| Reforming Education in India
In one of the responses to my write-up last week, a long serving academic - now in his sweet seventies known for his abiding concern for education and social well being, wrote:
I endorse whole heartedly the concluding statement that "the vital role of teachers needs a lot of improvement in it in terms of accountability, training, motivation". I live near the Salem belt where schools "drill" students to mug up answers and vomit them back in answer books so that they can score 100 % marks and gain entrance to professional colleges. The SalemRasipuram schools have specialised in this routine. The teachers there are well versed in making the students capable of learning by heart passages in the books. Their services are demanded and get a premium. In one sense, the commercialisation of education has improved standards. In another, it is disrupting the very purpose of education. I hope that you would be touching on this dilemma in your second part.
This paragraph succinctly sums up what struck the learned Professor as four of the glaring problems of the present education system at the school and college levels, namely, students being forced to "mug up", unwholesome competitiveness, commercialisation, and how commercialisation has been disrupting the very purpose of education. There are several other problems as well. There cannot be any educational reform even in higher education without addressing these problems effectively.
The competitiveness is not because the education system is of high quality; it is because of demand-supply mismatch, location problems, the inherent deficiencies of the system related to financing, quality control, lack of regulatory mechanisms, and so on. Whichever way one sees the system, it cannot be gainsaid that while school education is the backbone of the entire education system, teachers are the backbone of the entire school education system.
In the report, Learning: The Treasure Within, submitted to UNESCO, by an International Commission on Education for the twenty-first century, declaring education as "the principal means available to foster a deeper and more harmonious form of human development and thereby to reduce poverty, exclusion, ignorance, oppression and war," Jacques Delors, chairman of the Commission, wrote:
In a troubled and constantly changing world much is expected and much demanded of teachers. The importance of the role of teacher as an agent of change, promoting understanding and tolerance, has never been more obvious than today
The need for change places enormous responsibilities on teachers who participate in the moulding of the character and minds of the new generation (UNESCO, 1996, 141-2).
Closely related to these observations are those of Federico Mayor, Director-General of UNESCO, in his Foreword to World Education Report: Teachers and Teaching in a Changing World (the fourth in UNESCO's series of World Education Reports, UNESCO 1998):
The world we leave to our children depends in large measure on the children we leave to our world. The world's hopes for the future rest with today's young people and their readiness to take up the challenges of the coming century. On the threshold of the twenty-first century, the education of the young has never been more in need of our commitment and resources. Our teachers have never been more crucial to our collective future.
These observations have greater relevance to India whose youth account for about two-thirds of its population; and yet many of them remain illiterate or semi-literate because of the deficiencies in the education system, a system in which many teachers do not teach and many students do not learn, and which is often characterised by what Ivan Illich termed in a different context as "pedagogical hubris".
Childhood is the most critical stage in human life. As Russian educationist V Sukhomlinsky observed, in the context of the importance and significance of the mastering of knowledge, the kind of man the child of today turns into is determined above all by the kind of childhood he had (remember the adage "the child is father of man"). But lack of access to education deprives many children of even elementary access to the pleasures of, in Sukhomlinsky's metaphor, that fairy tale palace that we call "childhood". The result has been a vicious nexus and vicious circle between illiterate childhood and illiterate adulthood consigning most of the potential beneficiaries of knowledge to the dung heap of society, their intellectual and social emasculation and psychological impotence; their related "culture of silence" or briefly, the stifling of the social intellect, through both overt and covert operations of a formidable array of undesirable societal mechanisms.
In Indian context the sleaze in education is not only at the higher levels: it is pervasive, starting from the pre-KG making school education itself a den of corruption, malfeasance, and malpractices. If experience is any indication, there is a lot to be said against Indian school system which often produces educated illiterates; gradually snuffing out the spirit of learning and curiosity of children by the very same schools which are expected to encourage them in developing both.
To give some instances, in one case, when a three year old boy was taken to school for admission to the pre-KG, out of curiosity, on his own he went and sat with other children of similar age who were sitting in open space under a tree (the school was then in a dilapidated "palace" run by its Rani, and the main buildings were added later. The school is in the "elite league" of Chennai with swimming pools, playgrounds, and so on, inviting editors-in-chief of "India's national newspapers", film actors, and so on, for its annual public show, and has now up to Standard XII, and even a women's college with about 5000 to 6000 students in the school alone. Sadly, however, far from fulfilling its proclaimed mission of imparting quality education it has been a money-spinner.
The boy mentioned, continued his education here with all his playful innocence and passed out Standard XII. As he reached Standard VIII or so, his parents discovered that Maths was his enemy number one. There was no way of shifting him to another school as the education system lacked, as it still does, the required flexibility. By the time he reached Standard X, Tamil Nadu was in the thick of a language controversy, with the government insisting on Tamil as the medium of instruction even in matriculation schools and the matter reaching the Madras High Court. I had a two-part article on this, "The language muddle", in the leader page of The Hindu, on December 29-30, 1999. After a year or so, the boy had to choose between matriculation and CBSE which the school offered.
