Issues and Concerns in School Education
(By R.Govinda, NIEPA, New Delhi)
The National Policy on Educa- tion (1986) has committed to achieve the goal of universal elementary education by 1995. Further, India as a signatory to the World Declaration on Basic Education made in Jomtein more than eight years ago, agreed to achieve the target by the year 2000. Yet, the goal has remained elusive, despite the fact that there is a primary school within 1.5 kilometres for children in 95% of the villages.
Studies have revealed that universalisation of basic education cannot be achieved without addressing the issue of cultural and socio-economic barriers. Interestingly, the results of a survey conducted by the National Sample Survey Organisation in 1992 revealed that school-related factors are responsible for at least 22-25 per cent of non-participation of children in primary schooling. The issue of bringing all children to school cannot be tackled with the single point proposition of opening more schools. The problem has deeper roots in the socio-cultural and economic conditions of the people. Moreover, the problem of quanti-tative coverage cannot be solved in isolation without paying adequate attention to improving school quality.
Problem of slow growth of post-primary education
Statistics indicate that the rate of growth of schooling beyond the lower primary stage is low. The ratio of upper primary to lower primary schools in most part of the country is still around 1:4, as against the official commitment of making it 1:2. The ratio of secondary to primary schools is around 1:6. This is far from the norms achieved in the developed world or even with the situation in many developing countries. In India, the Gross Enrolment Ratio (GER) for the secondary stage is only 48%, while the figure for China is as high as 66%; in the developed regions of the world, secondary education has been fully universalised.
While improved provision of primary education facilities in the country has to be tackled on a priority basis, it may not prove to be effective if steps are not simultaneously taken to meet the demand for further education. Taking Kerala as an example, it is apparent that children are not likely to stop their education at the end of five years or even at the end of 7-8 years, given that, 75-80 per cent of children complete secondary schooling in Kerala. This apparent stagnation in the growth of post-primary education will also directly impinge on the quality of human resources and in turn, affect the process of economic development.
Stalling the social divide—Privatisation and concerns of equity
Low efficiency and effectiveness of the public schooling system, coupled with inadequate financial resource allocation has tended to push more and more people to seek even primary education through privately managed institutions. May one rationalise this trend as positive, as it helps to reduce dependence of those who can afford to pay on the government institutions? However, there is no reason to believe that people are voluntarily moving away from the public system which is free, towards private education.
It is important to note that this trend is likely to lead to further increase in inequity.
In fact, one can observe that in urban areas this divided system of school education has contributed to a vertical division in the society on the basis of economic status of the parents. Can the state silently watch this phenomenon of education becoming an instrument of division and perpetuation of inequality in the society? Is it desirable to throw open the education system to the vagaries of the market when a large majority of the population are still deprived of even the basic levels of education?
Bridging the male-female disparity
Recent statistics show that even though GER for girls has risen to more than 90 per cent at the primary stage, it has remained practically static around 50 per cent at the upper primary stage for the last several years. In fact, even at the primary stage, the male-female disparity remains not fully bridged.
School education has to address this issue by designing special strategies to overcome the barriers and bridge the gap between boys and girls on a priority basis.
Vocationalise or not to vocationalise—at what stage, how and how much?
It is a well-known fact that millions of children in the country are forced to enter the labour market instead of pursuing education in the schools. Even among those who begin attending the school, a large number as indicated by high dropout rates and low transition rates, enter the workforce at a very early stage of life.
It is in this context that the school curriculum that remains academic in nature has come under repeated criticism for not being able to add any value to the lives of such children and rather making education a drudgery and burden. Notwithstanding deliberations by several committees and commissions, we have yet to establish a meaningful structure of schooling which can benefit both streams of students—those who terminate at elementary or secondary stage and those who continue their education to the tertiary level.
Linking school education with the changing economic scenario
School education cannot be impervious to the fast changes taking place in the economic sector through liberalisation and globalisation of the market.
Demands on the school, particularly with regard to those who enter the production sector straight from the school are two-fold. On the one hand, school education, particularly at the secondary stage has to keep pace with the needs of a competitive market, dependent on continuously improved knowledge and skill levels. On the other hand, school education has to recognise that the liberalised market framework directly affects the micro-economics of the poorer sections of the population, often corroding their fragile occupational base.
The school education system has to become pro-active in preparing the curriculum and processes not only as a matter of social concern, but also to meet the basic needs of those entering the emerging economic framework.
Interface with Technology
Information Technology (IT) presents an excellent opportunity for making a quantum jump in the provision of school education in a need-based manner. Unfortunately, very little attention has been given in the country for exploring the tremendous potential of IT in school education, both for its quantitative expansion and for improving its quality.
It is, therefore, urgent that immediate attention is given in school education to imparting basic IT skills to all learners. Learning from the past efforts, it is important that adequate provisions are made for development of software and capacity-building for teachers in order that it does not remain only as an additionality to the existing subject areas, but becomes an integral part of the learning experience of all children.
Quality is the heart of the matter
Examination statistics show that about 60 per cent of children routinely fail in the public examination conducted at the end of the secondary school; and of those who succeed and join higher secondary, only 40 per cent succeed in the higher secondary examination.
