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Wasted Years An Abridged History of Indian Education (1999-2014)

EducationWorld November 14 | EducationWorld

Enterprises of great pith and moment launched to transform the world’s largest population of children and youth were proclaimed, analysed and discussed threadbare, to little avail. Although in the new millennium, the needs and rights of the country’s 450 million child citizens are receiving greater attention, they remain the world’s most malnourished, under-educated and under-protected children. Dilip Thakore & Summiya Yasmeen report

THE INTERREGNUM OF 15 years (1999-2014) since EducationWorld was modestly launched into the dark and uncharted waters of Indian education with the mission statement to “build the pressure of public opinion to make education the #1 item on the national agenda,” has been a history of great failures and small successes. Enterprises of great pith and moment launched to transform the world’s largest population of children and youth — the unintended consequence of the failure of the family planning programmes of the first three decades after independence, but glibly translated into a demographic dividend — were proclaimed, debated, analysed and discussed threadbare. But to little avail. Although in the new millennium the needs and rights of the country’s 450 million child citizens have started receiving greater attention, this massive cohort of vulnerable under-18s remains the world’s most malnourished, undereducated, under-protected and under-developed children.

Even though the country’s myopic political leaders and establishment and a self-centred middle class don’t seem to care, the pathetic condition of the country’s 550 million children and youth augurs ill for the future. Almost 47 percent of children under age five suffer moderate to severe malnutrition and danger of brain damage and stunting because the country’s 1.4 million Central government-sponsored anganwadis (child care and nutrition centres) can provide for only half of them. Moreover, vitally important early childhood education  was a blindspot of  the country’s educationists and central planners for over six decades until last September. Teaching-learning outcomes and conditions in the country’s 1.20 million (mainly state) government schools defined by lack of drinking water, electricity, toilets, multi-grade teaching in single classrooms and mass teacher truancy (1.25 million teachers of government primaries are absent every day) are so abysmal  that of the 230 million children who are in primary schools at the beginning of each academic year, over 40 percent drop out and only 51 million complete secondary education of whom a mere 26 million enter institutions of higher education.

Nor is the general quality of education dispensed by India’s 37,000 colleges and 735 universities — some of them of more than 150 years’ vintage — much to write home about.  According to a 2005 McKinsey World Institute-Nasscom study, 85 percent of liberal arts and 75 percent of India’s engineering graduates are unfit for employment in multinational companies.

Perhaps the only inspirational stories in post-independence India’s education development history — and particularly of  the new millennium — are from the country’s non government organisations (NGOs) and 80,000 (200,000 according to the Union HRD ministry which enumerates the kindergarten, primary, upper primary, secondary and higher secondary sections of composite schools as separate units) private schools, 7,000 private professional education (engineering, medicine, hospitality, etc) colleges and 130  deemed (private) universities which educate and certify over half the country’s children and youth.

Despite having to endure the open, continuous and uninterrupted harassment inherent in neta-babu driven licence-permit-quota raj, which after liberalisation and deregulation of the Indian economy in 1991 has migrated into education, a rising number of education entrepreneurs (aka edupreneurs) driven by the spirit of enlightened self-interest have succeeded in promoting a substantial number of globally benchmarked, pre-primary, primary-secondary and collegiate education institutions  across the country. Although it’s politically incorrect to say so, the plain truth is that but for private education institutions, post-independence India would not have realised even its modest GDP and industrial annual rates of growth.   

Against this backdrop, on the occasion of the 15th anniversary of this publication launched with considerable trepidation on the eve of the new millennium with the lofty ambition to realise the right of all of India’s children to high quality, utilitarian and fulfilling education — an initiative greeted with indifference and even hostility — we present an abridged history of Indian education 1999-2014. These years were an era of great hope and expectations, promising initiatives and ebb and flow of momentous ideas. During this period, committedly chronicled by EducationWorld, several great battles were waged by a small but growing  minority of children’s rights activists and education reformists against an obdurate  establishment with more mundane priorities, to provide a fair deal to the world’s largest child population.

An account of the big issues and battles fought against change-resistant governments and the establishment and to win the hearts and minds of the growing middle class to provide for the nation’s children, is narrated in the pages following.

Forgotten Millennium Development Goals

The Millennium Declaration signed in New York amid much euphoria by leaders of 189 countries including India, has had negligible impact on India’s children

TO HERALD THE NEW MILLENNIUM, in a burst of enthusiasm leaders of 189 nation states including India, convened in New York and signed the United Nations-sponsored Millennium Declaration which unanimously adopted eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) to substantially reduce global poverty and illiteracy. The eight goals which representatives of  signatory nations swore to attain by the year 2015 were: eradication of extreme poverty and hunger; universal primary education; gender equality and women’s empowerment;  substantially reduced child mortality; improved  maternal health; combat HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases; ensure environmental sustainability; and establish global partnerships for development.

