In his Independence Day address, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh made two important announcements, both relating to education. One affirmed the government's intention to improve the quality of education at various levels and appoint an Education Commission to go into the issues. The other outlined a plan to universalise secondary education as a follow-up to the enactment of the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act (RTE), 2009 to benefit children in the age group of 14 - 16. (The Hindu online edition, August 15, 2011).
Explaining the need for a fresh study of education at different levels, the Prime Minister said vocational education and skill development had acquired new importance and in view of such “major changes,” the government had decided on appointing an Education Commission to go into all its aspects and recommend steps to give “quality education” at all levels.
The second announcement, the universalisation of secondary education (class 9 and class10), is no less important. The RTI Act provides for free and compulsory education only up to class 8. The universalisation of secondary education would make education up to class 10 free and compulsory.
In independent India, several commissions have submitted comprehensive reports and made specific suggestions for improving the quality of education. The Indian Education Commission (1964-66), or Kothari Commission, made excellent recommendations which included “expansion of educational facilities broadly on the basis of manpower needs with an accent on equalisation of educational opportunities, education of improving productivity, education for accelerating the process of modernisation, educating people of all straits of society.” Interestingly, it favoured “introducing common school system of public education” and also “emphasising teaching of vocational subjects and science.” As for the RTE, although it became an Act more than a year ago, not much has been done by way of implementation in most States. Many States have not even framed the relevant rules. It is vital to build public pressure on State governments to enforce the Act effectively and sincerely. But the uneven nature of the progress made need not stand in the way of extending the right to education to students of class 9 and 10.
In the Tamil Nadu school education case, the Supreme Court observed that the right of a child should not be restricted to free and compulsory education; it should be extended to access to quality education without any discrimination on the ground of their economic, social and cultural background. The judges also said that a common syllabus and a common curriculum were required to achieve the objectives of the Right to Education Act to provide free and compulsory education to every child in the age group of 6 to 14.
Quick judgment, good media coverage
The three-month-long ordeal of thousands of students in Tamil Nadu schools, who had to wait for their textbooks, came to an end in the third week of August. This was made possible by a landmark judgment of the Supreme Court, delivered in a relatively short time after hearing arguments on more than 10 writ appeals and petitions on the implementation of a State Act that aims to provide “samacheer kalvi” (equitable, standard education) in Tamil Nadu schools (“Implement Samacheer Kalvi in 10 days: Supreme Court,” The Hindu, August 10, 2011) .
A striking aspect of this development was the wide-ranging media coverage of the events that followed Chief Minister Jayalalithaa's announcement that the second and final phase of “samacheer kalvi” under the Uniform System of School Education Act of Tamil Nadu, 2010 would not be taken up for implementation this year in classes 2 to 5 and 7 to 10. (The new system was introduced in class 1 and class 6 in the academic year 2010-2011.) She said that her government was not opposed to “samacheer kalvi” but found that parts of the textbook contents were substandard, so it wanted to make some modifications with a view to enriching the contents. She also felt that objectionable articles and photographs ought to be removed. The Act itself permitted that, she contended. The Act was amended through the passage of a bill in the State Assembly on June 7.
The decision to postpone the implementation of the Act triggered a controversy and the issue was taken to the High Court and later to the Supreme Court.
For nearly three months, not a day passed without newspapers, both English and Tamil, carrying elaborate reports on the subject, as families in cities and villages alike were affected and the uncertainty for schoolchildren and their parents continued for weeks on end. Newspapers published reports and pictures on the protest actions by teachers, students, and parents, besides youth and student organisations, and the police action against them in some places. Many newspapers published interviews and analyses by educationists and academics. Not surprisingly, the detailed reporting of the court proceedings on the subject in both Chennai and Delhi was well received across the State.
The Hindu provided informative coverage with pictures and Frontline had two long critical articles in two issues. The broadcast media also did not lag behind.
In its August 9 judgment, the Supreme Court upheld the order of the Madras High Court, which declared unconstitutional the changes brought into the Uniform System of School Education (USSE) Act of Tamil Nadu, 2010 (Act 2010) and struck down the amendment adopted by the State Assembly. The court gave 10 days to the State government to implement the Act and provide “samacheer kalvi” for children in classes 2 to 5 and 7 to 10. The Court held that there was no need to stop the functioning of the Act to modify or remove flawed contents in textbooks. The judges recalled that the Act 2010 had been cleared by both the High Court and the Supreme Court when it was challenged.
Under the Act, coming from four streams of education — the State, Matriculation, Anglo-Indian, and Oriental Boards — would be covered by a common syllabus and a common examination. Of the four, the matriculation schools are unique and are functioning only in Tamil Nadu. The matriculation schools in the State, which number 3,655, are self-financing, English medium schools that tend to collect higher, and in many cases hefty, fees from students.
The ‘samacheer kalvi' system, which literally means equitable and standard education, has miles to go in meeting its twin objectives of providing equitable, quality education. In addition to the challenge of socio-economic disparities, unless issues relating to caste-based prejudice, community-based discrimination, and the gender bias, which have been allowed to grow over many decades, are addressed seriously and the progress is monitored objectively, equitable education will remain a far cry even in a relatively progressive State like Tamil Nadu.
As pointed out by Dr. S. Muthukumaran, a former Vice-Chancellor of Bharatidasan University, who headed the nine-member committee that facilitated the uniform system of school education, the provision of a common syllabus and common textbooks was only the first step in ensuring social justice and providing quality education in the schools.
Unfortunately, of the 109 recommendations he made to the State government in 2007, only four had been accepted. Unless infrastructural facilities in schools are improved, efficient, sincere, and well-qualified teachers are appointed, and a 1:30 teacher-student ratio is ensured, the system will not be able to deliver.
It is here that the news media can do much more by taking the message of equity, quality, and access to the people, especially in small towns and rural areas, and raise awareness on the issues at stake. The actual follow-up on the government's promise to expand the Right to Education to children in the age group 15-16 needs extensive coverage and close monitoring by the print and broadcast media .