In a passage in the biography of C. Rajagopalachari by Rajmohan Gandhi, as the end of colonial rule approaches, the civil servant B.K. Nehru proposes to the veteran freedom fighter that the government of independent India set up quality schools for talented children. And the latter replies: “You want young man a new Brahmanism. This country will not take it. It wants equality, not excellence.” What was being expressed was very likely a view held by the emerging governing class, that nurturing talent is a form of elitism. In fact, the reverse could turn out to be true for, as depicted in the life of Ekalavya, nature does not favour the rich and the powerful when it comes to distributing talent. Innocent of this, a public policy obsessed with avoiding differentiation has avoided excellence in schooling. This has hurt the historically disadvantaged of this country.
Not an elitist aspiration
There is nothing that points to the inevitability of inequality when aiming at excellence in our schools. In fact, quite to the contrary, excellent public schools, which are accessible to all, can ensure that historic inequalities are levelled-off to a large extent.
Schooling is the formative stage in the life of an individual with respect to development of capabilities, gaining awareness of rights and responsibilities and moulding attitudes that matter in civic engagement. If India desires to be a successful democracy it is necessary to invest in a schooling that takes every child to the highest level in these three areas. School children must be imbued with the spirit of wanting to excel in everything they will do in the future, from their careers to their performance as citizens.
The idea that pursuing excellence in education reflects an elitist aspiration is not a view shared by the poor. Poor parents work exceptionally hard to send their children to fee-paying private schools so that they stand a better chance in life. Surveys by the educational foundation Pratham show learning outcomes in these schools to be barely ahead of those in government ones. Yet, the poor must work that much harder and tighten their belts that much more to afford them, for they consider even this slight advantage as helpful to their children.
In one part of this country, however, the wait for an improved public school system may be beginning to come to an end. Along with an emphasis on primary health care the government of Delhi has, by all accounts, initiated the transformation of its schools. Only a detailed study can establish how far it has progressed and how deep are its roots but the signs yet seen are encouraging. First, the physical infrastructure has improved. The chosen schools have classrooms with good furniture and are smart, not only in terms of their appearance, but also in terms of IT-enabled teaching aids. There are clean playgrounds and functioning toilets, the absence of which has long meant a declining school attendance by girls across the country. Selected teachers have been given training overseas. Interviews reveal that they feel supported in their tasks by the government, which is perhaps more important for efficacy than funds. Most important, some of the government schools have recorded better Board exam results than private ones, triggering a once unimaginable reverse migration! However, innovation has gone beyond what it takes to achieve superior exam performance, important as it is. There is also an effort to spur cognitive development, essential for a child to make sense of the world. This marks a shift from the emphasis on memorising content, for long the bane of schooling in India.
It is too early to make resounding claims about the success of the schools programme of the Aam Aadmi Party. But it has demonstrated that it is possible to combine excellence with equity in India’s schools, the site where achieving excellence will yield the highest pay-off for its society.
Pulapre Balakrishnan is Professor, Ashoka University, Sonipat and Senior Fellow, IIM Kozhikode