Expect nothing, live frugally on surprise.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Focus On Schools

Is it easier to set up a primary school than an IIT? Of course it is, most people would say. The chairman of the PM’s scientific advisory council, C N R Rao, also thinks so. The HRD ministry’s decision to set up six new IITs has irked him. These new IITs are meant for Rajasthan, Orissa, Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh, Bihar and Punjab. The IITs established in Patna and Gandhinagar are operating from makeshift campuses. Temporary arrangements have been made to run the other new IITs from the existing IIT campuses. This means stretching their infrastructure and other resources. As one of the architects of India’s science and technology policies, Rao is rightly concerned and one must respect his candour. What one finds sad and difficult to accept is the manner in which he has argued for better planning for their expansion. He has pointed out that it has taken India 50 years to take IITs where they are today, and then he says, according to newspaper reports: “After all it’s not like opening primary schools.ℝ Both these remarks offer us valuable insight into India’s failure to provide education of an acceptable quality to all children.
The attitude these remarks signify is quite common. No one needs to doubt the genuine validity of Rao’s anguish over the importance of maintaining IIT’s high standards. But his comparative frame, in which primary schools rank so low as to symbolise a hastily established IIT, deserves critical attention. His remarks have come at a time when public policy seems to be waking up from a century-long sleep. It was in 1911 that G K Gokhale had mooted a Bill in the Imperial Legislative Assembly to make primary education compulsory, at least for boys. The Bill was defeated, not just because the British didn’t want to provide a substantial budget for primary education, but also because several of the Indian members of the assembly didn’t want to suffer the loss of cheap child labour available for their huge farms and havelis. A century later India has no rajas but young girls continue to work as low-paid domestic servants. Tens of thousands of young boys work in urban sweatshops. In villages, children continue to work on family farms and girls stay out of school to look after younger siblings. Child trafficking is on the rise in several regions. Shantha Sinha of the National Commission for the Protection of Child Rights has rightly argued for years that the problem has its roots in poverty but its solution lies in making education compulsory and improving school quality. Adequate provision for elementary education would also enable India to realise its full human resource potential. At present, India loses half of this potential before Class VIII. Compared to Gokhale’s time, more members of India’s elite classes appreciate these arguments, but not many recognise that starting a good primary school is as complex as setting up a new IIT. The pejorative reference Rao made to primary schools is not just offensive to those of us who serve children in our formal capacities; it also reveals a huge mental block in the mind of India’s highest-level development planners. The idea that primary schools can be established and run cheaply has been central to educational planning since independence. The idyllic myth of the village schoolmaster under a tree persisted for several decades after independence. It was as late as the 1980s when a scheme to equip every primary school with basic minimum amenities and at least two teachers was mooted under the name ‘Operation Blackboard’ (OB). The modest gains of OB and other initiatives taken in the years following the National Policy on Education (1986) were supposed to get consolidated under the auspices of the District Primary Education Programme (DPEP), but the opposite happened and contradictions multiplied. Enrolment increased, but the status of teachers and the quality of their training declined. During the 1990s the axe of fiscal rationalism fell on India’s children and their teachers. State after state recruited para-teachers, and Madhya Pradesh went to the extent of declaring career teachers a ‘dying cadre’. Those who objected to such changes were told that insecure, meagrely paid teachers produced better results than qualified career teachers. One also heard that multi-grade teaching had virtues that one-teacherper-class policy somehow missed, and so on. The net result was that primary schools lost whatever little right to dignity they had acquired over the first three decades of independence. Thousands of them could be set up without prior planning, exactly as Rao has indicated in his comment. A plea for comprehensive and sophisticated policy for children and their education sounds like asking for the moon these days. We feign ignorance of the complexity of the demands that little children make on the state, and not just on their malnourished mothers. If they are to be nurtured to live and participate in a vibrant democratic order, India will need to pay the same meticulous attention to the needs of a primary school as it does in the case of IITs. A primary school poses formidable problems of infrastructure and maintenance, teacher recruitment and training and so on. We have been used to running primary schools where 95 per cent of the expenditure goes into salaries. Investments in curricular capacity and training have traditionally been minimal. No wonder primary schooling in our country is usually an unpleasant experience. Creativity and imagination are neglected because these require sophisticated training for the teacher.


seema gupta November 21, 2008 at 11:43 AM  

" beautiful artical with beautiful kids.."


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