The new four-year undergraduate course that Delhi University (DU) intends to introduce in the coming session will provide students with an exit option after just two years of study. Those who wish to become primary school teachers can choose to get a baccalaureate diploma and leave at this point. Seemingly innovative, the idea marks a retrograde step, both for the system of primary education and for DU.
Beginning in the late 19th century, the short history of modern primary education in India has never faced the kind of challenge that has now been posed by the Right to Education Act (RTE). Keeping in mind the concept of an elementary education that covers eight years of a child’s life (ages 6 to 14), this radical law aims to merge all Classes from 1 to 5. This merger signifies the need for a new institutional and social perspective, one that values the continuity of growth in children, not their subject-wise performance.
In India, we are used to treating the primary stage lightly. The system is guided by a social Darwinist assumption. It dictates that only those who survive the primary years are worth educating. Moreover, the level of training required to become a primary teacher only goes to confirm the assumption that one’s primary years are inevitably inconsequential. It is often thought that the curricula of primary classes do not require much academic preparation, and DU’s decision to offer aspirant primary teachers an exit after just two years seems to be reflective of that popular belief.
A lack of academic preparedness by teachers seems contrary to the vision of the RTE. The norms listed in Chapter 5 of the RTE assume that teachers must possess an intellectual and emotional maturity when engaging with children’s minds. A qualification to cover a syllabus is insufficient. The capacity to address diversity in social backgrounds is central to the RTE’s vision. A Supreme Court verdict, which protected the RTE from a last-ditch assault by social elites, has clarified that the Act is an instrument of social justice. The RTE can hardly serve this historic role if teachers continue to be who they have been since the days of our colonisation — adults who help children regurgitate correct answers.
The RTE’s vision has led to recent policy documents advocating longer durations for teacher training courses. The new curriculum framework laid out by the National Council of Teacher Education (NCTE) furthers the idea of a teacher who does not merely teach a subject, but also creates an ethos where children from sharply different backgrounds feel at home. This expectation has no precedent in history. Teachers have, until now, been tacitly permitted to use the examination system to undermine a large proportion of underprivileged children. At long last, policy and law are in consensus. Teachers of small children must be trained as professionals carrying a sensitive social responsibility. The NCTE, for its part, hopes that in the future all teachers will be graduates with longer training. For a start, the 12th Plan is focusing on strengthening District Institutes of Education and Training (DIETs) in order to enable a move to the future.
It is disappointing and ironical that at this juncture, DU should decide to emulate DIETs. What sharpens this irony is DU’s own history of pioneering a Bachelor of Elementary Education (B.El.Ed) course nearly two decades ago. This four-year integrated course offers a graduate degree and the eligibility to become an elementary teacher. It introduces students to a disciplinary knowledge that is comparable to a liberal BA. It also offers them an intensive school-teaching experience through an internship. In the end, it is resonant of the RTE’s expectation which requires elementary teachers to have an intellectual capacity that could responsibly address inequality and diversity.
B.El.Ed graduates have acquired a distinct professional identity in Delhi’s schools. They have made a major contribution to curriculum debates and textbook reforms at the national level. Some have combined teaching with research, while others have made their mark in teacher training. In view of these achievements, it is hard to make sense of DU’s move to start a DIET-like two-year diploma. One wonders if this step is being guided by the Delhi government’s obdurate stance in denying B.El.Ed teachers the pay scale of Trained Graduate Teachers (TGTs), despite B.El.Ed being a graduate degree. They have so far been paid the salary that primary teachers with only a Class 12 certificate get. But this bureaucratic anomaly can’t be it. Surely more considerations inform DU’s choices.
DU’s move is not in tune with the transitional reality that the RTE has created. In the Union Territory of Chandigarh, a decision has recently been taken to include elementary teachers with a graduate degree in the same pay scale that is attributed to TGTs. Soon enough, this precedent will guide salary-related decisions elsewhere. Meanwhile, a university can hardly justify being led by pay scales rather than academic considerations. A diploma course will not just compromise DU’s stature, it will also signify a setback to the momentum that national policy has gathered after the RTE. The will to improve the status and quality of elementary education will certainly take a hit.
Krishna Kumar is a professor of education at Delhi University, and a former Director of NCERT. The views expressed by the author are personal.