School question

Print edition : July 31, 2009

Kapil Sibal-KAMAL NARANG

ON June 26, less than a week before the Economic Survey for 2008-09 was released, Union Minister for Human Resource Development Kapil Sibal announced certain radical reforms in the evaluation and examination system of school education, inviting criticism from some non-Congress State governments. Unveiling his Ministrys 100-day agenda for school education, Sibal announced a slew of measures that included abolishing the Class X examination, replacing it with internal assessment and giving an examination option to those planning to leave school, and introducing a grading system for Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) schools for Classes IX and X from this year. A framework for public-private partnership in school education, allowing the private sector to run government schools, was also suggested.

These were the controversial parts. The non-controversial part of the agenda included evolving a consensus to establish an all-India Madrassa Board and giving incentives to madrassas where modern subjects are being taught; enacting the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Bill; revamping the curriculum for teacher education; recasting a National Literacy Mission for Women; and intensifying efforts to modernise madrassas and to develop skills of Muslim children. The blueprint definitely carried an emphasis on matters dealing with minority education.

The Economic Survey, too, highlighted the urgent need for replacing bureaucratic controls in education by professional regulators, along with private-public partnership to ensure universal primary education. It also recommended the entry of registered societies (non-profit) and publicly listed (education) companies into all fields of education. Apart from some homilies on how there was pressure on children, affecting their mental and physical development, and how there was a need to streamline admission procedures in private institutions, the survey categorically recommended an increase in the number of institutions through the entry of private players.

The main intent of the 100-day agenda for school education was ostensibly to reduce the burden on and the trauma of schoolchildren. It drew its share of criticism, coming soon after the Yash Pal Committees report with suggestions of reforms in higher education. Replacing the University Grants Commission and the All India Council for Technical Education were options considered in the report.

The Education Ministers of Bihar, West Bengal and Kerala expressed strong disapproval of the suggested school education reforms. The Ministers of the latter two States, both Left-ruled, said the suggestion went against the federal character of the Constitution. The Education Minister of Bihar sought a consensus. The All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazagham (AIADMK) in Tamil Nadu also criticised the move, stating that a unilateral decision would be a blow to the autonomy of States.

The Left parties, notably the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the All India Forward Bloc, criticised the proposal to do away with the Class X boards. School education, the CPI(M) argued, was the primary concern of States and education was on the Concurrent List. Each State government had the prerogative to frame courses taking into account the social, cultural and geographical factors relating to the State and most school examinations were conducted by State boards, it said.

The proposal to hold an all-India examination for Class XII through a single board was also criticised by the Left parties. It was argued that any such proposal should have been placed before the State governments and the matter discussed in the Central Advisory Board for Education, in which all State Education Ministers were represented.

In a statement, the CPI(M) also rejected the Yash Pal Committees recommendation that there should be a Graduate Record Examination-type test for admission to universities, arguing that what was necessary was the reform of the pattern of examination accompanied by an increase in the number of seats at the higher levels of education. Further discussion, it said, was also needed on the Yash Pal Committees recommendation of setting up a National Commission for Higher Education and Research to replace bodies such as the UGC.

It is another matter that the Minister, in his 100-day agenda for higher education, announced the setting up of an autonomous overarching authority for higher education and research as well as a law to regulate the entry and operation of foreign educational providers. The Foreign Educational Institutions (Regulation of Entry and Operation, Maintenance of Quality and Prevention of Commercialisation) Bill, 2007, was intended to be introduced in the Rajya Sabha but following concerted opposition from the CPI(M), it could not happen. And one of the first things Kapil Sibal did after assuming office was to declare his intent to revive the Bill, which now has found its way into the programme of his Ministry for the first 100 days.

The proposal to scrap the Class X board examination owes its origin to the recommendations of the National Focus Group on Examination Reforms, which were incorporated in the National Curriculum Framework (NCF), 2005, soon after the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government took over. The Focus Group, chaired by Cyrus Vakil, Director of Studies, Mahindra United World College of India, recommended that the tenth grade board examination be made optional forthwith. It held that tenth graders who intended to continue in the 11th grade in the same school and did not need the board certificate for any immediate purpose should be free to take a school-conducted examination instead of the board examination. Also, it said that under no circumstances should board examinations be extended to other grades such as 11th, 8th and 5th. The Focus Group expressed concern that several State boards had initiated such examinations.

The Focus Group said examination reforms were needed because school board examinations were largely inappropriate for the knowledge society of the 21st century and its need for innovative problem-solvers, and also because they did not serve the needs of social justice. Besides, the quality of question papers was low; they called for rote memorisation and they failed to test higher-order skills such as reasoning, analysing and lateral thinking. Additionally, the Focus Group felt that board examinations were inflexible inasmuch as they made no allowance for different types of learners and learning environments and that they induced in children an inordinate level of anxiety and stress, which in turn caused suicides and nervous breakdowns. It also suggested that board examinations should not be looked at as entrance examinations for professional courses or vocational streams.

