For whom the school bells toll?

  • 30/08/1996

For whom the school bells toll?  India s education policy has only sought to alienate the students and also deepen the urban rural dividethe education system in India has faced a basic dilemma ever since its introduction by the British. The essence of the problem was summed up by Mahatma Gandhi in his historic statement at Chatham House, London, in 1931: "The British administrators when they came to India, instead of taking hold of things as they were, began to root them out. The village schools were not good enough for the British administrator, so he came out with his own programme. Every school must have so much paraphernalia, building and so forth. Well, there were no such schools at all - ancient schools have gone by the board - and the schools established after the European pattern were too expensive to fulfill a programme of compulsory primary education of these masses inside of a century. This very poor country of mine is ill able to sustain such an expensive method of education."

Free India did not have the will to fulfill Mahatma Gandhi's dream of reviving the ancient tradition of the village school master supported by the community. Instead, the government chose to continue with efforts to educate the masses through a vast, centralised machinery and superstructure of staff, infrastructure and resources based on the European pattern. Successive efforts at universalising primary education ranged from Operation Blackboard to Education For All. The adult literacy campaign and, more recently, the investment thrust on primary education to produce the literate child carry within themselves the hidden suspicion that the goal of universal education for the masses may even be quietly set aside one day, planners having perhaps finally realised that the goal itself is unattainable within the present system.

Haves versus have-nots The success of this system depends solely on expenses and affordability. It thus gave rise to a situation where masses of underprivileged and under-educated children face a largely urban elite population of privileged school children. In the words of Ivan D Illich, co-founder of the Mexico-based Centre for Intercultural Documentation, "School is a perfect system of regressive taxation where the privileged graduates ride on the back of the entire paying public." The past two decades have seen a phenomenal growth of two types of private schools - kendriya vidyalayas and navodaya vidyalayas - outside the system of government schools. These are the so called 'elite' schools where education is sold to the highest bidder.

It is not surprising that the government of a democratic state has also been compelled to join this race for providing more expensive schools for quality education. The kendriya vidyalayas (kvs) sainik schools, railway schools, tibetan schools and (more recently) navodaya vidyalayas (nvs) are the solutions to the impasse facing the existing system. The kvs and nvs together run about 1,200 schools.

The kvs , which were set up to cater to the children of government servants having all-India transfer capability, have now perforce to increasingly open their doors to children of upwardly mobile, less privileged, urban families. This trend basically reflects a sensible popular response of the underprivileged. In public perception, the system of mass government-sponsored education appears to have failed to deliver the goods, increasing expansion having led, apparently, to increasing irrelevance.

The nvs were set up as residential schools with 75 per cent reservations for rural candidates, all candidates being selected on the basis of a nationwide talent test. These schools are often described as the Doon school alternative for rural areas, but this can mean different things to different people. From the urban point of view, it is often a derisive comment implying that by the very nature of the socio-economic set up of the country, Doon schools can hardly be relevant for country bumpkins. For the rural elite, it is viewed as an optimistic statement, since they would like to have the best, naturally, for themselves, the urban elite invariably furnishing the role models. The nvs is, thus, the latest innovative answer to the question that recognises the need for exclusivity and elitism in schooling for the rural talent.

There is a third point of view put forth by planners and educationists, who feel that these rural elite schools are being set up at the cost of improvements in mass universal education. Such expensive schools set up in the rural environment only bring to focus the deprivation suffered by the rural masses. Setting aside expenditure on construction, which is quite heavy, the average cost per Navodaya student comes to about Rs 9,900 per annum. Is such a heavy investment on as few as 500 odd students per district justified? These are the questions raised by the Acharya Ramamurti report. This report indicts the nvs scheme on the grounds that it is very costly, caters to a microscopic minority of the total school population and perpetrates an exclusive system inconsistent with the "long cherished common school system of public education".

As regards day-schools, it is no secret that home tuitions are embedded into the system of even the best and most expensive public schools today. Both schools as well as parents find themselves unable to cope with the existing syllabi as well as an increasingly competitive environment without the aid of home tuitions which today comprise a booming business, more so for the privileged who can afford the exorbitant fees. In government schools, the aspect of tuitions could have a negative impact on the underprivileged students. The temptation to earn more through tuitions could reduce the level of optimum contribution of government teachers within the school. With the spiralling cost of education, schools have now become a flourishing, money-guzzling industry. Children seem to exist for schools, not schools for children.

Divide and learn
While the seeds of spiralling expenses have grown into monstrous weeds, the seeds of alienation have spread in a more subtle manner. The residential school is an apt symbol of alienation, not only from its cultural and social environment, but also from society per se. The whole accent on competition and the constant stress on the individual as against the group and the community further alienates children from each other. Seeds of alienation are embedded in the examination system which lays a premium on the modus operandi of marking, which is the sole determinant of individual achievement, and the costs of which are paid for by the underachievers. Alienation, in its mildest form, leads to the relegation of the underachievers to 'non-ability' as against the :bility' sections in public schools. At its worst, the system is scarred by student suicides.

In the ancient system of learning, the guru invariably utilised the older boys to teach the younger ones. Their roles were supportive, not exploitative. How unlike the system of public schools where the exploitation of younger boys by older boys is dubbed respectably as 'ragging'. Ragging has had its shocking after-effects. It has occasionally climaxed in deaths on the campus - deaths of young entrants in which their peers are indirectly or directly involved. In today's system, the ability to relate harmoniously in non-competitive group associations is not inculcated in students. Instead, to the fore are values of individual achievement, branding and typesetting young persons as bright, mediocre, elite, poor or underprivileged. Divisive forces predominate harmony. Products dominate people. Competition dominates brotherhood.

Rote tyranny
That this system is giving rise to problems entirely of our own making is being realised in many parts of the world. Radical thinkers, sociologists and educationists all over the world have raised voices in protest. In the search for alternatives, ngos and the Government of India have decided to provide more support to non-formal schools. The charvaha schools in Bihar have greatly benefited from this assistance. The Yashpal committee was also specifically set up to suggest ways and means to reduce academic burden on school students. It recommended the toning down of individual competitiveness and introduction of group activity in schools. Simultaneously, the report advocated decentralisation of curriculum formation and greater involvement of teachers in the formulation of text books. In particular, the Yashpal committee came out strongly against textbooks, syllabi and examinations which together form a system that inflicts upon children, the "tyranny of rote memorisation". The department of education has taken up these suggestions for serious review. Meanwhile, it has started alternative schemes like the national open school and extended funding support to ngos for non-formal schools.

The nvs has now made attempts to give schooling a human face through a carefully planned programme of art in education sponsored by the department of education and based firmly on the guru-shisya (teacher-pupil) tradition. In fact, the nvs should be capable of harbouring both the best of scientific and technical skills of the modern world and also gather the ancient wisdom of the East, enshrined in the oral tradition and rituals of its immediate cultural environment.