Human Resource Development Minister Kapil Sibal has once again set the cat among the pigeons — this time over his advocacy of a common, uniform science and mathematics curriculum in schools and with doing away with the multiplicity of school boards in the country. Though there have been some initial reactions from the officials attending the meeting in which Sibal proposed this, I think the issue deserves closer scrutiny.
What Sibal is suggesting is that “we... break the walls and prepare our children for the future” and having a uniform curriculum for science and mathematics, along with doing away with a multiplicity of state boards, will presumably achieve this. Is Sibal suggesting that the current system is not preparing our children for the future? Or that a child who has studied from the Maharashtra Board, for example, is not as well prepared for the future as someone who has gone through say, the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE)? Leaving aside the fact that our founding fathers, in their wisdom, had placed education on the concurrent list, therefore giving the states the autonomy to decide on their education system, there are other substantive issues at stake here.
Of course, one can assert, as the minister has in his speech, that there is no reason for science and mathematics to be different, though subjects related to the environment etc can be different. But proof by assertion is not something which goes down well with scientific temper — we would need hard evidence that the proposed change will lead to a better system before we attempt playing with the lives of millions of secondary school students. Of course the science and mathematics that a senior secondary student should know is pretty much standard and this is determined by the nature of the discipline. Moreover, this is true not just in India but the world over. However, a uniform curriculum is something that presupposes more than this. And the devil is in the details.
There are more than 50,000 higher secondary schools in the country according to the HRD Ministry’s annual report for the year 2007-08. Anyone with a cursory familiarity with the school system will tell you that the variation in terms of quality, infrastructure, human resources etc of these schools is immense. At the level of curriculum, the science and mathematics curriculum across the various boards — and hence schools — is pretty much the same at the higher secondary level; there might be some variation but not something that impacts the overall learning of the subject by the student.
What is more important is the uneven quality of teaching that exists at the level of schools (the boards are irrelevant; as is clear, students from any state board on an average make as good engineers, doctors etc as those from any other board). And this is what the key issue is: the physics taught to a child in an elite metropolitan school (one of those where they still follow the Indian boards and have not emigrated to school-level boards from overseas) may be the same as that in a government school. However, the exposure in terms of books, the internet, qualified teachers and laboratories and libraries is a world apart. How a common curriculum, or doing away with state boards will bridge this gap is not obvious at all.
What is really required is an attempt to equip all children with the same tools and environment for them to be able to be assimilate the subjects taught. And that, instead of a common curriculum is what will truly prepare a majority of our children for the future as the minister wants. Of course, this argument, like all policy arguments essentially is about the average — the best student from a rural school is presumably quite competent to take on those from elite schools. After all, every year there are students from these schools who clear that touchstone of academic excellence in our country, the IIT-JEE (Indian Institute of Technology-Joint Entrance Examination). But raising the average standard of science and mathematics teaching across schools is what will make the difference.
The argument given by Sibal needs to be actually seen as a part of an over-all consensus that seems to be emerging among the education tsars in our country — the desirability of uniformity and homogeneity in curriculum in the broad sense. Of course, there is nothing wrong with uniformity if it leads to a better outcome for most people. But an imposition of uniformity for its own sake, without properly thinking through the consequences, especially when it comes to education, is dangerous. Hopefully, the constitutional powers given to the states will make them resist this unless and until it is thoroughly debated.
Shobhit Mahajan is Professor of Physics, University of Delhi. The views expressed by the author are personal.