It is common wisdom that when a regime of privilege gets established, maintaining it becomes the sole concern of its beneficiaries. The case of Delhi’s Sanskriti School is a sad example of this. It is hard to believe that a hundred years after a major modern thinker of education demonstrated the crucial role that diversity of social backgrounds in the classroom plays in achieving excellence, a keenly self-conscious school like Sanskriti doesn’t get it. I am referring to John Dewey, whose 1916 classic, Democracy and Education, changed the very idea of a good school. It argues that greater social efficiency and higher academic standards are achieved when children from different home backgrounds sit and learn together in a school. The Sanskriti School wants to deliver a high standard of education by maintaining a 60% quota for Group ‘A’ officers of the central government.
The idea of mixing children from divergent backgrounds faced resistance of different kinds in several countries, but eventually has proved its worth. For one thing, it resonated the vision of participatory democracy, so it received political approval in societies where cultural and class barriers were fought by democratic means. It nurtured the kind of social bonding that modern nationhood demands. Many Western nations achieved greater inner cohesion because common schooling softened the boundaries between classes and cultural groups. But the real worth of inclusive schooling lay in its pedagogic potential.
As a philosopher who also taught children, Dewey knew from experience that the presence of children from divergent home backgrounds forces the teacher to be more imaginative. Children’s talk and responses bring into the classroom a richer cultural resource that is not available in an exclusive school. The teacher has to perform a more active role in a socially inclusive classroom, drawing from children their varied experiences and viewpoints, thereby creating a collective mind with higher analytical insights and social awareness. The benefits are not merely social or moral; they extend to cognitive grasp in all areas of knowledge.
A vast amount of psychological and pedagogic research carried out in different countries has proved the correctness of Dewey’s vision. Its political worth has also been demonstrated by the fact that societies with common school systems have shown greater inner strength while facing the challenges of modernity than others where exclusiveness persisted.
In India, the Constitution favoured equality and inclusiveness, but the social order resisted the idea of a common school system. After a prolonged waiting period, the idea received a modest boost when the Right to Education (RTE) Act received Parliament’s approval five years ago. Apart from declaring elementary education a fundamental right of all children, the RTE enforced a modicum of social engineering by requiring private schools to reserve one-fourth of their seats for children from the economically weaker sections (EWS). The RTE guidelines prohibited private schools from creating a separate section for these children. The temptation to do so still persists and many private schools are reluctant to allow their classrooms to acquire a mixed social character that RTE envisages.
Now comes the amazing case of the Sanskriti School. It wants to maintain a 60% quota for the children of Group A officers. Although registered as a private school, Sanskriti has received State patronage of a kind that no other private school can dream of. Sanskriti has accepted the EWS quota. In its plea in the current case, it is arguing that its status as a private school gives it the freedom to reserve 60% of its seats for Group A officers. The amicus curie appointed by the apex court has rightly observed that there is no existing statute to justify this kind of quota.
Sanskriti seems to believe that its aim to achieve excellence in education can be fulfilled by ensuring that the majority of children in every class come from similar homes (i.e. of members of the higher bureaucracy). Such a belief belongs to the pre-modern educational theory. It also challenges established legal and political wisdom. In its verdict in the RTE case, the Supreme Court had warmly supported the concept that a socially inclusive ethos is the best resource for learning to live in a democratic society. The Delhi High Court reminded Sanskriti that the Kendriya Vidyalayas were already serving the needs of central government employees. On several other occasions too, the judiciary has attempted to tell India’s educated elite that inclusion is a sound principle for a nation like ours. This is also the essence of modern pedagogic theory.
A few years ago, I had the opportunity to visit Sanskriti School when I was asked to join a committee to choose a new principal. I was a bit shocked to notice how posh its infrastructure and facilities were. Many well-meaning institutions have now forgotten that children feel happier in simpler surroundings. The selection of a new principal gave me the hope that Sanskriti will move towards a modernist, inclusive vision. A former education secretary known for his progressive ideas had shared with me his unease over the establishment of Sanskriti. He thought Sanskriti should join the Kendriya Vidyalaya system. This is what the Delhi High Court also suggested in its recent verdict, rejecting Sanskriti’s reservation policy for the highly privileged. By opting to challenge that verdict, Sanskriti has demonstrated its myopic vision.
Krishna Kumar is professor of education at Delhi University and former director NCERT
The views expressed are personal