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The School System in India

A critique*

Neeru Nanda

The educational system in India has faced a basic dilemma ever since its introduction by the British. The essence of this problem was summed up by Mahatma Gandhi in his historic statement at Chatham House, London, in 1931.

The British administrators when they came to India, instead of taking hold of things as they were, began to root them out. They scratched the soil and began to look at the root and left the root like that and the beautiful tree perished. The village schools were not good enough for the British administrator so he came out with his own programme. Every school must have so much paraphernalia, building and so forth. Well, there were no such schools at all — ancient schools have gone by the board — and the schools established after the European pattern were too expensive to fulfil a programme of compulsory primary education of these inside of a century. This very poor country of mine is ill able to sustain such an expensive method of education.

Free India did not have the will to fulfil Mahatma Gandhi’s dream of reviving the ancient tradition of the village schoolmaster, supported by the community, his status and survival as a guru being embedded within the culture and ecology of his immediate environment. Instead the government chose to continue with efforts to educate the masses through a vast, centralised machinery and superstructure of staff, infrastructure and resources. Successive efforts at universalisation of primary education, ranging from Operation Blackboard to DPEP (now funded by the World Bank and other international agencies) and Education For All, have only reinforced the strength of the challenge posed by Mahatma Gandhi in his statement at Chatham House. The Adult Literacy Campaign and, more recently, the investment thrust on primary education to produce the literate child, carries within itself the hidden suspicion that the goal of universal education for the masses may even be quietly set aside one day, planners having perhaps finally realised that the goal is unattainable within the present system.

As pointed out by the Mahatma, the success of this system depends solely on expenses and affordability. It thus gives rise to a situation where a mass of underprivileged and under-educated children face a largely urban elite population of privileged schoolchildren. Needless to say, it is the latter who get into the universities. While the tax-payer pays for both government schools as well as universities, the poor man pays for both but benefits from neither. The per capita public cost of university education is exorbitant when compared with school education. In the words of Ivan Illich, School is a perfect system of regressive taxation where the privileged graduates ride on the back of the entire paying public.

Every poor Indian who can manage to make both ends meet thus strives to join the ranks of far better (and more expensive) schools, because only these can form the gateway to subsidised higher education. The past two decades have seen a phenomenal growth of two types of private schools outside the system of government schools (which have also, incidentally, grown by leaps and bounds, despite resource constraints). These are the so-called elite schools where education is sold to the highest bidder, and the plethora of petty teaching shops against which it is fashionable for the educated elite to occasionally raise a hue and cry. In between there do exist a large number of institutions, often run by charitable or religious organisations, which seek to make as many compromises as possible within the given system.

It is not surprising that the government of a democratic state would also be compelled to join this race for providing more expensive schools for quality education. The Kendriya Vidyalayas, Sainik Schools, Railway Schools, Tibetan Schools and (more recently) Navodaya Vidyalayas are responses to the basic dilemma facing the existing system. The KVs and NVs together run about 1,200 schools. The KVs, which were set up to cater to children of government servants having All-India transfer liability, have now increasingly opened their doors to the children of upwardly mobile, less privileged urban families. While ‘political pressure’ is ostensibly to blame, the trend basically reflects a sensible popular response of the underprivileged. In the public perception, the system of mass government-sponsored education appears to have failed to deliver the goods, increasing expansion having led apparently to decreasing quality. Hence the upwardly mobile social classes are aggressively latching on to whatever better education is available at public cost.

As regards rural India, it needed a statesman like Rajiv Gandhi to visualise that the day was not far off when the rural elite would also grow restive and clamour for expensive quality education at par with quality schools set up in urban areas serving predominantly urban populations. Hence Navodaya Vidyalayas were set up as residential schools with 75 per cent reservations for rural candidates, all candidates being selected on the basis of a nation-wide talent test. No doubt the Navodaya system has made the best possible compromises within the given contradictions of the existing social system. There is a 30 per cent reservation for girls and reservation for scheduled castes and scheduled tribes commensurate with their population strength in the district. Elitism of merit is the hallmark of the system. While the talent test is open to all rural children studying in class V of rural schools, the admissions are also structured so as to ensure that all geo-economic regions within the district are proportionately and equitably represented and no single region dominates.