In adherence with this declaration, the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance government in New Delhi announced its Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (Education For All) programme and tabled the 93rd (later 86th) Constitutional Amendment Act, 2002, which was passed with unanimous acclamation by Parliament. This amendment inserted in the chapter under fundamental rights, added a new Article 21-A which mandates free and compulsory education for all children in the age group 6-14 “in such manner as the State may by law determine,” to the Constitution. At the time, with much euphoria, Union human resource development minister Dr. Murli Manohar Joshi promised to attain the MDG target of universal primary education by year 2010. But in General Election 2004, against all expectations, the BJP was bested by the Congress party which emerged with the largest majority in the Lok Sabha to form the Congress-led UPA-I government.

But just how quickly Joshi and his successor Arjun Singh forgot about the commitment made to the United Nations and India’s children, was chronicled by EducationWorld seven years later in a special report feature (educationworldonline.net, January 2007). The story detailed the State of the World’s Children (SWC) 2007 report of Unicef, which ranked India the 54th worst performer worldwide in terms of under-5 mortality rates (74 per 1,000 cf. 4/1,000 in Sweden) and indicated that almost half (47 percent) of booming India’s children below five years of age — the global workforce of the 21st century — is moderately to severely underweight, with an equal percentage (i.e 58 million children) moderately to severely stunted. Although presumably for reasons of diplomacy and political correctness, SWC 2007 refrained from identifying and editorially criticising the world’s most child-hostile nations, it predicted that developing countries of the third world were unlikely to fulfil their obligations under the Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989) ratified by 192 countries (including India), or attain the MDGs.

Since then, according to SWC 2013, there’s no change in the nutritional status of India’s under-5 children. Moreover, according to the Annual Status of Education Report 2013 published by Pratham, a  highly-respected Mumbai-based NGO, the percentage of class V children in government rural  primaries who can’t read and/or comprehend class II texts has increased from 47.2 percent in 2009 to 53.1 percent (2013), and 74.8 percent of class V children cannot solve simple division sums. Nor is there cause to believe that any worthwhile progress has been made towards attainment of any other MDGs.

Struggle for Primary Education

Thanks to the ham-fisted interventions of the Central and state governments, whose leaders and office-bearers seem to lack all conviction, the goal of all children in school and learning by 2015 is a mirage

ARTICLE 45 OF THE CONSTITUTION OF INDIA, which became operative on January 26, 1950, directs the State (Central and state governments) to “endeavour” to provide all children up to the age of 14 free and compulsory education within ten years of its promulgation. Unfortunately, this vital prerequisite of national development was placed under the part/chapter IV containing the directive principles of the Constitution, rather than part III comprising fundamental rights. This misplaced priority of the framers of the Constitution took over half a century of struggle to correct, during which period post-independence India acquired global notoriety for hosting the world’s largest number of illiterate citizens (300 million).

Free India’s Parliament unanimously voted the 93rd (later 86th) Amendment to the Constitution, which makes it obligatory for the State to provide free and compulsory elementary education to children, only in November 2002. And even so, Article 21-A which equates the right to elementary education with the fundamental right to life and liberty, restricted this fundamental right to children in the age group 6-14 instead of children up to 14 years of age as mandated by Article 45.      

In 2005, a committee constituted by the Central Advisory Board on Education (CABE) and chaired by the then Union minister for science and technology, Kapil Sibal, mooted the idea of passing on a part of the constitutional obligation of the State to private schools. In its recommendations, the Sibal Committee proposed provision of free-of-charge education to “at least 25 percent of children admitted to class I after commencement of the Act, from among children belonging to the weaker sections randomly selected by the school in such manner as may be prescribed”. “The effect of this recommendation is that 25 percent of children in class I of private schools will be from slums and deprived neighbourhoods. Ditto if private schools have a pre-primary section,” reported EducationWorld in a cover story titled ‘Quota cloud over private schools’ (EW September 2005), noting in passim that a month earlier in P.A. Inamdar vs. State of Maharashtra, the Supreme Court had unanimously struck down the entrenched practice of state governments legislating quotas for government selected students in financially independent, private professional colleges.

Be that as it may, the Right to Free and Compulsory Education (RTE) Act, 2009 was passed after prolonged debate when the Congress-led UPA-II government was re-elected to power, and Sibal was elevated to the office of Union HRD minister.

