22 January 1999

Class and Classroom: What's Wrong with India's Schools

22 January 1999
The Times of India

Class and Classroom

What's Wrong with India's Schools


AT a public hearing on education held in the Capital
earlier this month, a young boy from one of Delhi's slum clusters took
the microphone and -- in a voice that was at once shy and angry --
asked: ``Is it fair that children of rich and poor parents should go
to different schools?''. It was late in the day and the Union
education secretary, who had been gamely fielding questions till then,
chose the easy way out. ``The answer to your question is in the
question itself'', he said, moving on.
Of all the things that make India a nasty place for the
majority of its citizens, the bifurcation of its educational system
into two streams solely on the basis of income is perhaps the most
distressing. Every society with huge income disparities will have
some families who want their children educated in exclusive
schools. But in India, the quality of public education at the
elementary level is so bad that all parents with means send their
children to private schools.
This secession of the well-to-do is fatal for state
schools because in our present political system it is only the
affluent and middle classes who have the political clout to force
governments to do anything. With no political constituency to speak up
for them, state schools flounder. Some do well because of a fortunate
constellation of local factors -- good district administration, an
active panchayat, committed parents and teachers. Most do poorly.
Familiar Story
While the educational picture nationwide seems
reassuring in terms of the number of schools built, teachers hired,
etc., the recently published Public Report on Basic Education in India
(OUP, 1999) paints a fairly grim picture of micro-level reality. Most
of the schools surveyed by the PROBE team in rural UP, Bihar, MP and
Rajasthan lack proper buildings. Roofs leak, walls are crumbling,
floors are in need of repair. They also lack proper teaching aids
and books, and sometimes even blackboards. As the report wryly
points out, ``the only teaching aid available in all the schools is a
stick to beat the children''. Nearly half the schools surveyed had no
teaching activity going on whatsoever at the time PROBE
researchers visited.
The PROBE report confirms the now familiar story of how
girls are marginalised but it also highlights the discrimination
within the schooling system along caste and class lines. This
discrimination works at four levels. First, the bifurcation between
poorly run government schools and better run -- but more expensive --
private schools means poorer communities invariably end up attending
inferior schools. Second, the so-called Non- Formal Education
centres -- which the PROBE team found to be totally dysfunctional
-- are generally concentrated in poorer bastis. Third, formal
government schools in more prosperous villages, hamlets or
neighbourhoods tend to be much better funded, staffed and
equipped than similar schools in poorer areas. Finally,
discrimination occurs within the same school, with Dalit children
being victimised by upper-caste teachers.
Mother Tongue
Another weakness is that often teaching does not take
place in the real mother tongue of the children but in some language
that administrators decide is their mother tongue. In an insightful
paper tracing the marginalisation of popular languages in India's
education system, Dr Naresh Prasad Bhokta of Gorakhpur University has
delineated the adverse consequences of imposing Hindi on
schoolchildren whose languages are actually Maithili, Brajbhasha,
Chattisgarhi etc. (See The Contested Terrain: Perspectives on
Education in India, Orient Longman, 1998).
All political parties pay lip-service to the need for
universal primary education at election time but fail to deliver when
in power. Now HRD minister Murli Manohar Joshi says that the draft
83rd constitutional amendment -- which will make education a
fundamental right -- ``is neither practical nor feasible''. He forgot
to add that it is not desirable either. Were the amendment to be
passed, governments would not find it so easy to get away with
underfunding primary education. It would be harder to fob children
off with such wonderful substitutes for books, blackboards and
school meals as the compulsory recitation of prayers.
Of course, the present government has only taken the
anti-education policies of its predecessors a few steps further.
Neither the Congress nor the UF governments could be accused of
wanting to provide universal elementary education. Public
expenditure on education as a percentage of GNP today is less
than it was in 1991. At 3.2 per cent, it is a far cry from the 6 per
cent of GNP promised way back in the 1960s.
Instead of remedying this situation, politicians argue
that improving the quality of schools is primarily the responsibility
of the ``community'' and that private schools can make up for the
inadequacy of government schools. The PROBE survey highlights
the importance of community participation in determining the
quality of a school. But given the heterogeneity of caste and class
in most Indian villages, community participation is not always
feasible and state commitment continues to hold the key. As for
the desirability of private education, the emergence of two tracks in
the schooling system in rural areas is one of the most disturbing
findings of the PROBE report. In Himachal Pradesh, where
state-run schools are good, there are virtually no private rural
schools. But in the `cow belt' countryside, private schools are
Two Scenarios
The 1966 Kothari commission report on education focused
on the `neighbourhood school' concept in which the state would run
schools that would be open to all children in a locality and where
proper -- if not excellent -- standards would be maintained. Over
time, most parents would be weaned away from private schools.
The reason such a common public system has not developed in
India is because successive governments never provided the
necessary resources to develop it. Unless the state spends money
to improve the infrastructure and quality of its schools, these will
never turn into genuine neighbourhood institutions where all
children study equitably. While decentralisation and community
participation would be essential for the proper working of such a
system, funding must not be based on the income (i.e. tax paying
capacity) of a community or locality, as in the US.
Looking into the future, the PROBE report suggests two
scenarios. The first is the scary one -- that the two track system
might become more widespread and entrenched. The second is that the
state takes bold initiatives to push for a schooling transition in
which quality elementary education is provided to all children. The
money is there; what is needed is political will. Or rather, public

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