Classrooms Without Commoners

The recent debate at the Central Advisory Board of Education (CABE) on the draft Free and Compulsory Education Bill generated more heat than light. That states have been inept at providing education of equitable quality for the masses was brushed under the carpet. This is not the first time that privileged sections of society have come together to deny education to the rest.

In 1911, when Gokhale moved his Elementary Education Bill in the Imperial legislative assembly, he faced stiff resistance. Instead of supporting the Bill, the members representing the rich talked of the conditions in the country not being ripe for such a Bill. The maharaja of Burdwan expressed serious doubts. The maharaja of Darbhanga mobilised 11,000 signatures to stop the Bill. The big landlords lobbied against it. The Bill could not be approved.

The draft Bill prepared by the CABE committee, headed by minister of state for science and technology Kapil Sibal, does not make any explicit provision for the state to ensure that adequate resources are provided for implementing the Bill. The Kapil Sibal report has withdrawn even a mild provision of this nature that was approved at the last held meeting of the committee. This withdrawal was one of the 15 such unauthorised changes that were introduced in the draft Bill. A four-page document establishing the deliberate doctoring of the report was a source of discomfort to CABE chairperson and human resource development minister Arjun Singh.

The draft Bill protects the interests of the powerful private school lobby, just as the Imperial assembly tried to protect the powerful lobby of maharajas, landlords and other privileged sections. No wonder that Kothari Commission’s recommendation and the 1986 education policy call to establish a common school system stands ignored.

Instead, the Sibal report has attempted to detract attention from constitutional principles of equality and social justice by asking private unaided schools to provide free education to 25% of its children. They will be admitted from deprived sections in the neighbourhood.

This means that 75% of the admitted children in such schools would continue to belong to privileged sections, outside the neighbourhood.

The Law Commission (1998) had suggested that at least 50% of the admitted children must belong to the deprived sections so that their wealthier peers do not dominate them. The Sibal committee refused to take notice of this view.

For its charity, the draft Bill provides for reimbursement out of public funds to rich societies and trusts that own these schools. An earlier provision had required all state governments to regulate private schools, as they do now. As an afterthought, this provision, too, was withdrawn. In another unauthorised change, a provision was added to enable the government to provide resources to the private unaided schools for their infrastructural development. Yet, they would continue to be treated as unaided schools!

What will children gain if this draft Bill goes through? Those below six years of age will not have access to pre-school education. Those in the 6-14 age group will continue to study in resource-starved government schools and receive poor quality education, as the state will not be required to provide adequate funds. The vast majority of children in the 14-18 age group will still not have access to free secondary and senior secondary education. Meanwhile, government school children will continue to make sacrifices for the sake of India’s democracy when their teachers are engaged in frequent election duties, census work or educational surveys, even as private school children will not be required to make any such sacrifices, thereby enabling the latter to excel in examinations.

The globally acknowledged empowerment that can happen by making mother tongue the medium of education will remain an elusive dream. Differential access to English will continue to deprive the masses of socio-economic mobility and political power. The clever provision of 25% admission in private schools will become yet another source of political gratification.

The draft Bill has not hesitated to play tricks on the disabled.

Instead of ensuring that they are included in regular formal schools, it opens up new avenues for profit-making NGOs and business houses in the area of special education and testing services. The financial implications attached to the Sibal report provide three times more resources for educating the disabled at home than in regular schools.

The draft Bill has no provision for penalising either the state or private school owners when they fail to comply with the law. All the penalties are by and large focused on parents or government school teachers.

The prime minister gave his government six out of 10 marks recently. It must have been assumed that UPA’s common minimum programme on education is on track.

However, the memories of what happened to Gokhale’s Bill in 1911 are sure to haunt the government unless the CABE report on Free and Compulsory Education Bill is replaced by a progressive report.

The writer is professor of education, Delhi University.

Forty Years of Arun C Mehta at NIEPA: 1980 to 2019 (e-Book)

Forty years of Arun C Mehta at NIEPA: 1980 to 2019

Times of India, New Delhi, 21st September 2021

UDISE, Interview of Prof. Arun C Mehta in Times of India, New Delhi, 21st September 2021