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Mainstream, VOL L, No 32, July 28, 2012

Building a Dialogue on Status of Elementary Education

Tuesday 31 July 2012, by Satish Kumar


The debate was generated on the verdict of the Supreme Court for maintaining 25 per cent of reservations in the public and convent schools. This was declared a historic step. In fact, it may prove to be so, but in reality such cosmetic makeover hardly serves the purpose of the large numbers of schoolgoing kids remaining out of schools. There are numerous government reports and independent surveys categorically pin-pointing the basic lacunae in the system of elementary education. From infrastructure to qualified teachers to caste/community biases are mentioned. Therefore, merely implemen-tation of the RTE Act does not serve the purpose. The beginning of a rights-based approach is a revolutionary step in the sphere of education, but merely legal status does not alter the status-conscious society. What is needed is to run a campaign, to initiate a dialogue of different stakeholders to change the mindset of the people in favour of enacting the RTE Act, 2009.
The facts of elementary education are very discouraging in India. More than 1.3 million schools are spread in almost 633 districts of the country. In some of the districts of tribals and Dalits, more than 70-80 per cent of the kids are not going to schools. Drop-outs in these districts are very high. This happens due to many reasons. There two fundamental problems behind this gross neglect of elementary education. One is the neo-liberal structure of the state under the existing political system in the country. It has abdicated its fundamental responsibility of providing education to all. The market has been given major power to tailor the elementary education in the country. Another major reason is the uncooperative approach of the middle class in India. The middle class in India has emerged as a strong force. This class is psychologically at risk of losing ground by the emerging crowds from the excluded communities. That is why the fundamental legal status of elementary education has failed to improve.

Prof Moolchand Sharma, a dedicated educationist, eminent expert of law and Vice-Chancellor of the Central University of Haryana, strongly espoused the cause of dialogue-building. He said: “RTE Act, 2009 makes it obligatory on the part of the state to ensure and provide free and compulsory education to all children between the age-groups of 6-14 years. However, enforcing this law demands a strong political will, it equally requires other stakeholders, especially educational institutions to understand and analyse the nature of complexities. This is not an easy call. This requires pulling of knowledge, experiences, intellect, sensitivities and reflectivity drawn from different sources.”

Elementary education is in a bad shape. This was pointed out by Amartya Sen in the 1970s. In fact, not much has changed in the last four decades. Though many government initiatives were introduced to streamline elementary education, quite often it failed to meet the expectations of the people of India. Elementary education shifted from the seat of sermon to that of fundamental rights. The constitutional mandate reoriented it as a rights-based approach. The RTE was put into action despite the fact that the Indian engine of elementary education is moving at a snail’s pace.

The expenditure on education has brought rich dividends in many countries. The rates of growth of the educational system in many countries exceeded their rates of economic growth. Mass education, comprising universal, primary and upper education as well as adult education, was never a priority in the colonial educational policy, nor was of course higher education.

The educational policy in India was clearly subservient to the imperial economic policy. The colonial dependent economic relationships between Britain and India shaped the educational policies in British India. As a result, India had to start, after independence, almost from the scratch.

The Government of India has recognised the pivotal role of education in development. The Constitution of independent India has resolved to provide elementary education free to everyone. It stated: “The state shall endeavour to provide, within a period of ten years from the commence-ment of this Constitution, for free and compulsory education for all children until they complete the age of fourteen years.”

The government has accorded special importance to education not only in the country’s Constitution but also in the Five Year Plans. From the very First Five Year Plan onwards, the attempt was to make education an integral part of economic planning. The Kothari Commission on Education, 1966 stressed the relationships between education and productivity and the critical role of education in national development clearly. “Education as an investment in human resources plays an important role among the factors which contribute to economic growth.” The Fifth Five Year Plan recognised education as ‘a key factor in production’. The 73rd and 74th Amendments to the Constitution placed a greater role on local bodies for the development of education, among others. Elementary education has been made a fundamental right with the 86th Amendment to the Constitution in 2002.

Equity in education by gender, caste, and socio-economic groups, and reduction in regional disparities in education development have been the major objectives of educational planning in India. The numbers of students in educational institutions outnumber the total population of united Germany, England and Canada together. Thus, the education system in India is the second largest in the world, with 10.4 lakh schools and about 17, 000 colleges and about 329 universities. Despite the expansion of the system, the progress achieved has not been satisfactory, both in terms of quantity and quality. A general feeling is that “education in India is in peril”.

Enrolments in primary education have been increased by nearly 15 times from 31 lakhs to 4.7 crores. But unfortunately data on enrolments in India are subject to serious problems. There are wide differences between the data on enrolments provided by the Ministry of Human Resources Development (HRD) and the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) on the one hand, and by census, the National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO) and other surveys such as by the National Council of Applied Economic Research (NCAER) and International Institute of Population Studies on the other.

Universal elementary education includes not only universal enrolment, but also universal retention and universal achievement. The retention rate of the school system is also at a very low level: out of every 100 children enrolled in class 1, about 47 reach grade 8th, 37 grade 10th, according to the rates of drop-outs in the last decade. Despite the seemingly impressive growth, inequalities in access to elementary education by gender, caste and region remain high.

The phenomenon of drop-out of children from school could be seen as reflective of the failure of the school system to retain them in the school until the completion of the given level of education. Most of the policies and strategies adopted by the government so far aimed to enhance access, quality, and equity in education. According to the survey (NCERT 2005) in 2002, 17,000 schools were still found to be running without any building and 29,000 in kutcha buildings. More than 60 per cent of the primary schools and 40 per cent of the upper primary schools did not have even drinking water facilities. Toilet facilities are available only in a rather negligible proportion of schools.

To convert the RTE Act, 2009 into a reality, the onus falls on the shoulders of the universities. The churning of qualified educators and trained teachers, is the primary responsibility of the universities. Keeping this factor in mind, a great crusader of education, Prof Moolchand Sharma, has taken this challenge of initiating a national dialogue on the RTE Act, 2009. According to him, we all need to sensitise the community and a beginning must be made by those who produce the educators and teachers. Nehru’s vision of universities emphasised liberal education that would help expand the perspective and build character. Therefore, it is a necessary condition for a rapidly advancing India; otherwise it will never emerge if its future remains out of schools and engaged in household chores.
Consciousness could only be developed by a dialogue. This will have to cover every section of society. Therefore, the initiatives of the Central University of Haryana and the social commitment of Prof Sharma will serve as a major contribu-tion to the nation. India will shine if its education sector develops in an inclusive pattern. Elitist and segmented education creates a country divided in skills and capacity. Let’s hope this dialogue and the vision of an outstanding educationist turn out to be a great success.

Dr Satish Kumar is an Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science, Central University of Haryana.

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