The national priority for the investment of public funds must be teacher training and school education. This will ensure highest level of returns. Let the country realise this goal
Education systems across democracies promise equality of opportunity, access and success to every child. This raises high hopes and kindles bundles of aspirations, particularly among the weaker sections of society, who have waited for generations for better and dignified human existence. Towards this, to begin with, the first requirement is to create a Common School System (CSS). It means no child can be denied admission by any school in the neighbourhood, irrespective of his/her social or economic background. The next step is to ensure individual attention to every child, ascertain his/her interests and ensure that his/her creativity and curiosity are not hindered. In simple terms, it requires an inviting learning environment, competent, committed and performing teachers, and a right teacher-taught ratio.
India’s public education system could not prevent the decline of credibility and acceptability of ‘sarkari schools’ as the essential spirit of CSS was just ignored. Prominently included in the National Policy on Education (NPE) 1968, CSS did find a place in the subsequent policies of 1986 and 1992, but the system continuously drifted away from honestly implementing it. Post-independence, the experience in Indian educational initiatives and expansion has clearly established that the elite-dominated system of governance — even in the presence of political masters — invariably succeeds in preserving their interests. This unstated endeavour and attitude resulted in severe decline of public-funded schools, unprecedented mushrooming of private schools and rise in demand for “good quality schools”, which became synonymous with high-fee charging schools. Government schools are now patronised only by those, who have no other alternative. This either because of their meagre economic resources or non-availability of a private school nearby. A feeble attempt was made with the enactment of the Right to Education Act, 2009, to reserve 25 per cent seats in initial classes for children of weaker sections. But a majority of schools found “strategies” to hoodwink it. After the first batch of children admitted under this category in 2010 completed Class VIII, schools asked them to pay regular school fees or get lost. Such an obvious concern was ignored by our policy-makers. The psychological and emotional damage inflicted on the learner and his family would be anything but devastating in such cases. This clearly indicates the callous attitude and also prevalent ignorance within the education system on finer and subtle aspects of learning. Is it not amazing, if not agonising, that children of most functionaries responsible for school education policies and its implementation prefer to enroll in private schools only?
Around 60-65 per cent of the school-going children still study in sarkari schools, which are invariably deficient on infrastructure, teachers, learning materials and even in basic professional requirements. Expectedly, most of the surveys and studies on learning outcomes indicate not only low learner attainments but also consistent annual decline. This is indeed worrisome. In spite of such a large chunk of school-going children completing their schooling under deficient conditions and sever impediments — and only a small proportion of them getting a place in higher education institutions — the educated youth of India are among the most sought-after in the developed countries.
They are offered really challenging assignments and invariably come out with flying colours, bringing prestige and praise to the motherland. However, there is a dimmer picture within the country. Graduates of highly coveted higher education courses of technical and management education are found deficient in their readiness to accept job responsibility in the job market and the proportion may indeed be alarming — up to 80. What a wastage of young manpower in an era where India is supposed to be in the “golden period of demographic dividend”, solely because of its young manpower. Around 50 per cent of India’s population is below 25 years of age and 65 per cent below 35 years. What a great chance to make India’s presence felt globally through its young ones. The basic responsibility is to offer good quality school education and ensure dynamism and comparability in higher education. Once access and participation in education is ensured with basic professional and infrastructural inputs, the issue of nurturing individual talented deserves attention. One can recall several Indian initiatives on this count, two of which deserve special mention: The introduction the Science Talent Search — NTS — scheme in the 1960s and the opening of Navodaya Vidyalayas in pursuance of the 1986 Education policy. The NTS was later transformed to include social sciences as well and Navodaya Vidyalayas have indeed provided great opportunity to the talented children from rural India. I have personally found lasting motivation among NTS scholars and the alumni of Navodaya Vidyalayas. This in itself is a great achievement. Numbers catered to by these initiatives need to increase and it is encouraging that the same is under consideration by the authorities.
It will be relevant to recall a model of talent nurturing that was being successfully implemented on large-scale in the erstwhile USSR. The essence of it can still be suitably digested and gainfully utilised. A three-member delegation of the Government visited several schools over there in 1982. The objective was to study the school education system that flourished under conditions vastly different from India. It was particularly indicated to the delegation that it would be interesting to find out how they are nurturing talent, dealing with gifted children and the issue of a common language. Those were the days of a bipolar world and terms like ‘Iron’ curtain were in considerable usage. In every meeting, the hosts spoke only Russian; translations were the only means of interacting during official meetings. However, during dinners and receptions, they spoke chaste English without any hesitation. When — and it happened on several occasions — the delegation tried to understand how Russian language was being accepted in federation units that had their own languages, the answer was short, crisp and precise: Everyone learns Russian voluntarily. The discussion on language never proceeded beyond this. However, there was much more to learn that could be examined gainfully in Indian conditions.
One morning, the schedule included visit to a music school and a physics school. The delegation was told that the most important task of the teachers in every school is to observe the students, find out their inclinations and interests, keep a record and once they find consistency, encourage the child to go ahead and see the progress. There may be a change of interest area, something else may fascinate the child and that should be permissible. The idea behind the approach was that USSR needed not only scientists, engineers and technocrats but also painters, poets, scholars, musicians, folklore specialists and the like. Teachers must be trusted to ascertain the right path of passage to excellence in each individual case. Once this was done, the school would send a report to the regional level; the child in all probability would be picked up by the State and shifted to a residential school. Here, he would study all the curricula as in other schools but there would be big plus in his area of his identified interest — be it music, physics, history, literature or sports. These special schools were located after thoughtful consideration of locally available expertise. A physics school would be located in a town that has university department, research laboratory and other establishment connected with research and innovations in physics and related area. Same would apply to other disciplines. In the music school, eminent masters were voluntarily helping children move ahead of the regular curricular prescriptions.
The most significant challenge before the Indian education policy-makers and implementers can be summarized crisply as providing “equality of opportunity of access and success and nurturing the talented”, as said by John W Gardner in his book, Excellence: Can We be Equal and Excellent Too? Though Gardner wrote these lines in the context of the US around 1984, the relevance of some of his observations remains universally relevant even in current times: “Diagnosis of an individual’s future capacity to perform remains a hazardous undertaking. There are mysteries in individual development that are far from understanding. No stone should be left unturned to ensure that decisions are based on a wide range of evidence, carefully gathered and sifted.”
For sure, in India, marks obtained in the board examination are certainly no guarantee of total personality development and specialised talent. However, talent identification and fulsome personality development have to be a continuous process that must begin from the early stages. It should include traits of personality development, value internalisation and character formation as an integral part of the process. The topmost national priority for the investment of public funds must be teacher training and school education. This will ensure highest level of returns. Let the country realise it. Simultaneously, no let up in locating and nurturing talent is a must. In Indian psyche, commercialisation of education is unacceptable and must be discouraged effectively. Education is still the only ray of hope for the weaker sections.
(The writer is the Indian Representative on the Executive Board of UNESCO)