Navodaya Vidyalayas have sometimes been sarcastically described as the Doon School alternative for rural areas. But this can mean different things to different people. From the urban point of view it is often a derisive comment implying that by the very nature of the socio-economic set-up of the country, Doon Schools can hardly be relevant for country bumpkins. For the rural elite it is viewed as an optimistic statement, since they would naturally like to have the best for themselves, the urban elite invariably furnishing the role model.

There is a third point of view put forth by planners and educationists who feel that these rural elite schools are being set up at the cost of improvements in mass universal education. Such expensive schools set up in the rural environment only bring into focus the deprivation suffered by the rural masses. Setting aside expenditure on construction, which is quite heavy (each school complex costing over Rs.4 crores), the average cost per Navodaya student (including all administrative and other expenses) comes to about Rs. 9,900 per annum. Is such heavy investment on as few as 500-odd students per district justified? These are the questions raised by the Acharya Ramamurti Report, as also by the CPI(M) government of West Bengal, which has steadfastly refused to introduce the Navodaya Vidyalaya Scheme in its state purely for ideological reasons.

The Acharya Ramamurti Report indicts the NV Scheme on the grounds that it is very costly, it caters to a microscopic minority of the total school population and perpetrates an exclusive system inconsistent with the ‘long cherished common school system of public education’. These educationists, however, seem to have overlooked the main problem pointed out by Mahatma Gandhi with the ‘cherished system of public education’, namely, that if at all schools are to be established after the European pattern they will inevitably be too expensive for the people. If rural areas are not to follow the pattern of more and more exclusive and expensive schooling mushrooming in urban areas, rural talent will never get a chance to compete for higher education unless it migrates to the urban environment. This is a hard fact of life which this point of view does not face but which could be realised. By initiating the Navodaya Vidyalaya Scheme, government simply brought the process of handling contradictions inherent within the system to its logical climax. To the urban elite, however, what is sauce for the goose is definitely not sauce for the gander.

In the trend towards exclusive and increasingly expensive education the residential school stands at the apex of the school system and is sought to be duplicated for educationally underprivileged and rural children by the Navodaya Vidyalayas. As regards day schools, it is no secret that home tuition is embedded in the system of even the best public schools today. Both schools as well as parents find themselves unable to cope with the existing syllabus as well as an increasingly competitive environment without the aid of home tuitions, which today comprise a flourishing business. In government schools the underprivileged may also suffer since the temptation to earn more as a side business tends to retard optimum contribution of government teachers within school.

Thus even the expensive day school has ended up in total dependence on a parallel and equally expensive system of home coaching. A recent development in the private sector has now led to the opening of even more exclusive elite schools which restrict the number of students per class. While sixty students are replaced by twenty students only in these super schools, the costs of sixty are naturally paid for by the twenty privileged families. School has, therefore, become a flourishing and money-guzzling industry. Children exist for schools, not schools for children, and this is as true for private paying schools as it is for government schools.

While the seeds of spiralling expenses have grown into monstrous weeds, the seeds of alienation spread in a more subtle manner. The residential school is an apt symbol of alienation not only from its cultural and social environment but also from society itself. It stands at the apex of a system which rests on this artificial separation that seeks to inculcate values of exclusivity and elitism. Within the day schools the system alienates the teacher from the taught through the weight of sheer numbers and the cumulative burden of learning and measuring up to academic standards. It also alienates the student community as a whole from the socio-cultural matrix which surrounds it. The accent on competition and the constant stress on the individual as against the group and the community further alienates children from one another. Seeds of alienation are embedded in the examination system, which lays a premium on a system of marking that is the sole determinant of individual achievement, the costs of which are paid for by the under-achievers. In its mildest form the under-achievers pay for it by being relegated to ‘non-ability’ as against ‘ability’ sections in public schools, alienation from one’s immediate peers being thus glorified and institutionalised. At its worst the system is scarred by student suicides.