However, the RTE Act which came into effect on April 1, 2010 has been widely criticised as discriminatory and inimical to maintenance of standards in primary-secondary education. For one, the Act mandates automatic annual promotion of all children until class IX regardless of their learning capability (s. 16), with schools encouraged to introduce an internal comprehensive continuous evaluation (CCE) system (s. 29 (2) (h)). Moreover s.19 of the Act stipulates onerous infrastructure norms for private schools on pain of forced closure and huge penalties from which government schools are exempt. 

Inevitably, the quota in private schools for poor neighbourhood children mandated under s. 12 (1) (c) of the RTE Act was challenged in the Supreme Court, which in a legally shaky 2-1 majority judgement in Society of Private Unaided Schools of Rajasthan vs. Union of India delivered on April 12, 2012, upheld this provision of the Act, but exempted boarding and minority schools.

This judgement and its implications were detailed in extenso by this publication (EW May 2012), and as predicted, it has generated great resentment and confusion within the K-12 academic community. With most missionary (aka ‘convent’) private schools (much revered by poor households obliged to enroll their children in vernacular government schools) exempted under the apex court’s judgement, the number of schools obliged to admit poor neighbourhood children under s.12 (1) (c) has reduced considerably.

Moreover, with  state governments obliged to draft Rules to give effect to the RTE Act, there’s considerable definition confusion (and corruption) over ‘poor’, ‘neighbourhood’, ‘free’, ‘reimbursement’ and other wordings of s.12 (1) (c) even as a growing number of school managements are claiming — and getting — linguistic and/or religious minority status. Indeed, the populist pro-poor RTE Act may well hurt rather than help the poor by forcing closure of an estimated 300,000 unrecognised private budget schools to which unprivileged households send their children, for violation of s. 19 norms as reported in detail by this publication (EW August 2014).

In sum, despite India being a signatory nation of the Millennium Declaration, thanks to the ham-fisted interventions of the Central and state governments whose leaders and office-bearers, despite their passionate lip-service to the cause of universal elementary education, seem to lack all conviction, the goal of all children in school and learning by 2015 is a mirage.

Debilitating Language Wars

Language chauvinism offers politicians vast opportunities by way of textbook writing and publishing contracts, as also appointments in state government schools for under-qualified kith and kin

NOT CONTENT WITH COMMITTING the original sin of continuous and sustained under-funding and administrative neglect of public education — especially primary schooling — post-independence India’s myopic political class and complicit bureaucracy has also debilitated Indian education by fomenting anti-English medium language wars in primary-secondary education countrywide. In the early years after independence, in the cause of developing a national language, politicians of the most educationally backward but more populous north Indian Hindi belt states, attempted to impose their language as the national lingua franca. This was violently opposed by the non-Hindi speaking southern states, particularly Tamil Nadu which threatened to secede from the Indian Union over the issue. Therefore English — or more accurately Inglish — was adopted as the associate national language, and mandated as the link language for communication between the Central and state governments, and between the states inter se.

Although unsuccessful, the Hindi imposition movement made state-level politicians aware of the electoral, commercial and graft opportunities of parochial language chauvinism which offered vast opportunities by way of textbooks writing, publishing and printing contracts as also teacher appointments in state government schools for under-qualified kith and kin. While politicians, bureaucrats, and the middle class signed up their children in CBSE and CISCE-affiliated English-medium private schools, the progeny of the poor were — and continue to be — forced into free-of-charge government primary-secondaries in which the medium of instruction is the vernacular language, with little effort made to provide high-quality translated textbooks or teachers.

The worst manifestation of this cynical policy myopia is visible in West Bengal in which the Communist Party of India-Marxist ruled uninterruptedly for 34 years (1977-2011), during which it proscribed English language teaching until class VII, effectively denying millions of youth of the state their fundamental right to work and earn a livelihood in any part of India. Once highly regarded as India’s most educationally advanced state, today West Bengal (pop. 91 million) is one of the country’s most backward states, awash with millions of unemployed and unemployable youth.

In the interest of national unity and in the new era of the emerging global economy, EducationWorld has unambiguously opposed the linguistic chauvinism of state governments ab initio, citing with approval a Madras high court judgement passed in the millennium year which ruled that parents — not governments — are best qualified to choose the medium of instruction for their children (EW June 2000). Subsequently, when this judgement of the Madras high court was endorsed by the Karnataka high court which struck down a state government order of 1994, in July 2008, in a detailed cover feature, we welcomed the unanimous judgement of the three-judge high court bench.

