Beyond false debates

In almost any situation one can safely say that the eruption of violence marks a setback for education. I am not hinting at the chronic shortage of funds for education and the common justification given for it by referring to the weightier competitive claim to scarce public funds that the crisis of internal security or threat of war has. War represents a setback for education in a more fundamental sense. Education has to do with teaching, which is essentially a relational activity dependent on words. Together, with the help of words, teacher and child make sense of the world and impart a sense of purpose and passion to this endeavour. No matter how inadequate words prove to resolve conflicts, education aims at enhancing our faith in words as a means to create cohesion and to motivate us to hope that better use of words can make a difference when there is a crisis caused by an unhealed discord. Education is a future-oriented activity which makes us concentrate on learning from experience and improving our capacity to engage with the next occasion of the kind in which our words might have proved inadequate the last time.

From this perspective, education all over the Himal region is in a dire state of struggle against violence. Forms of violence differ, but its growing spread and depth are so evident that it must be recognised as a major symptom of the failure of education. I want to register this point in a general sense, cutting across the familiar divide between private and government schools. Current debates on quality in education tend to focus on this divide and ignore the larger failure of education as a social institution in charge of nourishing peace and controlling discord. There can be no satisfactory definition of quality in education which overlooks this role of education. Private schools and their admirers perceive privatisation as a means to resolve the problem of poor quality in state-run schools. Let us also recall that a substantial proportion of private schools in India consciously propagate revivalist and separatist religiosity.

Even if we choose to focus on the finest of secular private schools, we find that some of the best-endowed among them have now given up on the idea that education nourishes peace. Their hope has dwindled to the extent that they do not expect education to ensure the school's own security. One after another, they are all tightening their security regimes and many have taken recourse to CCTV cameras. These cameras ostensibly aim at protecting the school from assailants. But their real aim is to provide a technological solution to the problem of discipline inside the school. Some of the best-known private schools in India have already gone this route; others, including several schools run by the government, are considering the advantages that surveillance technology offers.

The entry of technologically managed scrutiny in education marks a new stage in the erosion of institutional capacity to pursue the humanistic aims of education. It also indicates the rising disengagement of schools from their social ethos. Those who own and run private schools apparently feel that the wider social ethos is a given; so is the larger system of education. 'We can't change the system', they think, 'so, let us run our own school well and ensure our own children's success.' And success means scoring high marks or grades in a national or international 'Board' examination. Private schools which attempt pedagogic innovations to cultivate reflective engagement with the social environment are rare.

It is a bit short-sighted to assess the challenge of education either in terms of the proportion of high scorers in private schools or in terms of drop-outs in government-run schools. Just as advocacy of private schools gets caught up in the quality of infrastructure and examination scores, similarly, criticism of government schools essentialises them by invoking images of crowded classrooms, absentee teachers, and so on. Of course, such images have basis, but there is no uniform or single reality. Similarly, the quality of infrastructure makes a difference, but air-conditioned classrooms and plush lawns do not necessarily make a school great. If we are keen to design a scenario of educational progress, we should go beyond such familiar stereotypes and the debates they encourage. We also need to take a cautious view of currently popular terms like 'delivery' and 'choice'. Education is neither a commodity like a car, nor is it a short-term service like the hospitality offered by a hotel. The kind of parameters which might be applicable to a vehicle or a hotel are totally unsuited for a school. The idea of 'choice' between government and private schools is meaningless in a context where the state is yet to recognise and accept the full range of its moral responsibility towards children. Neo-liberal promoters of choice as a fundamental civic value seem to forget that in no country in the world has any significant educational development taken place without the state assuming the primary responsible for schooling.

The teacher and the taught
Instead of getting lost in a jungle of misleading debates, let us focus on the two fundamental players who constitute education in any institution, state or private. These two players are the child and the teacher. Let us begin by getting a general overview of child rights. In the early part of the 19th century, the colonial administration had attempted to disallow girls below the age of 16 to commit 'sati'. The idea posed serious difficulties for implementation, but it symbolised the recognition of age as a seemingly handy means to decide 'who is a child?' In Britain and several other countries of Europe, the intellectual and social struggle to define childhood proved long and difficult, but legislative action had begun, at the turn of the last century, to bring all children under the educational umbrella of the state.

More than a hundred years after the British thought female infanticide had come under control, the grotesque phenomenon of female foeticide is posing an intractable challenge to administrators. Another example of historical continuity can be found in the attempt to ban child marriage, from 1929 onward. In 2006, the Indian parliament passed a revised act to ban the widely prevalent cultural practice; two-thirds of India's girls are married away by the time they are 18, the minimum prescribed age for marriage. Yet another case, in which the state is carrying on its unwilling social battle, is that of child labour. If we are looking for discontinuity or break, we can find one in the decline of deaths during infancy. Similarly, the steep rise in primary school enrolment over the recent years suggests a positive turn. But the idea of childhood as a stage of life representing consensus between state and society has yet to take root. The state's attempt to demarcate childhood as a stage of life which ends at 18 – the age at which one can vote – has not helped to establish childhood as a protected period of life, nor is this attempt backed by significant efforts to ban child labour and child marriage.