Universities like Taxila and Nalanda flourished and attained international acclaim. In the ancient systems of learning the guru invariably utilised the older boys to teach the younger ones. Their roles were supportive, not exploitative. How unlike the system of public schools, where the exploitation of younger boys by older boys is dubbed respectably as ‘ragging’. While the school tie and similar indicators of superior status may still hold them together at school, these tenuous bonds no longer operate in the universities. University students in India in particular are in essence a mob, whether it be a passive mob or a mob on the rampage.

There are often deaths of students in which their peers are indirectly or directly involved through ragging. It is not a mere coincidence that these incidents have generally occurred in professional institutions for engineering or medical students. While at first glance this phenomenon may appear to be incomprehensible, once the seeds of alienation present in the whole system are exposed it could also be seen as an offshoot of the system itself. The idea and essence of peace and universal harmony, of oneness with nature and association with the earth, of education as a pursuit in the arts of living in an interconnected universe is entirely missing from the system. Instead to the fore are values of individual achievement, branding and typing young persons as bright, mediocre, elite, poor, underprivileged. Divisive forces predominate over harmony. Products dominate over people. Competition dominates over brotherhood.

That this system is giving rise to problems entirely of our own making is being realised in many parts of the world. Radical thinkers, sociologists and educationists have raised voices in protest. Everett Reimer in School Is Dead and Ivan Illich in Deschooling Society have asked some of the profoundest questions about education today. They have recognised that most countries in the world can only afford to give their children the barest minimum of education while the costs of schooling are rising everywhere faster than enrolments and faster than national incomes. While regarding schools as institutional props for privilege for most people, Everett Reimer also recognises the fact that they are at the same time major instruments of social mobility. But he questions the cost in terms of true learning, true creativity and true democracy.

The search for alternatives in education has already begun. Some, like Everett Reimer, search for alternatives in terms of content, organisation and finance. At the other end of the spectrum, Letter to a Teacher, written by eight young Italian village boys from the school of Barbiana, is a minor classic which reveals with devastating clarity how the school system oppresses and marginalises the rural poor by divorcing them completely from their ecological base and their cultural environment. It also presents a radical alternative.

In India today the government’s and NGOs’ search for alternatives has led to greater support and funding for non-formal schools, the most dramatic example being that of the Charvaha Schools of Bihar. However, this experiment suffers from all the general weaknesses of the state system. In Bihar there are other alternatives developed with more success, such as the model ‘Sidh’, started by Pawan Kumar Gupta, an NGO, in and around about 15 villages surrounding Kempty, near Mussoorie. Many other examples of rural-based education centres can be documented where the initiative for establishment and management has vested with communities themselves. Craft-oriented training and basic education have been outstanding successes of Dwarko Sundrani’s Bodh Gaya Ashram, where schooling on the Gandhian pattern is made available to the poorest of the poor in Bihar. These non-formal schools, being beyond the pale of the state boards, are also free from the usual bureaucratic supervision of school inspectors, but by their very nature they are limited to the class V level.

The Yashpal Committee was set up specifically for suggesting ways to reduce the academic burden on students in recognised schools. The Committee strongly recommended toning down of individual competitiveness and introduction of group activity in schools. Simultaneously it advocated decentralisation of curriculum formation, textbook writing and much greater involvement of teachers in these processes, particularly textbook formation. In general the Yashpal Committee came out strongly against textbooks, syllabi and examinations which together form a system that inflicts upon the children the ‘tyranny of rote memorisation.

The Department of Education has taken up these suggestions for serious review. The CBSE pattern of education will be set aside or modified in the near future. Sir Thomas Munro, who set in motion the process of establishment of schools after a new pattern in Madras Presidency in the 1820s, aptly summarised the aims of the new education as being ‘to facilitate the acquisition of wealth or rank’. As long as society accepts these as the aims of schooling, the CBSE syllabus and the emphasis on science and commerce streams (putting incalculable strain on the students) will continue regardless of the Yashpal Committee report or any other similar reports. There are a few notable public schools (like Rishi Valley of the J. Krishnamurti Foundation, Banasthali Vidyapeeth of Rajasthan, the Netarhat residential school experiment of Bihar) which have departed from the mainstream and yet retained eminence within the general delivery system.