The Focus Group expressed concern at the shortage of analytical thinkers and problem-solvers. It said that the negative impact of this was already being felt in the shortage of skilled personnel. An example of the crisis came from a NASSCOM estimate which suggested that there would be shortage of several lakh programmers by 2010. The report of the Focus Group also quoted the head of a leading Indian software company who said that 19 out of 20 graduate applicants and six out of seven postgraduate applicants are unemployable because they lacked problem-solving skills and often did not even know what it meant.

The issues of examination reform cannot be seen from the perspective of producing problem-solvers alone. An army of qualified software engineers, too, will not result in a young population sensitive to the problems of the country.

If the examination system is made optional, everyone will write the examinations. Everyone in this country is crazy about examinations. Why does a parent want his child to score over 90 per cent? They all want to see their wards in St. Stephens, said Janaki Rajan, former Director of the State Council for Educational Research and Training, Delhi, and now the Director of the Sarojini Naidu Centre for Women Studies at Jamia Millia Islamia. She said that one good step would be to ensure that every child received quality education, which should also be child-friendly, until Class XII. The burden issue is not addressed by doing away with the examination system alone. Issues of curriculum are there, and that of the cut-offs. There is no doubt that States have to be consulted. There is also no reason why common tests cannot be conducted in regional languages, she said.

The National Policy on Education, 1986, talked about a child-centric and warm environment. The Focus Group claimed that there were theories of psychology to suggest that if one wanted inquiring minds able to think out of the box at the age of 21, one could not begin training them at the age of 17; the process had to begin at seven.

Educationists are not questioning the wisdom of the suggested move to do away with the present examination system and replace it with a system of grades, but it is also pertinent to ask whether there will be a qualitative change in the manner in which the process of evaluation itself is conducted. Education as a means of economic mobility ought to be questioned. And if the objective of examination reform is to provide problem-solvers alone, then no amount of radical examination reform can address some of the real issues that plague education today. There are issues of larger systemic reforms and teacher training, too.

Some educationists believe that systemic reforms are needed and that the curriculum framework should be dissociated from textbooks. The material, they argue, has to be the kind that teachers are trained to transact. Teaching should take place in a socially inclusive classroom system where each child is given the opportunity to learn at his or her own pace. The tragedy, as one educationist points out, is that there is a tendency to equate the curriculum with the textbook or the syllabus with the textbook.

Fishermens children near Pedajalaripeta in Visakhapatnam. Many of them are school dropouts and spend their days learning their fathers craft. Nearly 30 per cent of the children still drop out at the upper primary level in the country.-C.V. SUBRAHMANYAM

State governments, educationists say, need to be encouraged to bring about curriculum reform. The National Curriculum Framework applies only to the schools run by the CBSE. Experiments in alternative forms of education were used only as add-ons, thereby increasing the pressure on children.

R. Govinda, acting Vice-Chancellor of the National University of Educational Planning and Administration, told Frontline that the intent to abolish examinations at the tenth grade was welcome but needed to be backed up by other things as well. The NCF, he said, was crafted around the CBSE syllabus. There were some 8,000-odd schools that were affiliated to the CBSE. In at least half a dozen States, the 12th examinations were conducted by different bodies altogether, not even State boards. In Karnataka, he said, the pre-university boards were run independently, as a result of which children got completely destroyed.

Several junior colleges in Andhra Pradesh or Maharashtra were not even part of any university system. In some States, public examinations were conducted at the eighth standard. Government schools in Maharashtra conducted examinations for the upper primary levels. I think it is time we sat together along with the States and talked about a national system of education calling for a dialogue on what is to be done in the 12 years of schooling with the understanding that learning takes place at various levels, he said.

Keeping diversity issues in mind, he said that there was a need for a common structure rather than a common curriculum for some degree of equivalence. There are universities that offer two-year degree courses while some others offer three-year courses. Where is the equivalence? he asked. The Kothari Commission on education in 1964-66 suggested that a school system of 12 years would be a part of school education. This, he said, was not being followed in many States.

Govinda said that having a single mega board was also not the solution. A small country like the United Kingdom, he said, had more than one board. The NCF could be used for designing the levels of learning, not for designing textbooks. The 12th standard, he said, should be liberated from the notion of being an entry point to the university system. Why should Delhi University be totally dependent on the CBSE? The day it stops being dependent, the CBSE will change, he asserted.

Today, the situation is that teachers teach Class I children with the aim of preparing them for Class 12, he said. An NCF can be set up again, not necessarily by the National Council of Education Research and Training, to initiate a process of comparability. Private participation also was not a solution, he said; private entrepreneurs who wanted to invest in education could be encouraged to do so but by setting up schools or institutions that imparted free education with reasonable amenities. Why do they opt for self-financing? he wondered.

The problem is manifold. It cannot be set right by only reforming the examination system or by having a single board. School dropout rates are still quite high. Nearly 30 per cent of the children drop out at the upper primary stage, while 50 per cent drop out by the time they reach Class VIII. It was estimated that 50 per cent of those who make it to the tenth fail their board examination. Educationists are concerned that while so much attention is paid to higher education, there is little or no concern about the problems at the primary level.

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