Education in India needs a rehaul; schools must focus on more than skill development

In India today, the emphasis in education is on creating adequate skills to enable the student who has passed out to find employment and earn his livelihood. This is acceptable and skill development is undoubtedly a primary goal of education. Still, can the state be satisfied if every educated individual merely fulfils his/her own economic needs through learning, and should it not also try to formulate an education policy which will create citizens with the right approach to the nation and its larger objectives?

The purpose of education, one learned in the 1960s and 1970s, is to make better citizens of the next generation — so that the long term problems of the nation can be resolved through basic human engineering — but with the economic liberalisation of 1991 and the subsequent boom in private education, this moral/social purpose of education has been abandoned. At the same time, expensive education has not meant higher knowledge/skill levels and Indian students from private schools came out at the bottom among 73 countries in a 2012 survey, around the same level as Kyrgyzstan. Over the past three years, India has refused to participate in the survey of global education rankings (known as PISA — Programme for International Student Assessment).

 Education in India needs a rehaul; schools must focus on more than skill development

India should try to formulate an education policy which will create citizens with the right approach to the nation and its larger objectives. Image for representation only. File Photo/Reuters

Private education is becoming tremendously expensive and while many elite schools have extensive grounds and impressive buildings, they cannot even be trusted to provide protection to children, who in recent instances, have been molested and/or found murdered. The promoters of many of these ‘international’ schools — often real estate tycoons with access to tracts of land — know that affluent parents who have benefited from the economic boom of the past decade are themselves people with little education, easily persuaded by ostentation that their children are getting the best education. Since the parents were themselves perhaps brought up on Archie comics, mimicking ‘Archie-style’ education through the appropriate naming of schools (like ‘Riverdale High’) will bring in paying students.

Here are some of the enticements offered by elite schools to make students ‘fit for the competitive world’ — the phrase calculated to make parents eager to take out their cheque books: a) offer courses and extracurricular activities including creative writing and film-making to children less than 10 years old, which they have no means of teaching; b) give 5-star treatment including choice of breakfasts to boarding school students; c) spend huge amounts of money on décor and gardens which makes the school look ‘sophisticated’; d) put up structures to mimic British or American school buildings e) employ foreigners as teachers, paying higher salaries without enough evidence that they can impart education effectively; f) affiliate themselves to foreign institutions; g) use the land at their disposal to allow for a wide range of choices in sport including esoteric items like archery, fencing and horse-riding. Most of these things on offer are trimmings that have little to do with actual ‘education’, it should be apparent.

There are two aspects of pertinence in this scenario and the first is that credulous parents are being misled by the schools and their promoters and enormous psychological pressure also applied on children. Studies have not been made with regard to how well-equipped the students are ‘for later life’ by these schools but a fair number of students may be joining their family businesses, implying that the value of the education imparted to them will never be ascertained. Secondly, there is a sense to be got from the above scenario that the pampering of students by school and parents alike could create problems for society in future. A social goal of education in a democratic country is to inculcate a sense of equality among people and the school ‘uniform’ is actually designed to assist this. But the breeding of privilege has the opposite effect. Teachers need authority to educate, but elite schools, by treating students as their ‘clientele’, undermine this.

The relationship between parent and teacher involves power and a careful balance must be maintained. If the parent gains the upper hand, as in expensive private schools, the teacher loses his/her authority and cannot impart education as it needs to be. If, as in government-run schools, the teacher (being a state servant) is the social superior of the parent who is often extremely poor, the parent cannot make even legitimate demands upon the school/ education system. It stands to reason that the most reliable school education in India is hence to be found in the reasonably priced private schools since they maintain the parent-teacher power balance; parents and teachers are both from the middle-classes. But such schools could nonetheless be in decline in their attempts to compete commercially with ‘elite education’ and ‘move up the value chain’. It should be noted here that many of India’s global achievers in the past two decades received this kind of non-elitist private education.

Since the creation of generations in tune with national values is in the interests of the state, there is a case for state intervention in education. However, after the liberalisation of 1991, there has been an impetus for the state to pull out of education based on the mistaken notion that private education will deliver better on all fronts. One of the primary social aims of education in India should be to help reduce the gross disparities by creating a sense in children that an equitable society is necessary but elite private education has worked against this. One may be sure that there will be huge resistance from powerful interests (which would include the state machinery) not only to ensure that any strong measures will not be implemented but also to make certain that the results are not evaluated.