Nothing loath — and perhaps having too much to lose — politicians of all parties goaded the state government to appeal the verdict in the Supreme Court. Almost a decade of confusion and extortion later, on May 6, 2014 the Supreme Court upheld the Karnataka high court’s verdict. “We are of the considered opinion that though the experts may be uniform in their opinion that children studying in classes I to V in primary school can learn better if they are taught in their mother tongue, the State cannot stipulate it as a condition for recognition (of schools)… The right to freedom of expression under Article 19 (1) (a) of the Constitution includes the freedom of a child to be educated at the primary stage of school in a language of the choice of the child and the State cannot impose control on such choice just because it thinks it will be more beneficial for the child if he is taught in the primary stage in his mother tongue,” ruled the five-judge bench in a unanimous judgement (EW June 2014). Yet Karnataka’s purblind politicians refuse to accept the verdicts of the learned judges, with the state’s Congress chief minister bleating about his intent to persuade other states to back a Constitutional amendment to permit state governments to determine the medium of instruction of children within their jurisdiction.  

Despite neighbouring China having undertaken a national drive to ensure all children learn English, an initiative which threatens to neutralise India’s historical advantage in the language of international commerce, the country’s regressive politicians seem hell-bent on surrendering this advantage. One of the first diktats of the newly-elected BJP-led NDA government at the Centre was to direct all ministries to communicate with state governments in Hindi, a directive which aroused widespread resentment before it was withdrawn.

Soon thereafter, the Union HRD ministry directed all CBSE schools countrywide to observe Sanskrit week, a directive which provoked a stinging rebuke from the Tamil Nadu government prompting the ministry to transform it into an advisory. And on September 5, when prime minister Narendra Modi addressed the children of India on Teachers’ Day through a national broadcast, he spoke in Hindi without translation, oblivious of the fact that most children in peninsular India couldn’t follow what he was saying. Sixty-seven years after independence the wasteful language wars which have debilitated Indian education are not over.

SSA: Way Behind Targets

Launched in 2001, the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (Education for All) programme has been hobbled by inadequate allocations from the start

AFTER SIGNING THE UNITED NATIONS millennium Declaration in September 2000, the BJP-led NDA government launched the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (Education for All) programme in 2001 to achieve the Millennium Development Goal of universal primary education by 2015. Implemented by the Centre in alliance with 29 state governments under a 75:25 cost-sharing arrangement, SSA focused on building new primary schools, fortifying existing schools by constructing additional classrooms and toilets, providing drinking water, recruiting teachers and providing liberal school improvement grants.

However the ambitious programme was hobbled by inadequate allocations from the start. In 2001, the NDA government allocated the scheme Rs.1,300 crore, increasing this amount by a token 10-15 percent per year. In 2005-06, the Congress-led UPA government which was unexpectedly voted to power in General Election 2004, substantially increased the SSA outlay to Rs.7,156 crore, and introduced a 2 percent cess on all Central government taxes to fund this primary education programme. In April 2010, the Union government committed to investing Rs.231,233 crore over a five-year period for implementation of the Right to Education Act/SSA. Four years on, a mere Rs.88,813 crore has been disbursed — clearly inadequate for the country’s 1.20 million ramshackle government schools to improve their infrastructure facilities and teacher-pupil ratios. 

Thirteen years after SSA was launched, it’s a long way from achieving its Education For All target. An estimated 8.14 million children in the age group 6-14 are still out-of-school (if the number of children dropping out of school after enrolling is added, 15 million are out of school). Moreover there’s a shortage of 700,000 teachers countrywide.

According to the Union HRD ministry’s RTE: The 4th Year Report released in June, of the country’s 1.1 million government and aided schools, 15 percent still don’t provide separate toilet facilities for girl children, 5 percent don’t offer drinking water, 18 percent don’t have disability ramps, 38 percent aren’t protected by boundary walls and 25 percent lack kitchen sheds to prepare the government provided midday meal. Moreover only 37 percent of schools meet the prescribed teacher-pupil ratio of 1:30 and 8 percent (over 80,000) make do with only one teacher — described by EducationWorld (March 2014) as “shocking” and a “damning indictment” of the Central and state governments.

