be expected to attend a full day at school”. This excluded a vast majority of children in the relevant age group from the formal system of education.

However, NFE only prepared the ground for a policy of multitrack, discriminatory streams of education. Under pressure from the World Bank, the 1994 District Primary Education Programme (DPEP) introduced “low-cost” infrastructural and recruitment practices into the government school system across the country. Para-teachers and contract teachers were used to cut costs. After the Fifth Pay Commission (1996), recruitment of permanent trained teachers was badly affected in most States. Yet, trained teachers were required to be available for official duty during Census, elections, health campaigns such as polio eradication, and now even “disaster management”. Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) were inducted for improving quality. The entire system was driven to the brink of collapse.

Limitations of the RTE

The inherent limitations of the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act (RTE), 2009, to guarantee the fundamental right to education followed from the fact that the very idea of a national system of public-funded education for which the state would be responsible and accountable had been given up. The RTE became the legal form of a system of discrimination at every level. It excluded pre-school Early Childhood Care and Education for 0-5-year-olds. It excluded secondary education for 15-18-year-olds. It excluded the “special” government schools which were proof that governments could run schools when they were required to. But it did provide a peep into the future. The much-lauded 25 per cent admission for children from the Economically Weaker Sections (EWS) in private schools started the public private partnership (PPP) model which today allows transfer of public funds running into crores of rupees to high-fee charging and low-budget private schools alike.

The truth is that across the political spectrum this policy perspective has either been actively contributed to—if the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) governments brought in the NPE and the RTE, the NDA brought the 86th Amendment Bill which defined the limits of the RTE and the concept of knowledge as a “tradeable commodity”, and education as a “tradeable service”—or been accepted as the model of development by all governments in power. The Modi government’s Skill Development campaign not only rests on the foundation of the NPE 1986, but also requires the changes proposed to child labour laws allowing children under 14 years of age to participate in hereditary trades.

Of what value then are “answers” to loaded questions like, “Has the no-detention policy improved learning outcomes of students? If not, what are reasons and what changes can be suggested?” The pedagogical significance of no detention at the elementary stage (Classes I-VIII) with a well-developed process of constant and continuous evaluation that is implemented by sensitised and trained faculty available in full strength is completely neglected by this poser. Instead, ill-informed but popularly and administratively favoured responses, such as “teachers don’t teach” and “students don’t concentrate” unless the fear of impending examinations and the social stigma of failure hang over their heads, prevail. And let us not forget that those detained or pushed out in Class V would now have centres for skill development to attend!

Quick-fix solutions

The HRD Ministry’s penchant for quick-fix technical solutions to the chronic problems of India’s school education finds a promotional avenue through leading questions like how Information and Communications Technology (ICT) can enhance skills that increase learning outcomes. The sheer physical presence of the computer appears endowed with “miraculous” powers through advertising in the visual media. Available data which show that careful attention to the teaching-learning relation is crucial to derive benefits from the investment that ICT demands are disregarded because of the political advantages coming from government handouts on the one hand and benefiting corporates on the other.

The HRD Ministry’s approach is fundamentally flawed. While it makes a huge “show” of widespread consultation, it has no vision, principle or logic on which one set of suggestions could be preferred over other alternatives. No invigorating strategy either underlies or could arise out of this essentially wasteful exercise, which mocks government claims that there are no funds for education and contrasts with the savage cuts made in budgetary allocations over the past two years.

However, this does not mean that an agenda is not being advanced. If there is no vision for reviving the moribund public system of school education, then it has to be recognised that government “policy” is forcing parents to the gates of commercialised private institutes. The NGO Pratham’s Annual Status of Education Report (ASER 2012) showed that in just two years after the implementation of the RTE Act, there was a 5.8 percentage point increase, up from 29.8 per cent in 2010-11, in private school enrolment for primary (Classes I–V) students. It estimates that over 50 per cent of the students will be paying for primary education by 2020.

In State after State, governments are closing or merging schools because students are said to be deserting them. Rajasthan, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Karnataka, and even Himachal Pradesh and Kerala, once the success stories of the system, have proclaimed that the policy is inevitable. Thousands of teachers are declared redundant in a process ironically dubbed “rationalisation” because it saves public funds on paying their salaries. Fighting a last-ditch battle, people’s organisations in some States have been able to push back for one more year this dismantling of the state-funded and maintained school system.

Stark inequalities

The National Sample Survey Organisation’s (NSSO) most recent survey on education (71st round), conducted from January to July 2014, reveals stark inequalities that have grown as the government system has been systematically deprived, then disparaged and now demolished. According to the net attendance ratio (NAR) of the richest fifth of the population, 89 per cent children of primary school-going age attend school (rural and urban); the proportion drops by 10 percentage points to 79 per cent for children in the poorest fifth of the population in rural areas and 78 per cent in urban areas. But a sharp drop at secondary school becomes even worse at the higher secondary level.

