The public education system is the primary option for millions of students in India. These institutions have become more important as the pandemic takes a toll on the economy, putting fee-charging schools beyond the reach of many and forcing thousands to move to government schools . The Patna High Court recently asked for data on how many IAS and IPS officers have enrolled their wards in government schools. Anita Rampal and Uma Mahadevan discuss public education in a conversation moderated by G. Ananthakrishnan . Edited excepts:
About 51% students are in government schools and nearly 10% in aided schools, yet there seems to be a bias against such schools amongst wider sections of the middle class. What factors underline such a bias?
Anita Rampal: People feel there are not enough teachers in these schools, or the schools may not be functioning regularly. They get carried away by the notions of a branded private school, even though it may not have good teachers. Also, private schools brand themselves [in a particular way]: they say they are English medium and parents feel that is good. But children don’t learn better in a second language, they learn better if they begin to first read and write in the first language. Then, they also learn English better as a second language.
Government schools are not just of one kind. In Delhi, there are about seven-eight kinds of differently resourced government schools. Now, the ordinary government school is the poorest and is also getting the poorest children.
Uma Mahadevan: There are different kinds of government schools: there are Kendriya Vidyalayas (KVs), which are very well-resourced, with good infrastructure and good teachers. There are Jawahar Navodaya Vidyalayas, which are islands of excellence and competitively looked at for admissions. There are residential schools run by different State governments which are again well-resourced, have good infrastructure, spacious classrooms. Then, there are other model schools. We also have municipal schools and the typical government schools run by the different Zilla Panchayats, which are not always as well resourced but often tend to get the poorer students.
We should also look at the basic safety, well-being and hygiene factors in these schools. There is no reason why they cannot have well functioning toilets, drinking water and proper compound walls. To that extent, there is some work that should be done in improving the image of these schools. We then come to pedagogy, teacher development, the level of community participation, the parent committees, etc.
Ten years since the Right to Education law, have structural issues been addressed?
Uma Mahadevan: It’s an ongoing process. Structural issues are vast. We are a very large country with different kinds of education systems in different States. And we have different kinds of issues — some areas may have a higher tribal population or different kinds of local issues that need to be addressed. But over the years, the RTE has contributed tremendously in filling our classrooms and in making education accessible to children who would otherwise have been at risk of slipping out or being pushed out of the education system and into situations like child labour or child marriage. We need to look long and hard at what we have been able to achieve and what remains to be achieved. The fact that there is a lot that remains to be done should not take away from the considerable work that has been done.
Anita Rampal: I agree that we must look at what has been done, but also, barely 15% of the schools can be called as compliant with the RTE. That is also a reason why children are being pushed out. Section 29 of the RTE explains what kind of education every child has a right to. There is no school complying with that, including elite schools. It talks about discovery and activities which are child-centred. And on developing the potential of every child, not calling them ‘slow learners’, not testing them in a centralised way. We have abandoned that understanding.
Are the victims of this phenomenon predominantly in government schools?
Anita Rampal: Yes. And poor children who don’t have tuition, parents to support them at home, or books. During COVID-19, 60-70% children had nothing. There was no attempt to go to them and see what they needed. But we say they have a ‘learning loss’ and poor ‘learning outcomes’.
Uma Mahadevan: It’s true that we should be conscious of not using the language of deficit. The RTE gave us the approach of looking at the child not as a bucket to be filled but as a person who is growing and bringing to the class rich and valuable experiences and the ability to learn. The RTE also gave us the approach of formative assessments. It is not the child who is unable to learn; assessments need to help us find ways to help children learn better.
Some people prefer English. People don’t want a school which does not offer English.
Uma Mahadevan: English is seen as aspirational, which is fine, but for it to become the medium of instruction would cut away a child from what she already knows, such as concepts. Education begins as a journey from the familiar to the unfamiliar. Education in the mother tongue in the primary years helps a child build on prior knowledge and concepts.
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Do we have adequate capacity at the secondary and higher secondary levels in government schools? The net enrolment falls sharply beyond the primary level. Could this be increased with better access to quality public schooling?
Uma Mahadevan: Definitely, especially for girls. The fact that there is a drop in net enrolment from primary to secondary should be viewed with concern. We need to understand the obstacles: transportation, location, etc., which may be preventing teenagers, especially girls, from accessing secondary education.
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Anita Rampal: It’s important that the public education system becomes a common school system. A KV has a small percentage of children coming from different socio-economic backgrounds. The notions of equity are more rooted there. Children get a chance to study with children from different socio-economic backgrounds. But in private schools, that’s not the case. We were shocked that a 12-year-old child could tell us, ‘why do these children have to have the same textbooks as us? You should teach them to make gol gappas and shoes’. This child is unquestioned by the school. When the school itself reproduces inequities, the government should not be talking of centres of ‘excellence’. Delhi takes a test for the Rajkiya Pratibha Vikas Vidyalaya (schools of the Delhi School Education Directorate). Why take a test at Class 6 and only then admit children?