Sterile Curriculum Reforms

Drafted by 35 eminent educationists and 21 national focus groups, NCF 2005 was enthusiastically welcomed

SELF-EVIDENTLY, THE NATIONAL INTEREST not only demands that all children should be in school, but also that they should become literate, numerate, and acquire vocational and life skills which would enable them to earn a livelihood and become contributing members of society. Therefore from time to time the Union government constitutes expert committees to draft a New Education Policy (NEP) as in 1986 and 1999, and also to draw up a National Curriculum Framework (NCF) to serve as syllabus and curriculum guidelines for the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) and the Council for the Indian School Certificate Examinations (CISCE) — the country’s premier pan-India school-leaving examination boards — and 33 state and Union territories exam boards. 

In 2004, after brazen attempts to infiltrate Hindu mythology and propaganda into school textbooks by the BJP-led NDA government (1999-2004) failed, the newly-elected Congress-led UPA-I government constituted a high-powered committee under Dr. Krishna Kumar, the well-respected professor of education at Delhi University, to devise a NCF for primary-secondary education. The National Curriculum Framework, 2005 draft presented to the Central Advisory Board on Education (CABE) on May 7, 2005, was enthusiastically welcomed by EducationWorld. “The draft National Curriculum Framework 2005, which is the labour of love of a national steering committee of 35 eminent educationists and 21 national focus groups, comprising teachers and educationists from across the country, is perhaps the most comprehensive recommendation for school education reform in Indian history,” we opined (EW July 2005).  

Unfortunately, almost a decade later it’s painfully evident that none of the four guiding principles of NCF 2005 — “connecting knowledge to life outside the school; ensuring that learning is shifted away from rote methods; enriching the curriculum to provide for overall development of children rather than remain textbook centric, and making examinations more flexible and integrated with classroom life” — have been adopted in spirit by the pan-India or state exam boards. After the NCF 2005 was presented to CABE, the then Union HRD minister Arjun Singh did little to persuade state governments to adopt the new curriculum framework.

The result is that primary-secondary education continues to be rote and textbooks centric, with examinations rendered irrelevant and vocational and life skills learning a dead letter in the overwhelming majority of government schools.

Continuous Neglect of Child Safety

The role of bribes-taking government inspectors who turn a blind eye to numerous violations of safety regulations, is conveniently glossed over

ON JULY 16, 2004, A RAGING fire at the state government-licenced Sri Krishna/Saraswathi English Medium School in the obscure town of Kumbakonam (Tamil Nadu), tragically snuffed out the lives of 93 young children aged between six and ten years. The tragedy brutally exposed the complete disregard of state and local governments, school managements and education inspectors for child safety. Teachers reportedly fled the scene, leaving the children to their fate. While most of them escaped down a front staircase, the youngest children who made for the rear entrance were found charred to death against a locked grill.

The calamity prompted a short burst of reform stimulus in Tamil Nadu and several other states, which cracked down on the managements of thousands of private and government schools functioning on unsafe premises. Notices were issued to school managements to replace flimsy buildings with non-flammable structures and separate mid-day meal centres, and to implement fire safety guidelines. However, the role of bribes-taking government inspectors who turn a blind eye to numerous violations of safety regulations in private and government schools, was conveniently glossed over.

In a comprehensive cover feature  EducationWorld (September 2004)  identified education officials as primarily responsible for the Kumbakonam tragedy. “If education institutions have become hazard traps endangering the lives of vulnerable children… the prime villains are state and local government officials who fail and neglect to enforce laws and regulations enacted to protect students,” we opined.

Despite incidents of neglect and physical and sexual abuse of children being routinely reported by the media, pleas for greater expenditure on safety measures and background checks of teachers and staff to ensure children’s safety, have fallen on unresponsive ears. The recent heinous rape of four-six year girl children in two separate upscale private schools in Bangalore, has once again focused national attention on the crucial issues of safety of children in schools, government control of tuition fees, the role of institutional managements, teachers, support staff and parents themselves.

While the managements of private schools where such tragedies occur are guilty of paying greater attention to infrastructure provision rather than teacher and staff development, parent communities are also blameworthy because when tuition fees are raised to fund child safety measures, they tend to immediately protest, inviting government intervention (see Ed News EW September 2009). 

Steep Decline in Learning Outcomes

Published yearly since 2005, the Annual Status of Education Report of Pratham reveals that little learning happens in the nation’s rural primaries

THE DEFINING CHARACTERISTIC of India’s elementary Education For All (Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan) campaign, launched in 2001, is its obsessive focus on enrolment and inputs, rather than outcomes. More than a decade after the ambitious SSA programme was rolled out; introduction of the world’s largest (primary) school free mid-day meal programme;  imposition of a 2 percent cess for primary education (2004); passage of the historic Right to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009, and an estimated Rs.1,300,000 crore  being poured into the country’s 1.20 million government primary schools, while gross enrolment ratio (GER) has increased to 98 percent, learning outcomes have declined.

