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Learning difficulties

Union HRD Minister Kapil Sibal’s education reforms, particularly for schools, have electrified students, teachers and parents, writes Sagarika Ghose.

india Updated: Oct 09, 2009 10:23 IST
Sagarika Ghose
Sagarika Ghose
Hindustan Times

Union HRD Minister Kapil Sibal’s education reforms, particularly for schools, have electrified students, teachers and parents. The Class X board exam will now be optional for Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) schools, grades will be introduced instead of marks, and there will be continuous evaluation in schools. These reforms were urgently necessary and Sibal is certainly one of the UPA’s best-performing ministers.

Yet reactions have been mixed. A group of parents told me recently that Sibal’s advisers on school reforms are ‘idealistic jholawallahs’, far removed from Indian realities. Is the emphasis on ‘de-stressing’ the Indian student, ‘de-traumatising’ the education system, making a child free from the ‘pressures of competition’, an overly romantic and idealistic vision? Are children of elite schools to be pampered into believing that underachievement, indiscipline and sloth are actually signs of a child’s own ‘individual creative genius’?

Recently a member of the Central Advisory Board of Education asserted that cut-throat competition was just a small middle-class phenomenon and the majority of Indian children don’t need to be equipped to deal with competition. Is this true? A visit to a slum would show the frenzied competition for upward mobility that exists at all levels of Indian society today.

Many parents fear that Sibal’s reforms are failing to put in place systems through which children can actually rise to the challenge of rigorous assessment and competition. Instead, they’re simply lulling children, particularly the spoilt brats that attend urban CBSE schools, into purposelessness and laziness. The Class X board exam, and its certificate, may be irrelevant for the rich but is extremely important for the poor who need to leave school and seek a job. A child has the right to take a standardised test and to leave school with dignity on the basis of a competitive examination that has tested him against all his peers, irrespective of social origin.

In fact, after the decision first became known, a majority of students and parents said they wanted to take the Class X board exam, because not taking it would blunt their competitive instincts and encourage complacency. Sadly, in a country with a surfeit of talent and limited job options, we’re conditioned to think that exams are the only determinant of success. Of course this needs to change. But scrapping an exam is not going to solve the deeper crisis.

The most tragic fact of our education system is the apartheid that it embodies. There is near total segregation of rich and poor. The rich go to ‘good’ private schools and the poor have to make do with terrible government schools. It is a system that is as unjust, and as much a daily violation of democracy, as apartheid. Government schools are synonymous with bad quality and such is the distrust of their quality of education that even wage labourers will slave and sweat just in order to enroll their children in private schools. This naturally opens the field for various fly-by-night operators to reap profits by exploiting the poor’s yearning for ‘private’ education.

Sibal’s greatest challenge is to fight the apartheid, or at least minimise it. To de-segregate our education system without sacrificing quality. Making an exam optional is only an easy option, a cosmetic measure. Here are some out-of-the-box solutions for making quality education available to all.

At the centre of quality education is that rare species: the excellent, committed teacher. Sibal should create a well-paid elite service of teachers like an IAS for teachers. School teaching is simply not glamorous or well-paid enough to attract India’s best talent. There is no independent standard-setting body to regulate the quality of teachers. Without brilliant and talented teachers, education reform will come a cropper. But where will these exceptional teachers come from?

India has a vast cadre of retired government servants and professors. Why not create an All India Teacher Service that is open to every retired top civil servant or former professor or ex-serviceman, to join if he wants? Once he joins, he is given teacher training and then ‘posted’ to a district school, which he is entrusted to guide towards excellence. Why not let India’s entire retired workforce aged between 55 and 65 plunge into a second career: teaching India’s young.

Second, take forward Rajiv Gandhi’s idea of Navodaya schools or schools of excellence in tehsils and district towns. Let’s have thousands more of these schools where education is made interesting, the curriculum is imaginative and, above all, teachers are top notch.

Third, schools must be made accountable, both to their students and to the education system. Their duty should be to make sure the scholastically inclined are guided towards academic excellence, and the creatively inclined are guided towards equally rewarding non-academic careers. Every student must have the right to be tested and guided by the school. Above all, a school must not fight shy of developing talent. It’s not a virtue to be an academic non-performer — to encourage the excellent is not a crime.

Let’s not make education an arena of ideological talk where we swap idealistic platitudes like “competition is terrible” or “there is no such thing as a bright student or a dull student”. Instead, let’s rope in private players, civil servants, former servicemen, maybe even NRIs, to create a 21st century crack team of teachers, a Greyhound unit of pedagogical commandos who will roam India’s backwaters and fight the evil of mediocrity. Mr Sibal, you’ve already shown that anything is possible.

Sagarika Ghose is Senior Editor, CNN-IBN
The views expressed by the author are personal