The Kerala model school curriculum and the anxiety of reform

Issues of gender and secularism are key to Kerala’s aspirations — civil society must prevent its public education from being the target of a neoconservative backlash.

September 01, 2022 11:13 am | Updated 01:56 pm IST

Image for representation purpose only.

Image for representation purpose only.

Kerala is gearing up to offer a viable alternative to the National Education Policy (NEP) 2020 in its school curriculum framework. While keeping within the NEP’s pedagogical and curricular restructuring paradigms and proposals for school education, the State nevertheless seems to be aspiring for a ‘Kerala Model’ of school curriculum, one that would resist overarching attempts at homogenisation and centralisation. It aims to write regional and ethnic needs, knowledges and histories into the curriculum, while attempting to preserve the constitutional, moral, and ethical values of an equitable public education in the age of neoliberalisation.

Explained | Has Kerala changed its stance on the NEP? 

The NITI Aayog SDG Report 2021 has described Kerala, a State consistently ranked highest in the country in school education, as a “frontrunner” State. The NEP 2020’s school education vision of universal provisioning of quality early childhood development, care, and education has been achieved by Kerala many years back. The State had last revised its school curriculum in 2013, and much water has flowed under the bridge since, especially given the paradigm shifts vis-a-vis the global education scenario during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Activists of Students Federation of India during a protest against National Education Policy 2020, (NEP), in New Delhi.

Activists of Students Federation of India during a protest against National Education Policy 2020, (NEP), in New Delhi. | Photo Credit: Shiv Kumar Pushpakar

Therefore, there is a recognition that school curricular reform, its modalities, evaluation patterns, pedagogical practices, as also its philosophical and ideological imperatives should be the result of social interventions and debates. This could help incorporate the strengths of the current model while envisioning a secure future in the new knowledge economy, and simultaneously pushing for a democratic curriculum rather than one imposed from elsewhere.

The NEP has been criticised by Left-oriented teacher groups in Kerala for its perceived elitism, communalisation of education, excess commercialisation and privatisation. An ever-vigilant civil society in Kerala has zeroed in on the NEP’s perceived silence on constitutional aspirations around secularism, as also around policies of reservation that seek to right historical atrocities and inequalities that the caste system had inflicted upon the nation’s subaltern populations. Many, including Kerala’s Minister for Higher Education, have pointed out that the NEP does not have sufficient focus on gender and minority rights, and regional, cultural and linguistic differences. 

Education and federalism

What is of critical importance is that education, with its present concurrent status in India from the time of the Emergency, has become a key aspect in compelling debates around federalism and the rights of States. While Kerala’s curricular reform move is in complete conformity with the NEP’s parameters, it is nevertheless a brave attempt at addressing its perceived lacunae and blind spots, with more democratic interventions woven around  people’s investments and aspirations in public education. A school curriculum reform that incorporates the suggestions and inputs of both experts and stakeholders, debated and discussed at various tiers including the district, block and panchayat levels, with an open-tech platform for direct responses from any committed citizen, seems a participative and democratic model par excellence — in fact, this model can be a template for other States in the country. 

A reform implementation strategy that facilitates people’s mass participation along with educational practitioners’ and stakeholders’ inputs, integrating both bottom-up and top-down initiatives, to orchestrate a shared and context-sensitive curriculum can only lead to sustainable changes.

However, one can see why the State’s exemplary move towards a participative, decentralised curricular restructuring is sparking controversies, invoking the ghosts of the Liberation Struggle (Vimochana samaram) when education had been the lynchpin around which neoconservative forces gathered to bring down a democratically elected government. If that had been the scenario in 1958-59, in 2022 these forces have gathered more strength and momentum, and the State is bound to witness severe opposition from reactionary corners. 

Two key areas of contention are gender and secularism. Already conservatism has pitted itself against liberal aspirations over issues such as gender-neutral uniforms and spaces. The fact that attempts at a participative curricular reform is surveilled and threatened by powerful vigilante groups and might end up being guided by conservative advocates does not bode well for the educational aspirations of the State. That religious extremism is fundamentally anti-democratic might sound cliched in this age. But the fact that democracy and constitutional values do not seem to hold ground in dominant belief systems in the post-truth era can be a threatening proposition to the State’s professed investment in the so-called renaissance values. 

If religious outfits do not endorse a sense of the secular, then democracy is bound to be defeated, as is evident in the manner in which the State government was forced to retract its positions on the gender-neutral uniforms that students could choose to wear. If what our children wear continues to be the primary axis of debates as the world transitions into an interconnected global economy where intellectual capital and human innovation are the most important economic resources, it would be a blot on a State which reaped laurels around its educational endeavours and universal literacy.

Amid conservative dogma

That populist rhetoric can be whipped up around the spectre of a ‘licentious’ secular movement with ‘leftist’ orientations that could corrupt our future generations speaks volumes about the level of conservative dogma that Kerala society is steeped in. Already the State is witnessing large-scale gender migration for higher education. Malayali youth, especially young women, who can afford to study in colleges outside the State grab the opportunity because of the high levels of social conservatism here. Can we allow our foundational educational system to be scrutinised and held hostage by powerful political players guided by conservative partisans? Public education and the diverse populations it serves, including the most socially marginal and underprivileged, is being swayed by conservative proponents who claim that there is a collision of values. While the upper classes will continue to send their children to educational institutions with ‘international standards’ where the  ‘modesty’ of uniforms or gender segregation in classroom spaces would be immaterial or non-existent concerns, those unable to access such ‘elite luxuries’ will continue to find their children immured in conservative mores that tie education with such outdated orthodoxies. 

Kerala’s civil society and its vigilant fourth estate need to step in and prevent its public education from being the target of a neoconservative backlash that leaves the beleaguered students, teachers and parents in a crossfire of regressive and anachronistic controversies. It is high time Kerala lives up to its own model!

(Meena T. Pillai is Dean, Faculty of Arts, University of Kerala)

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