The poorest fifth of the population have NAR of 18 per cent (rural) and 23 per cent (urban); the richest fifth have NAR of 53 per cent and 66 per cent. Only 6 per cent of young people from the bottom fifth of the population, who are also predominantly Dalit, tribal, minorities and other marginalised sections such as women and the disabled, reach levels above higher secondary in urban India. The proportion is five times higher, at 31 per cent, for young people from the richest fifth of the population. The NAR for urban children studying above higher secondary for the middle fifth of the population, India’s fabled middle class, is only 15 per cent. The situation is worse in rural India.

Clearly, India’s education system is reproducing social inequalities and not removing them. If lack of political will to tackle major deterrents like caste, class and gender once failed to universalise education, today it is discriminatory policies that are reinforcing inequality. Keeping children uneducated, whether they are in or out of school (ASER 2015), is not a function of poverty but of a range of negative attitudes and misplaced priorities of policy. To segregate the poor and the disadvantaged in institutions catering only to them results in a situation where the majority of children are denied their fundamental right to education even as privilege masquerades as merit. Contrary to all pedagogical and egalitarian preferences for the mother tongue as the language of learning, fluency in English, a prominent marker but not the cause of affluence, is driving even poor families to take on the crushing fee-burden of private “English medium” schools and is generating the self-defeating demand that government schools should shift from the vernacular to the English medium.

In this dark scenario, a beacon of light has been the recent landmark judgment of the Allahabad High Court (August 18, 2015). Based on egalitarian principles, its conclusions emphasise the democratic and educational importance of shared schooling for children from all sections “. . . in changing society from grass-root level. The initial level mixing among all children will have different consequences.” The unhealthy division of schools into “elite”, “semi-elite” and “common man’s schools” based solely on privilege and wealth have neither an educational basis nor social value in a democratic society. “After more than 65 years of independence, these (common men’s) schools are still struggling to have basic amenities for children…. It is not difficult to understand why conditions of these schools have not improved. The reason is quite obvious and simple…. There is no real involvement of administration with these schools. Any person who has some capacity and adequate finances sends his child/children to elite and semi-elite primary schools. They do not even think of sending their wards for primary education to… third category schools, i.e. common men’s schools. The public administration therefore has no actual indulgence to see functioning and requirements of these schools.”

The solution of enforced integration ordered by the court cannot be deemed a denial of “democratic choice” for the powerful and affluent elites because the judgment identifies the choice itself as the reason for the vast majority of India’s children being denied their fundamental right to education. The State government was thus directed to ensure that “the children/wards of government servants, semi-government servants, local bodies, representatives of people, judiciary and all such persons who receive any perk, benefit or salary, etc. from State exchequer or public fund, send their child/children/wards who are in age of receiving primary education, to primary schools run by Board… and ensure to make penal provisions for those who violate this condition”.

A yes for common school system

The judgment’s resounding endorsement of the Common School System in modern democratic societies is grounded in historical fact. No system of quality education has ever been universalised except through the state’s provision of and accountability for such common schools. The judgment should not only be implemented forthwith in Uttar Pradesh. It should be extended to cover all States of India.

The other ray of hope has been the sustained and courageous struggles of students of numerous institutes of higher education who have jeopardised not just their education and their careers but even their lives in defence of the democratic right to both knowledge and dissent. From the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras (IIT Madras), the University of Hyderabad, through the Occupy UGC struggle, at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), Delhi University (DU), and Allahabad and Jadavpur universities, their voices have been truly representative of the people.

Could one then expect a radical change from the HRD Ministry? The “special touch” which the present regime has brought to the education system is to bring it more firmly under official control with Centrally sponsored Teachers’ Day events, Swachch Bharat campaigns, Sanskrit Week, compulsory sessions of the Prime Minister’s radio speeches, yoga days, and even decisions on which festivals children will be allowed to celebrate with their families. At a more devious level, distortion of historical and sociological facts is being undertaken to facilitate indoctrination through textbooks. Finally, the use of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh’s (RSS) student wing, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), to declare radical Ambedkarite, Marxist and even independent-minded university students and teachers as extremists and anti-nationals, initiating disciplinary action and even slapping charges of sedition against them are an undisguised threat to the future of the country’s educational institutions.

Rajasthan’s Education Minister gave a public warning in March 2016 that they were creating educational institutions from which “no Kanhaiya Kumar could arise”. The JNU Students’ Union president, the son of an anganwadi worker, and people like the Dalit researcher Rohith Vemula should not protest against the government or question the system because they get scholarships from the state. The latest “leak” from the Subramanian Committee’s report states that protests and agitations “interfere with normal academic activities” and are “caused by politically active students and work to the detriment of the majority of serious students”. For the former, hostel facilities should be curtailed, and student groups based “explicitly on caste and religion” should be derecognised ( Indian Express, June 16, 2016).

Clearly, the HRD Ministry has learnt nothing from its misadventures, and education and educational institutions will continue to be in turmoil.

Madhu Prasad is the founder member and spokesperson of the All India Forum for the Right to Education.

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