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Mainstream, Vol. XLVII, No 41, September 26, 2009

The Ever Elusive Goal of Education for All

Will the New Rights to Education Law help Achieve this Dream?

Saturday 26 September 2009, by N A Karim


There is a significant sentence in the report of the Education Commission (1964-66), popularly known as the Kothari Commission: “India’s destiny is being shaped in her classrooms.” Indeed the statement of the Commission was inspired by an ideal situation in which education plays a decisive role in the development and destiny of the nation. The fact that the Commission gave the title ‘Education and Development’ to their monumental report of more than 800 pages revealed their vision of India forging ahead as an enlightened and progressive nation through universal meaningful education. But alas, at the time of writing the report more than half of the children of school-going age were outside classrooms working in fields and in hazardous workplaces engaged in hard labour to supplement the income of the poor family, or confined to their huts looking after their siblings as both their parents go to work.

The situation as far as the universalisation of elementary education has changed little in the last more than four decades since the report had been published. In the Cartoonspace of The Hindu of August 8, 2009 appeared a cartoon in which two children, seemingly siblings eagerly and frantically looking on either side of the signboard School Zone with their slates in hand, and the more energetic brother climbing the pole of the signboard ‘School Zone’, but there is no trace of a school in the vicinity. This cartoon movingly illustrates the situation of the inadequacy of schools in the country even when the law has been enacted for all children of the 6-14 age-group ensuring free and compulsory elementary education of eight years. Indeed this provision was there in our Constitution as clause 45 in Chapter IV (Directive Principles of State Policy), that is, eight years of free universal elementary education with a time-limit of ten years for its implementation, something which no other Directive Principles of State Policy had. Since the Constitution came into force on January 26, 1950, the country should have had universal elementary education in our Lord’s Year 1960.

But that was not to be. It was only in the first decade of the 21st century that the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) Government of Atal Behari Vajpayee made this right for free elementary education elevated to a Fundamental Right in Chapter III through an amendment of the Constitution. Still it slept there without further steps to implement this important right. Now at long last the UPA Mark-II Government of Manmohan Singh decided to enact a law to translate this elusive goal into a reality. The landmark Bill which the Rajya Sabha had passed earlier was piloted in the Lak Sabha by the new Human Resource Development Minister Kapil Sibal. This is indeed no mere educational venture but a bold developmental adventure.

To achieve this goal in all its spirit, a massive investment in education with masterly planning is immediately needed as there are no schools of any kind in tens of thousands of human habitations of the country according to the All India Educational Surveys and the documents, Challenge of Education and Programme of Action, published in connection with the New Education Policy (NEP) of 1986. A large number of schools, particularly in the BIMARU States that constitute the heartland of India, were single-teacher schools of which a large number is without any kind of buildings, furniture, drinking water, urinal, library, playgrounds and basic teaching aids like blackboard. The objective of ‘Operation Blackboard’, which was implemented spending thousands of crores of rupees, was to provide 13 per cent of such schools, then without any buildings, a building with two large rooms that can be used in all weather conditions and to appoint one more teacher, preferably a female one, for all single-teacher schools and give them minimum teaching aids like blackboards, maps, globes etc., made some marginal improvement in the situation then. That was a one-time project. Now, in the context of making elementary education universal, schools will have to be established so that all children of the country have schools within walking distance. In the present circumstances, when we would like to have massive expansion along with improvement of quality of schooling, investment of astronomical figures will be immediately needed apart from huge recurring expenditure.

The principle of public-private partnership (PPP) with adequate government control and direction, if implemented without diluting academic standards, will be a welcome thing. In the new law as it stands 25 per cent of seats in private schools have to be reserved for poor and handicapped children of the locality absolutely free. The loss incurred by those private schools in the matter of fees will be compensated by the Central and State governments the ratio of which has to be worked out later with the government and private educational institutions in a sincere spirit of collaboration in making this long delayed national educational endeavour a success. This will add a new chapter in the public-private partnership at the school level.