This unexpected ground reality was brought to national attention by the first Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) 2005, published by the well-known Mumbai-based NGO Pratham. Acclaimed by EducationWorld in a cover story (March 2006) as the “first ever countrywide citizens’ report investigating actual teaching-learning activity”, ASER 2005 found that almost 60 percent (i.e 105 million) children in the age group seven-14 couldn’t read and comprehend simple class II level stories, and 41 percent (72 million) children were unable to solve two digit subtraction or three number division sums.

Published annually since 2005, ASER reports have been relentlessly focusing national attention on the appalling quality of education being delivered in the country’s 700,000 rural government (private primary school students’ learning outcomes are somewhat better) primaries. The latest ASER 2013 reveals that the percentage of class V children who can read class II textbooks has decreased from an already dismal 52.8 in 2009 to a worse 46.9 percent in 2013. Likewise the percentage of class V children who can solve simple three-digits by one-digit division sums (which they should have learned in class III) is an abysmal 25.16.

‘Higher GER and improved learning outcomes are not mutually exclusive and need to be complementary. Ten years on since Pratham published its first report, this elementary truth hasn’t impacted itself upon the country’s education planners and massive educracy.

Secondary Education Crisis

The inadequate secondary education system is cracking under the pressure to absorb the increasing number of students streaming out of primary schools

WITH NATIONAL ATTENTION focused on attaining universal elementary education after India became a signatory nation of the United Nations Millennium Declaration 2000, expansion and upgradation of secondary education have received scant attention from policy formulators or academia. Consequently India’s 130 million children in the age group 14-17 have to make do with a mere 200,000 secondary/higher secondary (classes IX-XII) schools which can accommodate only 51 million children (cf. 1.3 million primaries with 220 million students). Indeed of India’s 630 districts, 170 have less than one secondary school for every 1,000 youth aged 14-18 years. “The country’s secondary education system is cracking under the pressure to absorb the increasing number of students streaming out of primary schools every year. With the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan programme, initiated in 2001, having pushed the GER (gross enrolment ratio) in primary education to 98.4 percent, and retention and transition rates gradually improving, there’s rising panic within the establishment that the secondary education system doesn’t have the capacity to enroll the increasing inflow of new entrants,” remarked a special report feature of EducationWorld (July 2010).

Belatedly in 2007 under pressure from educationists and the media, in an Independence Day address to the nation, then prime minister Manmohan Singh announced the promotion of 6,000 model secondary schools (with an estimated outlay of Rs.45,000 crore) across the country. Twenty months later in January 2009, this statement of intent assumed shape and form with the announcement of the Rashtriya Madhyamik Shiksha Abhiyan (RMSA, or National Secondary Education Campaign) — a Central government sponsored scheme “to universalise access to and improve quality of secondary education”.

The main objectives of the scheme are to achieve a GER of 75 percent for classes IX-X within the next five years by providing a secondary school within 5-7 km of every habitation; improving the quality of education by making all secondary schools conform to prescribed norms; removing gender, socio-economic and disability barriers; and universalisation of secondary education by 2017. According to HRD ministry estimates, an aggregate outlay of Rs.90,485 crore will be required over the next ten years to fund the initiative.

Five years on, the RMSA programme has made some impact with 9,953 model secondary schools becoming operational countrywide (until March 31, 2014), and the GER in secondary education has inched up to 47 percent. But with national (Centre plus states) expenditure on education averaging a mere 3.2 percent of GDP per year against 7-8 percent in developed OECD countries, RMSA’s target of universal access to secondary education by 2017 is a pie in the sky, unless the newly-elected BJP-led NDA government at the Centre fulfills its election promise of raising the annual outlay for education to 6 percent of GDP. Unfortunately this is a promise routinely made in the election manifestos of all political parties, but has never been fulfilled.

Hasty examination reforms

Though CCE evaluates each student’s academic and extra-curricular attainments, a majority of teachers are untrained and unprepared to implement this radical exam reform

IN JULY 2009, FORMER UNION human resource development minister Kapil Sibal, fresh from the Congress-led UPA coalition’s triumphant return to power at the Centre for a second consecutive term, announced a 100-day reforms programme which generated great expectations within the academic and parents community countrywide.

Unsurprisingly, the reforms programme was quickly embraced by the HRD ministry-affiliated Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) — the largest pan-India school leaving examinations board with 14,358 of the country’s top-ranked private and government primary-secondaries affiliated with it. To reduce examination stress within the student community, the class X school-leaving exam was made optional and a new internal assessment schema — Continuous and Comprehensive Evaluation (CCE) — was introduced to replace the ‘sudden death’ board examination which assessed students’ capabilities in a final exam.

