Elementary Education:

Some Old Issues for the New Year

-- Radhika Menon

The contradiction between what the government says and what the government does, could not get wider than what is happening in the area of elementary education- which has swallowed up reams of pale green paper in government offices, corporate bond sheets and not to mention the NGO handmade paper. In the muddle, however there is a method.
Educational categories have been confused in the last 16 years of liberalization, particularly in the area of elementary education. The confusion in the lexicon became a means for passing of primary education as elementary education when instead the Indian Constitution, had promised 8 years of compulsory education, way back in 1950. Instead of getting the children to score the goals of 8 years of education, the Government of India (in tandem with World Bank, UNESCO, UNICEF and UNDP and a large number of NGOs) went ahead and moved the goal post closer through the Basic Education framework, whereby basic learning needs actually became as basic as literacy or as high as primary education.
Elementary or Basic Education
In the flush of all the new things flooding the country in the 90s, elementary education composing of 8 years of education suddenly became an obsolete terminology and Basic Education the fashionable term. This fad became a convenient tool for the government to pass off schemes such as Education Guarantee Scheme, Shiksha Karmi projects and other such non-formal measures as schools. The tragedy was that what was passed off as a school was not even a school- no, not even an alternate one. These were places where there were no classrooms, where a single teacher minded scores of children without being able to either give attention or educate any of the children. In the period when poor children were being offered NFEs(Non Formal Education) without even one trained teacher, the rich could access the much formalised and standardised International Baccalaureate within air-conditioned environs and a teacher- pupil ratio of 1:10.
However, the protests of the people atleast led to the return of elementary education- as 8 years of education- back into the lexicon of the MHRD under UPA government, which even gestured to correct the Right to Education Bill. The NDA government had earlier completely messed up with the Bill and the short-changing of people had led to cries of protest from various quarters.
Yet in all the promises made lies the chasm between the said and the done, since a principle of co-existence was adopted between Elementary Education and Basic Education. The Common Minimum Programme speaks of elementary education but is silent on the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan- the blue- eyed programme of NDA government- which the UPA Minister, Arjun Singh, did not fail to declare as “ the National Agenda” in August 2005.
It must noted that SSA hopes to “universalise elementary education by community-ownership of the school system.” It also claims to be “a response to the demand for quality basic education all over the country.” Now for one, elementary education and Basic Education does not mean the same. Secondly, the quality of education promised in SSA is ridiculous as it legitimises EGS, Alternate schools and cheap interventions of the government introduced in the post liberalisation period, even as people were demanding better quality education. Notably, the much-talked about educational-cess has also been diverted to SSA and crores of rupees are being flushed into creating an in-equitable educational order. Thirdly, the hype associated with increasing the quality is dubious and for this it is sufficient to look at the norms of SSA. It claims that the SSA would strive towards providing two classrooms and two teachers in primary school. Remarkably, this is lower than what the Operation Blackboard earlier had transitorily suggested -atleast three classrooms and three teachers in primary schools. The difference is significant since it implies scaling down of both the infrastructure as well as the human resources associated with schooling, so where is all the money going? That is another story.
While government primary schools are dismissed off as being of poor quality by all and sundry, the inadequacy of teachers is a major issue. Most primary schools have one teacher who look at the educational needs of children at various levels of learning. Apart from this they have to update several registers, supervise the mid-day meal and cooking, promptly respond to calls for survey by this and that department and even be prepared to go off and count the number of animals in the village that they are posted! The SSA instead of enhancing the number of teachers in the primary school has gone on to reduce it from the Operation Blackboard levels. Also while it talks of 8 years of schooling, in practise it also says that post primary education should be “as per requirement based on the number of children completing primary education, up to a ceiling of one upper primary school/section for every two primary schools”. This naturally means that not all children would get 8 years of schooling as it also has to be ensured that only 50 percent reach the upper primary. Hence most would be provided only Basic Education and not Elementary Education.
Common School System
In the meantime, there has also been a renewed discussion on Common School Systems (CSS). In India, it first found policy mention in the post independence period in the Kothari Commission of 1964. The Common School System inspite of being one of the oldest policy suggestions has also been one of the most misunderstood. The CSS does not mean that education is pulled out of all social context and that specific requirement of certain groups and communities need to be brushed over, as is purported by the choice theorists and the private school admirers.