By this time following a government order the school shifted its matriculation stream to another campus. When the boy decided to opt for matriculation and wanted to shift to the other campus, the management insisted on capitation fee, treating his admission as fresh. Considering that he had spent about thirteen years in the school, the demand for capitation fee was seen as unfair by his parents. His father contacted his media friends to bring the issue to public gaze. But the response was one of helplessness. "How are we to prove this"? "One of our own colleagues gave a similar amount in the same school" and so went the response. To cut a long story short, his parents refused to pay the capitation fee, and wanted his son to continue in the same school which retained the CBSE stream on its old campus. But there was again a catch. He, like many other students, was forced to write a "qualifying" internal exam, and when he was about to be admitted, the school insisted on additional payment on some pretext. The helpless parents made the payment.
When the boy's sister, five years younger to him, was taken to the same school for admission, the principal insisted that she be admitted to the newly started Montessori system and charged a hefty sum as "donation" in addition to the usual fees. By the time she reached Standard X, Tamil Nadu government had abolished the common entrance test for admission to degree courses. The state, like some other states, patronizes only the state board and even limits its awards and incentives only to the state board schools. By this time, some schools had already discontinued admission of students to Standard XI under the CBSE stream. Seeing the bleak scenario in the state for CBSE students, the parents shifted the girl from the school where she started her schooling right from the Montessori to a state board school, much against her wish as the bond between her and the school was of some thirteen years and she had to leave many of her friends. That many of her friends had also left the school to join state board schools is a different issue.
The above narrations are important for several reasons such as the arbitrariness of the schools, lack of mechanisms to ensure quality education and quality (and committed) teachers, lack of neighborhood schools, rigidity of the school system which prevents children from switching schools, use of private schools for commerce and greed, failure of the media to expose the imperfections, inadequacies, and even egregious lapses of the schools, government's failure to treat the different streams alike because of regional and language politics; and at the same time failure to nurture even government schools.
Though only the poorest of the poor patronize government schools, given a chance even many of them would still prefer private schools despite all their limitations is a telltale of the poor state of school education. In other states it may not be any better.
On June 10, 2009, The Hindu reported the decision of the Chennai Corporation to merge its schools that lack patronage which led to the closure of 30 schools in various localities in the city. This must be happening in other places also.
Meanwhile, the Tamil Nadu government had set up a committee headed by former Vice-Chancellor of Bharathidasan University S. Muthukumaran to examine the possibility of bringing in uniform syllabus standards. The government appointed retired IAS officer, M.P. Vijayakumar, a person who when in service was known for his professional integrity and strong criticism of the school education system in the state to study the recommendations and advise about the implementation.
The committee visited various states to study the syllabus and examination patterns. Based on its findings, Chief Minister, M. Karunanidhi, told the Assembly on July 15, 2009, that the government has taken a policy decision to implement a uniform school education system in the state, but is adopting a cautious approach to avoid adverse consequences. "When we usher in a mega change in the education system, we have to take into consideration the interests of lakhs of students to ensure that it does not affect any section," he said.
Of the four streams in the high school system 82 per cent of the students are enrolled in schools that follow the state board syllabus; sixteen per cent are in matriculation stream; and the rest are in two other streams. As the state board has a uniform syllabus, the reference to uniformity is only in the context of integrating the remaining 18 per cent with the state board. One has to wait and see if the envisaged uniformity results in hegemonic homogenization of the BJP type.
Though Tamil Nadu is a relatively advanced state in education, the state has to do a lot more to ensure that the school education system both public and private is within easy access and affordability of students, efficient, flexible, corruption free, and does not cause trauma to students while seeking entry into the system at different levels and into higher education. For doing this the state has to establish many more schools at different levels, and colleges of different types, depoliticize the education system by, among other things, ensuring that institutions are not of politicians, by introducing regulatory and monitoring mechanisms, preferably by involving parents and former students, at primary, middle, secondary, and higher secondary levels, so that each segment sustains itself and prepares the students for the succeeding ones.
What is mentioned about Tamil Nadu is by way of illustration. As India's education system has been in disarray and disrepair reforming it should be in its entirety, by identifying and correcting the fault lines at different levels, giving it impetus in keeping with the needs of democratization of access, equity, and excellence. As school education is still a state subject, how the Centre can reach out to the states is an important issue for debate.
Focusing on higher education (of which more later) without renovation and rejuvenation (the key words of the task of the Yashpal Committee), of that vital segment of the system which prepares students for higher education, namely school education, may not have the desired results. In this context, it is important to have adequate data on the school education system. The data available at any given time is like the data of the decennial censuses, say about ten years behind and often irrelevant. Educational reform cannot make progress without relevant and meaningful data.
The public-private partnership in education which Kapil Sibal has indicated is already there even for school education. As many private institutions exist mostly for commerce and greed the nation cannot afford to have any more of them, while the existing ones need to be brought under public scanner and subjected to regulatory mechanisms.
Though the Yashpal Committee report is on higher education, it is important to note its following observations:
We were struck by the fact that over the years we have followed policies of fragmenting our educational enterprise into cubicles. We have overlooked that new knowledge and new insights have often originated at the boundaries of disciplines. We have tended to imprison disciplinary studies in opaque walls. This has restricted flights of imagination and limited our creativity. This character of our education has restrained and restricted our young right from the school age (emphasis added) and continues that way into college and university stages.
The reference above to "right from the school age" is a pointer to Sibal and the MHRD, and the education ministries of various states to trace the malaise to its roots.
Prof P Radhakrishnan
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