Though a pedagogically sound assessment system which evaluates each student’s academic and extra-curricular attainments, CCE caught teachers of the 14,000-plus CBSE schools, comprising a mix of private and Central government-owned (Kendriya Vidyalaya and Jawahar Navodaya Vidyalaya) institutions with an aggregate enrolment of 12 million students, unawares with a majority of them not trained and prepared to implement this radical examination reform. In a detailed special report feature titled ‘Continuous Comprehensive Evaluation Confusion’ (EW August 2013), we commented: “Four years on, the CCE experiment is floundering in a sea of confusion with school principals and teachers — who were neither consulted nor adequately trained — struggling to switch from the traditional exam system to a radically new form of assessment and evaluation, under which students are continuously appraised through non-stressful progress evaluation methodologies.”

Meanwhile even as CBSE schools are struggling to replace traditional term and final exams with CCE, many of the country’s 28 state governments — all of whom have their own school-leaving exam boards — are getting set to follow in the footsteps of the nation’s premier school examination board by adopting CCE. Maharashtra, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, and Punjab introduced CCE in classes I-VIII last year. More state governments are expected to do so in the forthcoming academic year.

Notwithstanding the reality of rock-bottom teaching-learning standards, overcrowded classrooms, and acute shortage of teachers, decks are being cleared to introduce CCE in India’s 1.2 million government primary schools.

Propaganda infiltration in school texts

Apart from being strewn with factual errors, state exam board-commissioned textbooks are infiltrated with ruling party propaganda and eulogies of their leaders

A PRIME FACTOR BEHIND THE POOR learning outcomes in government schools is the substandard textbooks prescribed for unfortunate children obliged to study in them. It’s not a coincidence that the country’s top-ranked vintage day and boarding schools tend to be affiliated with the Delhi-based Council for the Indian School Certificate Examinations (CISCE). Their managements are free to choose from shortlists of school texts prescribed by the board. And they tend to be well-researched and authoritative texts printed by well-known publishers such as Macmillan, Oxford and Cambridge University Press, John Wiley etc. Children in schools affiliated with the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) — the country’s largest pan-India school examinations board with 15,000 affiliated upscale schools — are generally prescribed textbooks commissioned, printed and published by the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT), the country’s largest textbooks publisher under the jurisdiction of the Union HRD ministry.

However, these premier pan-India exam boards apart, there are another 29 examination boards of the state governments which commission, print and distribute free-of-charge or heavily subsidised textbooks to over 215 million children in state government and affiliated aided schools. These exam boards usually packed with kith and kin of politicians commission the task of writing textbooks to under-qualified friends and associates, and are printed in shady benami firms. Apart from being strewn with egregious factual errors, they are often infiltrated with propaganda of the ruling party and eulogies of their leaders. 

However, the below-the-radar issue of inferior content and ruling party propaganda in school texts created a national uproar during the rule of the first BJP-led NDA government at the Centre (1999-2004), when Union HRD minister and hindutva hardliner Dr. Murli Manohar Joshi manipulated infiltration of Hindu mythology into NCERT social science and history textbooks. This social engineering attempt was widely condemned by the academic community and EducationWorld (cover story March, 2003). Fortunately in General Election 2004, the BJP-led NDA coalition was unexpectedly defeated at the hustings by the Congress-led UPA coalition, and committed socialist and Gandhi dynasty loyalist Arjun Singh, Joshi’s successor in Shastri Bhavan, Delhi (which houses the HRD ministry), accorded top priority to ‘desaffronisation’ of NCERT textbooks.

Ominously, one of the first appointments made by the new BJP-led NDA government which is back in power in New Delhi after its sweeping victory in General Election 2014, was of Dr. Yellapragada Sudershan Rao — an academic of uncertain antecedents who believes the great mythological epics Ramayana and Mahabharata are based on historical facts — as chairman of the Indian Council of Historical Research. This appointment portends that BJP ideologues will resume their interrupted agenda of infiltrating hindutva ideology and party propaganda into school texts.

School fees regulation wars

Parents’ forums and organisations protesting inflation-driven tuition fee increases in private schools are ubiquitous countrywide and provide ideal opportunity for populist politicians to fish in troubled waters

THE PROLONGED AND DEBILITATING war being fought by private professional colleges for institutional and administrative autonomy in the new millennium, is mirrored in the struggle between private schools and state governments. Confronted with double-digit inflation and clamorous demands of newly middle class parents for new technologies invested education and Sixth Pay Commission salaries for teachers, managements of private schools have had no option but to steadily increase tuition fees.

