The idea of sending all children to the same school is not new, but the recent order given by the Allahabad high court sounds revolutionary. It does so because, during the recent decades, India has taken far too many steps away from the idea of a common school system.
The partition of India into State-run and private school systems is now an omnipresent social reality. The rapid growth of fee-charging private schools is riding the wave of social aspirations. Parents are willing to make any sacrifice to send their children to a private school.
The State-run schools are not competing anymore; they seem reconciled to the common perception that they are no good. Only parents who have no choice are sending their children to government schools. Some are sending them because of ancillary benefits, such as mid-day meals, free uniform, textbooks, and scholarships (for certain categories).
What about teaching? That is what is not happening, according to the popular perception of State-run schools. And why is that so? This last question lands you in front of a complex web of explanations. Some of the answers refer to systemic inefficiency; some refer to the disposition and habits of State-employed teachers.
It is not easy to analyse and make sense of all the available answers. And then, there is the big picture that the government itself loves to project. This picture highlights a vast shortage of teachers across the country, the worst shortage being in the Hindi belt.
In the confusing scenario I have tried to portray in my thumb nail sketch above, the order given by the Allahabad High Court makes eminent sense. The court was responding to a plea made before it in the public interest. The plea was simple: Please intervene and ask the government to improve its schools.
The evidence supporting the plea was as vast and complex as the scenario itself. Instead of going into the nature of the evidence or the truth-value of the reality the evidence portrays, the court has gone for a single-stroke solution.
This solution is logically grounded in a business principle, namely, that we worry about a situation when we have a stake in it. Instead of asking the government of Uttar Pradesh why its schools are in a poor shape, the court has asked it to turn all its employees into stakeholders.
The remarkable order issued by the court says that whoever is earning a living by serving the government should compulsorily avail of the services of primary schools run by the government.
Put differently, the order asks all government employees, including officers and judges, to send their children to a government primary school. Once this is done, the order assumes, government schools will improve.
This assumption is neither wrong nor ambitious. There was a time when private schools were few and none existed in district towns and villages. Up until the 1960s, the sons and daughters of district magistrates and local politicians enrolled in the local school, and that school was mostly a government school or an aided school.
In those days, a leaking roof or broken furniture would get repaired within a few days. Teachers’ vacancies got filled up swiftly, and teachers were seldom absent. A major reason for this kind of efficiency was the presence of children whose parents had a voice. Parents of that social class and status have now withdrawn their children from government schools.
It is true that at that time, children of the labour class, mostly belonging to the lower-rungs of the caste system, did not enrol at all. Their presence in schools today is one of the biggest stories of India’s democracy.
But it is also the story of social segregation in schooling. Parents belonging to the better-off sections of society do not want their children to mingle with the children of the poor and the lower castes.
As a custodian of the Constitution, the State has tried to bridge the gap by reserving — under the Right to Education Act — one-fourth of seats in unaided private schools for the children of economically weak sections.
This social engineering has begun to work in many parts of the country; elsewhere, it is facing resistance. The Allahabad order aims to intensify this social engineering by asking State employees and public representatives to send their children to government schools. It is an imaginative extension of the spirit of the Right to Education law.
It is also modest because it does not go beyond the primary grades. Its potential as a socially cohesive move is just as significant as its reformist assumption. Working for the government brings both status and power, creating a palpable hiatus of status between State employees and the rest of the citizenry. A similar chasm divides ordinary people from their elected representatives.
The Allahabad order will reduce these gaps at the level of children and thereby stop, or at least diminish, the perpetuation of social divisions. This looks like a tall order in the circumstances prevailing today.
It is difficult to imagine the labouring children of Firozabad sharing a classroom with children of officials posted there. Uttar Pradesh has not gone through any major social movement of the kind that Maharashtra or Tamil Nadu has witnessed. Caste divisions are endemic and their political expression is shrill.
The same applies to religious divisions. The Allahabad order points to a dream that seems no less than a miracle. The court has given six months to the government to prepare a plan of action. It will be a pity if the UP government responds to the order by filing a review petition or moves the Supreme Court to seek relief from a historic order.
(Krishna Kumar is professor of education at Delhi University and former director, NCERT. The views expressed are personal)