Curriculum reforms, examination reforms and large scale efforts for introducing progressive pedagogy and so on, are being made in almost all the states. However, given the large size of the school education system, these system level reforms seem to be making very little impact on the functioning of the school. Direct actions for changing the functioning of people and institutions operating at the grassroots level have not received adequate attention.
The situation demands a total reversal of perspective so that school occupies the centre stage and improvement in the quality of the school becomes the major agenda of all reform processes.
The question of alternatives and plural avenues
Non-suitability of a standardised model of full-time formal schooling to create a universal mass education system in the country was emphatically pointed out by Mahatma Gandhi much before we embarked on the task, fifty years ago.
It is now fully realised that a monolithic approach to delivery of school education cannot meet the legitimate demands of the people for provision of educational facilities of a reasonably acceptable quality. Yet, it has been difficult to break the monopolistic hold of full-time formal schooling on the education system. Interestingly, society has begun adjusting its expectations to the limitations of formal schooling, instead of more actively pursuing the task of designing alternatives.
Prospects and Propositions
Elaboration of issues and problems of school education confronting the country should not be construed to imply that we are saddled with an impossible situation. Rather, it points to the need for acting with a sense of purpose and determination. What are the priority areas in which well-planned action holds promise for taking the school education system in a progressive direction? Some of these are indicated below.
Liberalising the curriculum framework
An important area that needs immediate attention is the introduction of a flexible and dynamic curriculum framework that meets the varying needs and aspirations of the diverse profiles of children entering school education. This is essential, if school education is to be made more joyful and relevant to the lives of the people. Actions have to be initiated, therefore, to avoid increased standardisation of the curriculum and allow for more decentralisation. This, again requires curriculum development to be a participatory endeavour of the direct stakeholders replacing the high bureaucratisation that characterises the current scene.
Breaking the monopoly of the full time formal school
Creating an institutional framework of delivery and organising the inputs in meaningful learning units are relevant only to the extent that they facilitate easy and effective transaction of learning processes. But, when the format of organisation begins determining and delimiting the nature and scope of education, alternative means have to be sought, in order to effectively pursue the basic purposes of organised education. In the current state of development of school education in India, this seems to be a matter for priority action.
It is not that no effort has been made in this direction, in India. Yet, one can easily see that a monolithic set- up of age-grade organisation in hierarchical learning units has become the predominant means. The monopoly of this dominant mode is so powerful as to seriously jeopardise the emergence of a pluralistic framework through apparently innocuous instruments such as equivalence, comparable learning inputs, comparable length of learning, common public examinations and so on.
Harnessing advances in information technology to the advantage of school education
In India, use of technology has invariably been identified with prosperity and affluence. With the relatively under-endowed state of the public education system, technology is seen as an alien element, which has no place in the school education programme. This perspective has failed to fully grasp the potential of technology to overcome some of the very barriers arising out of inadequate resources. It is important to take positive steps for building a more meaningful interface between modern developments in the field of information technology and school education programmes.
It is paradoxical that whereas the national leadership harbours aspirations of making the country a global leader in the IT sector, there has been no plan at all to make even basic computer literacy a part of the larger school system. It should be worthwhile that a national taskforce examines all the issues involved and comes out with a pro-active and futuristic framework for creating a sustainable interface between IT and school education.
It is essential that the task of quality improvement in school functioning is addressed in a more holistic manner by viewing teacher capacity-building and managerial skill development in an inter-related framework. Without bringing substantial improvement in the managerial efficiency of the schools, no amount of investment in pedagogy training will make an impact.
There is a need, therefore, to abandon the traditional concepts and practices of training the school teachers and managers through centralised arrangements involving the use of generic packages of training inputs. These have to be replaced by more localised and sustainable support mechanisms and delivery modes that are capable of providing contextualised learning inputs directly at the workplace.
If efficiency and quality improvement are our concerns, there appears to be no alternative, but to go for more local initiatives within a participatory framework and move towards the creation of more easily manageable organisational arrange- ments.
In spite of the hyperbole created with regard to decentralisation under the banner of recent Constitutional Amendments on Panchayat Raj institutions, no perceptible change has come in most of the states with regard to the educational management scenario.
The benefits of ushering a decentralised system of management are enormous. The most important one is that smaller systems built through participatory processes are in a better position to remain sensitive to the local needs and aspirations; they allow for creative alternatives to emerge; and they are more likely to bring in a sense of ownership as well as accountability.
We have a very large army of scientifically trained manpower, we also have, perhaps, the largest number of illiterates. As many scholars have pointed out, we seem to be unwittingly nurturing a fractured system of school education. One part of the system is keeping pace with the most advanced systems of the world and the other, which serves the poorer and disempowered sections of the society is remaining inefficient to reach out effectively and provide meaningful education.
The challenge is to invest more energy and resources to improve the system, both in its outreach capacity and quality. We have to act on this with a sense of urgency and earnestness, lest education itself becomes a means of promoting social inequality and a source of increasing chasm between those who can pay for their education and those who cannot. It is not enough to merely proliferate input-oriented pro- grammes. It is necessary to strategise actions so as to make
real improvement in the lives of the people.
(This is an abridged version of a comprehensive paper on the subject by
Dr. Govinda, NIEPA).