The difficulties of innovating within over three hundred and seventy government residential schools such as the Navodaya Vidyalayas would be apparent to any educational administrator. Being wholly funded by government, there is an even greater compulsion for these schools to deliver and perform as per the marks-oriented examination system laid down by the CBSE. Not only do residential schools allow for more investment in time, but the Vidyalayas themselves, with their resource pool of talented rural students, stand Janus-like between two worlds — with one hand they can reach out to grasp the best of scientific and technical skills, while with the other they can gather easily the ancient wisdom of the east enshrined in the oral tradition and rituals of their immediate cultural environment. Hence the Samiti has started a small venture to give schooling a human face through a carefully planned programme of Art in Education, based firmly on the indigenous guru-shishya tradition of learning.

Workshops in theatre, folk music, folk arts, epics and ballad singing can very easily slip into the groove of consumerism and assembly-line production that has come to characterise our school system. Again, overemphasis on achievement and the accent on the individual could vitiate the cathartic experience, the flowering of creativity, the realisation of a deep harmony between man and nature which these workshops should generate. Hence every workshop in Navodaya Vidyalayas is designed around an activity with a cluster of groups working on the theme in accordance with their own particular talent. Thus a Pandawani workshop held in Durg was not just an exercise to locate another Teejan Bai amongst the students and project her on the stage. It was an experience in which the literary group interviewed Teejan Bai, wrote up reports and poems, while the visual art group was busy drawing and painting the scenes she depicted. Those who had talent for dramatic performances learnt the art and performed on the stage, but it was a holistic experience through which the Chhattisgarhi children of Durg moved towards a joyous self-attainment, a recognition of an abiding and ancient identity which was derived from sources that stand apart from and are superior to their school and their schoolmasters. The richness of rural roots and traditions gave them a sense of pride and psychological reassurance which no success in examinations could ever give. By honouring notable rural artists in this fashion the Samiti was able to bridge the gulf between teacher and taught, urban and rural, so-called literate and so-called illiterate. To put it in the works of Dharampal, the present system "has kept most educated Indians not only ignorant of the society they live in, the culture which sustains this society and their fellow beings, but yet more tragically, for over a century it has induced a lack of confidence and loss of bearing amongst people of India in general". It is a tribute to the children that they could very easily grasp the essence of the programme best summed up in a poem written by one girl who exclaimed "Aha! Look at her! She has not been to school even for a single day and yet what greatness she has achieved. Look at us, who go to school everyday, it is for us to get inspired and learn from her!"

It is ultimately left to each one of us in the educational field to move one small step forward towards this transformation of vision towards reorientation of values and objectives of education. Not only in India, but in the entire world, education places an overriding value on products over people, on achievement over harmony. Ivan Illich has expressed this need in moving terms, quoting from Yevtushenko’s poems.

We now need a name for those who love people more than products,

those who believe that

No people are uninteresting

Their fate is like the chronicle of planets.

Nothing in them is not particular and planet is dissimilar from planet.

We need a name for those who love the earth on which each can meet the other.

And if a man lived in obscurity

making his friends in that obscurity

obscurity is not uninteresting.

* This article is by way of a critique of the system of education introduced in India by the British and further expanded and developed by the Indian government. India today has a resource pool of skilled manpower which can compete with the best in the world. The present paper, however, has not been written from the point of view of those who have benefitted from this system.

Mahatma Gandhi had once prescribed an acid test for judging the efficacy of any scheme by visualising the poorest citizen of this country and then analysing how that programme could benefit him. This paper has accordingly been written from the point of view of those who have failed to benefit from the system. It has been written on behalf of the illiterate, the underprivileged, the drop-outs, as also those who are struggling to join the ranks of the privileged. It has been written on the basis of assumptions spelled out in the preamble prepared for this conference. In brief, that education cannot be limited to technical knowledge or skill. It is essentially a practice of prudence concerned with justice and humility, a pursuit of living in an interconnected universe.

The author is solely responsible for the views expressed.


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