Indians are overly fond of their children and will not allow them to be put through discomfort. The RTE Act of 2009 should have been a watershed in India but like much legislation, it seems to exist only on paper. When India became independent in 1947, the government had the strength to push through some radical measures. A measure like conscription in which every young person above 18 would need to serve in the armed forces — or in some nation-building exercise in which people of different classes would come together for a couple of years — would certainly have reduced disparities, but no such radical measure was even considered, perhaps because of dominant upper-class interests. At present it is difficult to even enforce compulsory rural service for medical graduates, who would rather pay fines. The Directorate of Public Instruction, once a powerful body, has become invisible today and the autonomy granted to institutions has watered down control mechanisms.

While it must be admitted that the state is too weak to control/regulate private education strictly today, there are still measures which could be taken to ensure that designated social needs are fulfilled by private education. Here are some suggestions that could be considered to meet national objectives like promoting social integration, appreciating national culture, reducing disparities and understanding Indian society. Some of the suggestions may seem too radical but half-measures cannot rescue India from its predicament:

a) Evaluation of the benefits resulting from implementation of the RTE Act: This is the first thing that needs to be done to ascertain if the intended effects have materialised. If this has not happened, corrective measures need to be taken.

b) Testing of awareness levels: Make two papers compulsory across all schools at three levels: Class 7, 10 and 12 — the first titled ‘India and its Culture’ and the second ‘Social and Civic issues’. Care must be taken to see that ideological biases are kept out of the curriculum. The same tests should be administered in common across all schools although choices may be allowed in languages. Since there will be disparities, it may or may not be made necessary for each student to pass the test individually but the overall performances of students school-wise should be used to grade the schools. The purpose of this measure is to reduce educational inequalities so that the country has a common criterion for gauging social/cultural awareness levels across classes.

c) There is a need to reduce the burden on students resulting from one-upmanship between schools. Students must be allowed to choose one game or physical activity apart from compulsory physical training (PT). The burden of extra-curricular activities may also be reduced by allowing students to choose only one or two on which they can spend more time and gain greater proficiency. Schools may offer any number of subjects/activities but students must be allowed to pick only a few. Picking extra subjects/disciplines/activities should be left to students. Only compulsory/optional subjects/disciplines should have periodical tests associated with them. There should be no tests in the additional items chosen voluntarily.

d) Students must be made to gain proficiency (reading and writing) in one Indian language, which they can choose. The Indian languages must be those in everyday use, which must be taught at a higher level than now for greater proficiency. Spoken Hindi may be made compulsory for all students. The film medium can be put to optimum use to make this acceptable in non-Hindi areas.

e) Private institutions offering lucrative higher/professional education must be made to adopt government schools under their own banners or establish schools to impart free primary/secondary education in terms of the RTE Act. The number of students thus taught should fixed dependent on the kind of educational institution offering the professional course. For instance, for every medical student enrolled by a medical school, the institution must be able to educate 10 school students in a sponsored/adopted school. This will make professional institutions pay for their commercial advantages.

f) All students between class 11 and 12 must be compulsorily made to attend a month-long ‘national camp’ to be held in a backward area where they will be made to understand/contribute to social development. The cost of the camp should be met by the state but the students should be made to work to pay for the costs. The camps should be far away from the places where the respective schools are located. Students from each school must be distributed so that they cannot band together. The purpose of this measure is to bring students from different classes/regions/language groups together and make them transact socially as Indians.

g) All schools must introduce a two-hour window every week for library work. There should be no test associated with this and students should simply spend time with books of their choice without their mobile phones in attendance.

h) Encourage ‘no-frills’ education: develop a model for small schools with not more than 30 students per class with PT and a few common games and offering only a few low-cost extra-curricular activities like painting and dramatics.

Some of these suggested measures may be prohibited by logistics but they should all be considered, at least to determine the path the nation needs to take if future generations of Indians are to follow the dreams of the nation’s founding fathers, to make the nation egalitarian and just.

MK Raghavendra is a film scholar and author of seven books including The Oxford India Short Introduction to Bollywood (2016). He is deeply interested in social, political and cultural issues in India, an interest that informs his books on film.

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Updated Date: Nov 05, 2017 10:43:38 IST