It was almost a hundred years ago, on March 19, 1910 that Gopalkrishna Gokhale, the stalwart
of national movement, introduced a Private Member’s Bill in the then Central Assembly to make free and universal primary education the responsibility of the then British Government. The government assured him that they would consider the matter with the importance the question deserves, and persuaded Gokhale to withdraw his resolution to which he had appended a few practical steps as to how the proposal was to be implemented. As there was no move on the part of the government, he tabled a Bill next year also. Though the colonial rulers did not accept universal schooling in principle, they took a number of initiatives in the sphere of education by starting more schools and institutions of learning at various levels. Both the Indian National Congress and the All India Muslim League in their annual conferences adopted resolutions lending support to Gokhale’s effort to pin down the government in the matter of universal primary education but with no avail.

The result of this clear evasion on the part of the then government was for all to see. India at the time of independence had a vast area of darkness due to widespread illiteracy which Gandhi called “a shame and a sin”. When the Constitution was drawn up, our Founding Fathers had inscribed into it as one of the Directive Principles of the Constitution eight years of free, universal elementary education as a goal to be achieved in ten years. No serious effort was made by successive governments to fulfil this constitutional obligation with the result that in spite of a large amount of money spent for liquidation of illiteracy, the scourge remained at an acceptably high level for a country that had chosen a democratic form of government based on adult franchise.

With the gradual discovery of several hidden rights, people in their democracies are trying to assert them, sometimes in an aggressive manner and change the old oppressive exploitative faces of their traditional societies. Perhaps India is lagging a little behind in this respect because of the heavy burden of the tradition. Traditions die-hard. In recent times Chile, in its post-Pinochet regime, is using education for socio-economic engineering of the society to bring the country to the path of meaningful human development. Maria Estella Ortiz, a Chilean education expert, had the opportunity to work with the new President of the country in the late 1980s when she, a medical doctor, was treating children whose parents had been tortured or ‘disappeared’ during the Pinochet regime.

Now Michaelle Bachelet as the President with the help of her earlier colleague is trying to evolve an integrated approach to education with a strong health programme built into it. This is a sure guarantee of the success of educational expansion. India too had this perception of combining health care with early childhood education. The 1986 New Education Policy (NEP) has given expression to it.

Recognising the holistic nature of child development, viz, nutrition, health and social, mental, physical, moral and emotional development, Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) will receive high priority and be suitably integrated with the Integrated Child Development Services Programme, wherever possible. Day care centres will be provided as a, support service for universalisation of primary education, to enable girls engaged in taking care of siblings to attend school and a support service for working women belonging to poorer sections. (NEP document 5.2)

The modern idea of making use of the educational process as a weapon for socio-economic change and development of society has given it a sharp cutting edge, particularly in developing countries liberated from colonial rule as in India or emancipated from long dictatorial regimes as in Chile. The emancipatory value of education was fully realised by the reform leaders of Kerala Renaissance of the 19th and 20th centuries with the result that there was phenomenal awakening in the socially deprived sections of people which contributed to the overall development of the region. A great curse of school education in India, which defeats all efforts at universalising it, is the high rate of drop-outs due to evident reasons.

In the new context of implementing the new law of free and compulsory elementary education a refocussing of the policy of organisation, content, teaching methodology, evaluation etc. is necessary. In the country there are age-old classroom traditions that refuse to die. Unless these are replaced by methods of teaching and learning that infuse the spirit of creativity, the universalisation of elementary education will further pull down the quality of the entire school education system. Quality is no more to be further sacrifised for mere expansion. Quality can be enhanced only through linkage of the learning process with activity and work, work which is creative and productive that will give a sense of achievement for the learners.

The National Curriculum Framework (NCF), which was approved by the Central Advisory Board of Education (CABE) in September 2005, has emphasised this meaningful linkage. The National Focus Group (NFG) in its report has rightly underlined work as a nucleus of creative engagement with knowledge, social values and personal fulfilment. The report goes to the extent of saying that academic achievement based on mere bookish knowledge is incompatible with enlightened citizenship even when it brings success to individuals in their personal life and careers. Now schools are treated as production centres where children are moulded in a preconceived fixed design.

Dr N.A. Karim is a former Professor of English, and an erstwhile Pro-Vice-Chancellor, University of Kerala, Thiruvananthapuram.

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