The state's struggle to persuade society to give dignity to childhood lacks force at least partly because the different laws covering child welfare lack consistency and also because the ministries in charge of implementing these laws lack coordination. For instance, between the policies covering early childhood – the domain of the Ministry of Women and Child Welfare – and those covering school-age childhood, which is the domain of the Ministry of Human Resource Development (HRD), there is remarkably little coordination. The same can be said about relations between the Ministry of HRD and the Ministry of Labour which covers vocational education (availed mainly by the poor). Recent shifts in economic and social policies, which are linked to the ascendance of the neo-liberal ideology, have exacerbated the impact of poverty on children. Child abuse and prostitution, exploitative employment and trafficking have worsened, even as the state's responsibility for the protection of child rights is showing initial signs of getting institutionalised.

Let us turn our attention to other major player, the teacher. Before the advent of the present-day system of education under colonial rule, the teacher of the young personified a cultural institution. In the very different ethos of pre-colonial India, the teacher carried a status which is hard to imagine today. Teaching young children is a job which does not figure in the hierarchy of coveted occupations in contemporary Southasia. Nor has the job made much progress towards getting professionalised. Even the elite private schools do not treat the nursery and primary level teacher with the respect that professional hard work deserves. The modest salary a school teacher gets is particularly measly in the case of teachers who work in primary schools. Not surprisingly, the job now attracts women more than men, for reasons which reflect a negative view of school teaching as well as women. Given the weak social status of women across the Subcontinent, increase in the proportion of women among teachers of the young has made the profession more vulnerable to exploitation because state officials and owners of private schools are equally used to ignoring women's voices. In the larger context of wage labour, women are chronic sufferers of inequitable treatment.

Yet another negative factor is the poor quality of training that teachers receive. The paucity of sustained in-service support compounds the problem. Training institutions which serve secondary education constitute an under-class of the academia, and the ones serving the pre-school and the primary levels are even more isolated from pedagogic advances and research. Devoid of professional autonomy and training to exercise their imagination, school teachers perceive their main job in terms of teaching the prescribed textbook and completing the syllabus in a manner that children can reproduce memorised questions in the examination.

It is against this larger scenario that the system of education is struggling to achieve universal enrolment and retention at school. Both depend on social support for the state's attempt and the quality of the educational experience offered to children at school. Social support has been seriously affected by the sharpening of the class divide and a general withdrawal of the upwardly mobile strata from government schools. Once the educated parents shift to private schools, the government system loses the internal pressure to function and improve. This trend has been increasingly evident since the late 1970s, in India as well as the other countries in the region. The popular argument that the government cannot deliver good education finds its best evidence in schools where only the children of the poor are left.

In India, the central legislation to give six to 14 year-olds a fundamental right to education has taken six decades of self-rule to get enacted. Though belated, it marks a major break in social and legal history. The act articulates a set of norms for pupil-teacher ratio, curriculum and pedagogy, and assessment. These norms reflect the recommendations of the National Curriculum Framework (2005) and earlier policy documents. For the first time, pedagogic norms, such as pupil-teacher ratio, child-centred methods of teaching and assessment, and the damaging effects of corporal punishment, have found a place in a legally binding document. Also for the first time, private schools are going to face the compulsion to enrol one fourth of their intake from among the poor in the neighbourhood. Will all these mandated provisions mean a change in the ground reality of schools, training institutions and directorates of education? Obviously, it would be silly to expect a miracle. Change in education is a slow process, and, moreover, systemic change requires resonance at all levels of the system. The Right to Education Act does not cover the secondary stage, and a document like the National Curriculum Framework has not yet been developed for undergraduate education. With glaring systemic gaps and the persistence of urban-rural and regional disparities, substantial change in children's experience of education can at best be described as a distant possibility.

At this important juncture in the history of education, one must be cautious about the terms of discussion and planning. Those who worry about 'delivery' apparently treat education as a thing. It may prove hard to persuade them to accept that education is an experience, not a thing. They may say that the distinction is unnecessary because even a thing, like soap or shaving cream, constitutes an experience. It may be useful to remind them that education is a relational experience, not merely an individual's experience derived from consumption. This is why the teacher's agency is as important as the child's. Together, they construct meaning and impart a sense of purpose to life. As companions in the effort to make sense of the world, the teacher and the pupil give each other the faith that the world can be understood, that it is not all chaos. This faith is perhaps what gives education its secret power to nourish peace.

~Krishna Kumar is the director of the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) in New Delhi.

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Himal Southasian