Far-reaching changes are sweeping across the education sector, perhaps in tune with the fact that we live in a 'knowledge society'. The impact of these changes is not, however, of a uniform nature. Some sections have embraced these changes, some remain impervious to them and some actively resist them. What has been the response of India's public schools — the desi equivalent of the Etons and Harrows — to these changes?
First of all, let us clearly define what is meant by public schools. This is vital, as there are any number of schools today masquerading as the genuine article. The Indian Public School Society, the umbrella organisation to which all genuine public schools belong, has laid down some clear-cut criteria. Among these are 1) a public school cannot be run for profit, 2) it must be totally residential, 3) it must be secular, 4) it must foster a holistic education, 5) it must have an appropriate infrastructure and a host of other conditions. It becomes clear from this definition that a large number of 'pretenders' do not qualify.
How have the ones that make the grade responded to what is happening around them? We all know the position of pre-eminence that they once enjoyed. Where do they stand now?
The fact is that these schools are being buffeted by a wave of challenges. The first of these is of a universal nature inasmuch as it has affected the education sector. And that is, a serious paucity of good teachers. But the problem is vastly more accentuated in the case of public schools for a host of reasons: their geographical isolation, sometimes the inability to pay as much as the more affluent schools in the metros, the lack of access for the teachers to a tuition market, the crying shortage of men in the profession which has hit the boys' schools particularly hard, the inability to tap the huge pool of talented ladies (such as corporate wives) which the metro schools are able to do, are some of the factors that have made the catchment area for public schools much smaller in a profession which is already thin on the ground. This naturally impacts the quality of education that they are able to deliver.
The other area of challenge is the quality of students. Whatever the sceptics may say, India is a country on the move. There are many opportunities to be had, and there is a multitude of young people anxious to grab them. NGO-run schools, Kendriya Vidyalayas and government schools are full of extremely bright, motivated young students who are hungry for success. Unfortunately, the clientele of public schools tends to come from a section of our society, which having achieved the affluence and status it desires, has lost the hunger for success. Often, these students attend the school to acquire the 'trademark' or perpetuate the family tradition. Moreover, education tends to be viewed as a consumer product: 'I pay and therefore I must get.'
There is also very little respect and understanding for the values that the school tries to inculcate through its rules and regulations. The result is mediocrity. No wonder, then, that the percentage of public school products excelling in competitive examinations is abysmally low. There are other factors, of course, but this lack of an appetite for success plays a huge role. It is the same in the sporting arena. How many public school products adorn our national teams?
One of the greatest banes of the public school system is that it is steeped in hierarchy. The 'senior-junior' pecking order is an integral part of the ethos and culture of public schools and when taken to an extreme, can result in bullying of a most horrific kind. It is well known that fear stunts growth, even if die-hards insist that 'bullying makes a man out of you'. It would be interesting to conduct a study to see how much promise and talent falls by the wayside in these schools because of the fear factor.
A combination of mediocre teachers and cynical, sometimes smug students, makes the teaching-learning process rather pedantic and outmoded. Of course there are exceptions but they tend to be few. No wonder then that a public school product will be left far behind in the competitive world outside the four walls of the school. The 'Super 30' is symptomatic of this change.
Management is yet another issue. Like the rest of the country, management of education is left largely to non-educationists. So while in certain parts of the sector we have liquor-mafias and the like managing education, it is mainly the 'old-tie mafia' in public schools. The lack of professionalism in this area has far-reaching implications.
Such a state of affairs is indeed a big loss for the country. Public schools were conceived as cradles of leadership for the nation. For a long time, they fulfilled this need admirably. But they started wilting once the environment became competitive. To allow them to fade away would be a cruel travesty. In a fast-changing world, traditions and values can be huge anchors and public schools — with their combination of tradition and value structure — can respond to the new challenges and play a vital role in nation building. But they must wake up before it is too late.
Dev Lahiri is a retired public school principal. The views expressed by the author are personal.