A government teacher’s job is secure, with an attractive salary and perks and retirement benefits, compared to teachers in private schools. Yet people hesitate in choosing a government school. What can raise the morale of these institutions?
Uma Mahadevan: While all that is true, the work of a government school teacher can be lonely and difficult. It’s highly creative work. There’s a lot more that we need to do in terms of empowering school leaders, school heads, school communities, the entire teaching community, as well as the non-teaching community.
The midday meal cooks in a school also contribute to building a healthy and happy school environment as, say, the chemistry teacher. So, there’s a lot that we need to do to value the work of teachers and staff, make their work visible, so that families recognise that. We also need to create better professional networks for teachers, because the best teachers continuously learn from each other.
Anita Rampal: Teachers’ professional development is a very weak area. Even students who do a four-year B.El.Ed course and start teaching feel the in-service training they later get is quite dismal. Teachers’ professional development is poor. We don’t find investment in terms of resources or in the planning of institutes. Now, 95% of teacher education is in private hands and most of it is substandard. Even today, almost half the regular teacher vacancies are filled by guest or ad hoc teachers.
How can the promise of wider access to government schools be realised?
Uma Mahadevan: We should make a micro plan for every school, a larger plan for schools at the district level, and then at the State level. Then basic needs — drinking water, rainwater harvesting, school gardens, dining areas — need to be taken up before we can even start talking about levels of learning and teaching. The role of local bodies should be enhanced. Local bodies can take ownership, and school development committees can be linked with elected local bodies, so they can support the needs of schools.
Anita Rampal: I agree, but let’s not say learning can come later and this can come first. These are all important aspects of making a good school.
In terms of funding, it’s not just a matter of cess, it’s also priority areas. Right now, we have a priority area like a National Testing Agency. Why do we have something at the national level which decides what should happen at the local level? It should be more decentralised. Where are we finding investments in public institutes for teacher education? We have not found it for many years.
For government servants, and those in transferable jobs, there is a lot of paperwork, admission hassles and even the problem of compatibility of State boards. Is that a barrier due to which people don’t generally go to a State government school?
Uma Mahadevan: That is something that parents keep in mind, because when people are transferred between States or to Delhi, the language, the second language, the board, the syllabus all come into the picture. Also the ability of a child to adjust to a new way of teaching and a new syllabus.
Anita Rampal: Some years back, when a lot of curriculum renewal was happening in different States, the Ministry had asked me to look at how Kerala was doing its curriculum review, because its assessments were very different. It was creatively assessing children, which other States had not done. I documented this in some of the poorest districts in Kerala. What I found fascinating was that there were people who had earlier sent children to private schools and were now shifting them to government schools. They were not people very high up in the government hierarchy, but there were people from government offices too. They saw that their child was learning much better because they were not forced into the English medium.
And during the pandemic we have seen thousands of students moving to government schools in many States.
Anita Rampal: Yes. If people who have lost livelihoods are seeking government schools, such schools should try to show their commitment to good quality education — not leave them as segregated silos for the poorest.
The courts have asked civil servants to send their children to government schools. Is this a logical course to pursue?
Anita Rampal: You can’t take punitive measures and say, ‘why didn’t you put your child there?’ But trying to say, ‘why can’t we do it when all other countries have managed’ is something that we should take up seriously.
The courts have asked civil servants to send their children to government schools. Is this a logical course to pursue?
Uma Mahadevan : I would say that it's unfortunate if we have to force change [for] an improvement in government schools only through these tokenistic measures. As Anita pointed out, where KVs are well-resourced, available and doing well - they are also government schools - they're thriving. And the government servants, IAS officers, IPS officers in such places are very happy to send their children to KVs. We should also remember that KVs are convenient for people in transferable jobs.
Anita Rampal : I would just say that if courts take cognisance of this, that's a good step even if it's symbolic. And they're saying that we need schools which are public schools, which have children from mixed backgrounds and they need a commitment from the government. It is important that at least the signal is going out. I agree, you obviously can't take punitive measures and say, ‘why didn't you put your child there,’ but taking cognisance and trying to say, ‘why can't we do it when all other countries have managed,’ to provide education to every child through a public system, [while] we seem to have abandoned it , even now, even in this new [education] policy. That is something that we should really take up very seriously. I think people working in government should acknowledge that.
Uma Mahadevan is Principal Secretary, Panchayati Raj, Government of Karnataka; Anita Rampal is Professor and former Dean, Faculty of Education, Delhi University