Children are pushed into a merciless and mercenary world of fierce competition. What we have today is unabashed, unapologetic class education
Education, particularly elementary education, is a terrain of profound thinking and fierce contestation. A century ago, the idea of ‘India' and the dream of a national education grew together. The Constitution gave the new nation 10 years to shed the curse of illiteracy and turn educated. After half-a-century, the dream has faded and India's dismal record in education stares the nation in the face.
Many years ago, J.P. Naik, the great educationist, called education an “elusive triangle”, with equality, quality, and quantity forming the three sides, none of which can stand without the other two. When ‘elite India' and its policymakers rejected the dimension of equality, the triangle collapsed and the country has landed itself at the bottom of the human development index table.
India's education system, marked by an elaborately constructed multi-track schooling, is among the most exclusionary ones in the world. With neoliberalism sweeping across the country, the ‘market' has triumphed and knowledge stands commoditised. Children are pushed into a merciless and mercenary world of fierce competition. What we have today is unabashed, unapologetic class education.
In this book, Jagannatha Rao, a former Director of Public Instruction in Karnataka, seeks to present the manifold dimensions of elementary education. Packed with data and information, it contains a useful discussion on learning outcome measurement, an issue that is poorly addressed in elementary education, with even the Right to Education Act remaining silent on it.
The annexures are a mine of information about the mid-day meal scheme, early childhood care and education, and the various studies on learning achievement levels.
The chapter on ‘financing of education', which makes a detailed presentation of the government's flagship programme, Sarva Siksha Abhiyan (SSA), should help one to grasp the nuances of the shortfall in resource allocation. Where the author stands in the raging debate on ‘public vs private education' is clear.
He wants private schools to be regulated and monitored by a system that is “friendly” and “realistic” and, what more, given support (by way of assistance from the public exchequer, for instance) so that they are enabled to provide high quality education.This is not to say the author has no concern for improving public education. In fact, his concern is palpable throughout the book.
Common school system
Drawing upon the experience he had gained as the head of educational administration in Karnataka, he pinpoints its many flaws and suggests the way ahead.
However, while the coverage is vast, the missing elements are many and cardinal to the debate on elementary education. The entire discourse on common school system that has been the dream and demand of generations of educationists and nation-builders has been summarily dismissed in a couple of sentences. “No doubt the concept of the common school system that aims at ensuring equity is desirable. But in reality, it is not practical as ground realities are different.” The concomitant concept of ‘neighbourhood schools' does not get even a cursory reference. Historically, the common school system with neighbourhood schools has been the bedrock of education and nation-building in advanced countries. It has also found favour with successive education commissions in India.
Another intriguing omission is a discussion on curriculum, which has a defining role in education. Curriculum is at the centre of the country's dreams of what the nation and its citizen should be. Gandhiji and Tagore are among the many thinkers and nation-builders who laid stress on designing the curriculum to reflect the self-image and identity of the nation and its flowering into a grand democracy.
More recently, the National Curriculum Framework of 2005 provided the ignition to much thought and action in this area. The debate on a large number of issues — the irrelevance of the curriculum to social reality and needs; work-centred education to integrate the head, heart and hand; the class character of the curriculum privileging the middle class child and denying the cultural and cognitive capital to the working class child and so on — does not figure in the book.
While initiatives by the state get a lion's share of space, experiments in alternative education are dismissed in a few paragraphs. Sadly, the renowned Hoshangabad Science Teaching Programme that profoundly impacted the most marginalised children does not find a place.
The entire educational development is projected as having flowed from the state's own commitment, thereby ignoring the powerful people's movements that in fact prompted, often compelled, the state to act. Finally, one cannot engage with the foundational field of education without taking on upfront the politics of education, with all its ethical, human, and constitutional implications.
There is little doubt that the book, although devoid of a vision, is a useful source of reference.