It is worthy to observe here that America and other advanced capitalist-developed countries, not to mention socialist societies have built their educational foundation on the Common School System. Considering the democratising possibility of a Common School System, it could have been a powerful means for bringing together diverse groups of children, which it also did in areas where neighbourhood government school was the only means for formal education. However, the CSS in principle never got practised widely in India. And in the post liberalisation period with equity given the boot, CSS was forgotten.
In 2004, with the re-formulation of the Central Advisory Board of Education, CSS, which had in the meantime entered the cold storage found discussion space again. In 2005, the Common School System was defined as those schools that are “founded on the principles and values enshrined in the Constitution and provides education of a comparable quality to all children in an equitable manner irrespective of their caste, creed, language, gender, economic or ethnic background, location or disability (physical or mental), and wherein all categories of schools – i.e. government, local body or private, aided or unaided, or otherwise – will be under obligation to (a) fulfill certain minimum infrastructural (including those relating to teachers and other staff), financial, curricular, pedagogic, linguistic and socio-cultural norms and (b) ensure free education to the children in a specified neighbourhood from an age group and/or up to a stage, as may be prescribed by the appropriate authority.” This definition is explanatory but it makes a greater sense when the minimum infrastructure is spelt out and the age and stage of minimum education negotiated. But this definition has already been brushed aside even before the ink dried on the paper as the CABE definition of CSS proceeded parallel to other activities like SSA, which goes counter to what CSS should imply. Similarly, ‘The Right to Education Bill 2005’ also did not care to define the Common School System. Neither did it talk of providing free and compulsory education through CSS to all children in a manner wherein all categories of schools become part of the CSS network. Instead it clubs private unaided schools with certain State run schools such that they have to provide only 25 percent of its seats to students from weaker disadvantaged sections. These State run schools include the Kendriya Vidyalaya, Navodaya Vidyalayas, Sainik Schools and other schools that the government may be periodically notify and which receive funding that allows infrastructure, teachers and activities that ensures that talent flowers. The establishment of special schools for nurturing talent, unfortunately, has been a convenient ploy adopted by governments since the NPE 1986, for discarding its responsibility towards the larger set of schools where a majority of the pupils, including substantial section of the students from disadvantaged sections study.
The ‘twenty five percent’ reservation is also curious, since there is no reason why it should be 25 percent and not 50 or 75 percent. It is possible that this has been based on the Delhi High Court ruling wherein private unaided schools have been asked to fulfil its promise made to the land allotment agency –the DDA- on providing freeship. But even an examination of this indicates that this has hardly succeeded in ensuring quality education of equitable quality to all the poor children. The schools have gone out of the way to keep the poor children out and have devised all possible measures to keep out those who need it with excuses of how the poor child would get traumatized by being in a rich setting! Several schools have even claimed that no poor child approached them and hence they are not to blame for the non-fulfillment of the stipulated numbers. Still others have filled up the quota with the children of their staff.
While there is need to spell out what the CSS means in a greater detail in the Right to Education Bill 2005 and work further non-negotiables essential for ensuring any meaningful free and compulsory education, the Bill has found a natural hurdle. The arm that makes is also the arm that twists, particularly when it comes to making the financial requirements. The Prime Minster appointed a committee, which included the Planning Commission and the MHRD, which declared on 4 January 2006 that the financial assumptions of the Bill were on the high side and felt it was “irrational” to bring the non-formal system into the formal system of education as the former had been “successful”. Educationists and social activists hotly contest the success of the non-formal streams and it is yet to be proved that non-formal set ups are superior to formal ones. And it is still be explained on why if the non-formal schools are so successful, then why is it that so many formal private schools are being allowed to set up. But whatever be the matter, we have a tale where the same government, which had re-initiated the discussion on the Common School System simultaneously worked out means for finishing the same.
The 86th Constitutional Amendment, which was depicted by the NDA government as the celebrated entry of education into fundamental rights, also cleverly made it the fundamental duty of parents to educate their children (without clarifying what the State’s responsibility would be in the kind of education provided). That legacy continues in the absence of any concrete financial promises and particularly with the dismissal of demands for regularising the non-formal into the formal stream. Yet the fact of the matter is, these issues are far from a closed subject for people who are going beyond all their possible means to educate their children and also for those who see the democratising potential of equitable education in an inequitable society, such as ours.