The Supreme Court’s verdict in society for Unaided Schools of Rajasthan vs. Union of India delivered on April 12, has affirmed reservation of 25 percent capacity in class I in all government and private schools with a few exceptions, for children from disadvantaged and economically weaker sections. Amid the ongoing discussions related to this ruling, if we read the Right to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009 (aka RTE) together with the National Curriculum Framework and the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (education for all) pledge, it should be crystal clear that the intent of all these initiatives is to provide good quality elementary education to all children.
Reservations will perhaps pose the most difficult pedagogical problems for highly sought-after private and government schools — mostly urban English medium institutions. Their managements, as well as ambitious middle and upper middle class parents, are very worried that reservations will drastically lower the quality of education. Nobody should underestimate the enormous pedagogical challenge involved in providing good quality education to all students in these schools, when 25 percent will be from homes where parents have limited formal educat-ion, and the majority from far more educated and affluent backgrounds.
But with the apex court having given the green light to a quota for children from poor neighbourhood house-holds, private schools should transform this crisis into an opportunity to honestly ass-ess the quality of education they are dispensing, and acknowledge that their new obligation is to provide all students high-quality education. This is an opportunity to ensure that within the next decade, our best schools will become more inclusive, and graduate a large number of students who are the best in the world.
The plain truth is that currently, students of the country’s top-ranked private and government schools are also-rans in global learning assessment tests. A recent Quality Education Study conducted by the IT multinational Wipro and Ahmedabad-based Educational Initiatives Pvt. Ltd — which tested 23,000 students in 89 English-medium schools ranked among the best in India by expert and popular opinion — indicates that class IV students were below global average in mathematics, science and reading. While the learning attainments of class VIII students were on a par with the global average, this was attributed to their ability to answer questions requiring straightforward use of memorised techniques and processes. The study provides several examples of pervasive learning by rote in our best schools and highlights serious lack of endeavour to promote cognitive education.
The practice of rote learning and memorisation, already prevalent in the country’s best urban English-medium schools, is likely to become more entrenched when 25 percent students will be from homes in which parents may lack formal education, and are completely unfamiliar with the English language. Quite clearly, special language classes will need to be simultaneously conducted for quota students with a focus on spoken English in pre and early primary years. Basic English language communication skills will need to be acquired quickly, as they will profoundly influence acqui-sition of cognitive skills and knowledge of other subjects.
The Wipro-EI study didn’t stop at measuring and comparing the learning outcomes of children enroled in the country’s top-ranked urban day schools. It also solicited their opinions on several major social and democratic values. And their opinions on matters such as national integration and egalitarianism are depressingly regressive.
While 29 percent of students believed that Indians should be free to live and work in any state of India, 60 percent showed far less acceptance of ‘immigrants’. From a choice of four different candidates, almost 20 percent of class VIII said they would vote for a politician who belonged to their caste and ran on a platform of furthering the interests of that particular caste.
Clearly, it doesn’t bode well for the democratic development of India, that unconscionably large numbers of our future citizenry have internalised illiberal and intolerant attitudes. It is imperative that values and interpersonal skills should consciously be taught in all our schools to redress the existing ethical vacuum. An additional challenge for the best government and private schools, which also needs sensitive and skillful handling, is the harmonious integration of poor children with their far more affluent peers.
In every sector of the economy, we are banking on the so-called demographic dividend to transform India into a major economic powerhouse of the 21st century. But this rhetoric will remain an illusion unless teaching-learning standards in our 1.26 million schools improve radically.
Simultaneously, the country’s 7.5 million principals and school teachers need to consciously inculcate the ideals and values of the Constitution — a duty they have ignored for too long — to produce liberal, values-driven leaders and citizens committed to democratic development of the nation. But for this happy denouement, the country’s educators, education entrepreneurs and teachers need full government and societal support with education moved to the top of the national development agenda.
(John Kurrien is director emeritus, Centre For Learning Resources, Pune)