Themselves recipients of low-cost, particularly heavily subsidised higher education, and their minds scrambled by Supreme Court judgements deploring commercialisation of education,  parent communities have little patience with logical arguments advanced to raise tuition fees. Parents’ forums and organisations protesting fee increases in private schools are ubiquitous countrywide and provide ideal opportunity for populist politicians and the judiciary to fish in troubled waters.

Thus in 2004 adjudicating a writ petition filed by Social Jurist, an NGO led by self-professed communist lawyer Ashok Aggarwal, in Modern School vs. Union of India & Ors, a majority judgement of the Supreme  Court (Chief Justice V.N. Khare, S.H. Kapadia with Justice S.B. Sinha dissenting) upheld the right of the director of education of the Delhi state government to regulate tuition fees chargeable by private, financially independent (‘unaided’) schools. The court also prohibited the transfer of fees, funds or surpluses of one school to another or to its parent trust or society though it permitted school managements to collect reasonable sums (upto 10-15 percent of tuition fees) for capital expenditure to be credited into separate development funds. 

Although private school managements argue the judgement is applicable only to schools in Delhi NCR, it has cast a shadow over independent schools countrywide. Pursuant to the apex court’s judgement, education ministry officials in the states have the right to examine the accounts of all schools to determine whether the fees they levy are reasonable as per the court’s earlier judgement in T.M.A. Pai Foundation Case (2002). Since then, several state governments including Maharashtra and Karnataka have proposed to cap tuition fees in private, independent schools, presaging creeping licence-permit-quota raj in K-12 education (see EW cover story June 2004).

Wearying wars for institutional autonomy

Until 2002 the Supreme Court permitted the Central and state governments to prescribe quotas and regulate admissions and tuition fees in private professional education institutions

ONE OF THE MANY WARS BEING waged by all private sector edupreneurs, including linguistic or religious minorities, who were specifically endowed the fundamental right to establish and administer educational institutions of their choice by Article 30 (1) of the Constitution, is to realise this right. Way back in the early 1970s, ideologically committed judges of the apex court permitted the Central and state governments to rigidly control private colleges dispensing professional (engineering, medical, hospitality, etc) education, lest they financially and academically exploit their students.

Instead of mandating higher public spending and promotion of public colleges of professional education, the courts permitted governments to prescribe quotas, and regulate admissions and tuition fees of private professional colleges. This creeping backdoor nationalisation of private education culminated in the Supreme Court’s judgement in Unnikrishnan’s Case (1993) in which it validated a complex regime of government-administered exams, quotas, and specific tuition fees chargeable by managements of private professional colleges in the interests of preventing the “commericalisation of education”.              

However, after presentation of the  historic liberalisation and deregulation Union budget of July 1991, the winds of liberal ideology also wafted through the musty courtrooms of the Supreme Court in Delhi. On October 31, 2002, in T.M.A. Pai Foundation vs. State of Karnataka & Ors, a full 11-judge bench of the apex court not only reaffirmed the fundamental right of minority citizens to “establish and administer educational institutions of their choice”, but also extended this right to all citizens under Article 19 (1) (g). In a refreshing public mea culpa, the majority judgement specifically overturned its earlier  judgement in Unnikrishnan’s Case, and held that private, i.e financially independent professional colleges are entitled to conduct their own fair and transparent entrance examinations to admit students on merit, and levy reasonable tuition fees correlated with their investment in infrastructure and management.

But allowing a review petition of the T.M.A. Pai Foundation judgement, a five-judge bench of the court modified it in Islamic Academy vs. Union of India (2003), ordering committees headed by retired judges in every state to monitor the admission processes and tuition fees of private professional education colleges/institutions — a status quo ante verdict which EducationWorld deplored in a cover story (EW September, 2003).

And although in P.A. Inamdar vs. State of Maharashtra (2005), a seven-judge bench of the Supreme Court upheld the T. M. A. Pai Foundation verdict and ruled out government quotas in independent private professional education colleges, because of the power invested in the retired judges committees by the Islamic Academy judgement, state governments have been able to arm-twist private colleges to ‘voluntarily’ surrender up to 50 percent of their seats to students clearing government entrance exams, at negotiated tuition fees. Consequently the expected inflow of respectable and transparent investment into professional education has not materialised. Professional education is dominated by politician-edupreneurs with little commitment to excellence and management competence, and the sector is still mired in myriad admission and quota rackets.

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