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DateLine Saturday, 16 June 2007

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Government Gazette

The business of education

EDUCATION: Poor parents see education as an indispensable asset and are willing to make enormous sacrifices to educate their children.

But the government has let down the poor in spite of the Constitutional guarantee of right to education. Its supplies have not corresponded with the explosive demand for education today.

For example, with emphasis given on primary schools alone poor children were not absorbed into the net of government schools after completing Class 5. This made them reluctantly abandon government schools.

Although the numbers of private schools and the children attending them are still small (estimated at about 20 per cent), more and more children are leaving government schools for private schools.

A large variety of private schools have thus emerged to respond to the parental demand for education.

Thus, on the one hand there are the inefficient and wasteful government schools struggling for resources, and on the other are the fee-charging one-room English medium private schools with untrained schoolteachers. And at the other end of the spectrum are the air-conditioned corporate schools.

Private schools, guided by the logic of the market, have begun to sell their wares “to each according to one’s ability.” This mushrooming of private schools has a profound impact on society as it produces class inequality, fractured society, freezes upward mobility thus causing divisiveness and disharmony.

This is contrary to the function that schools have always performed - harmonising societies and bridging the gaps among its citizens and fostering equality.

The trend of poor children accessing private schools has generated a public discourse that argues that private schools are good as against government schools which are becoming increasingly unaccountable and incurable.

The rise in the number of poor children being sent to private schools is given as evidence that private schools are sought after by the poor.

An undercurrent of cynicism about government schools is slowly getting solidified, leading to policy suggestions such as giving parents vouchers so that they can choose the schools they want their children to study in, instead of attending a non-functioning government school.

This is further justified by making a virtue of competition wherein, in order to survive, government schools would be compelled to perform and become accountable.

Parallels are drawn from the telecom and airlines industries to show how efficiency was infused in these public sector institutions once they were threatened by the opening up of the sector to more competent players.

It has been argued that government schools too have to face the jolt from private players, to make them accountable.

The assumptions that inform such arguments are seldom available for scrutiny, and thus their veracity has not been questioned. It must be considered that sending their children to private schools is not the first option for poor parents as they have to make immense sacrifices to pay the school fees and other charges.

The outcome of the debate that private schools are viable because parents are seeking them as against government schools has far reaching consequences for the state and its role in protecting child rights. More than anything else the entire debate functions to systematically augment the de-legitimisation of government schools.

Most private schools in the country today have emerged as commercial ventures, small or big, successful or limping.

This scenario is vastly different from the private schools which had earlier emerged to serve the educational needs of children and were non-profit organisations and charitable trusts that depended on state aid.

Now, in a market framework, services are offered to those children who can buy education. Like any other product, it is now packaged, and comes with children in proper school uniform, English medium education, competition and home-work, discipline of learning, and if better endowed, with picnics, computers and state of the art technology. In their urge to acquire the “brand,” clients begin to spend more than what they can afford, just as consumers of any other commodity.

Encouraging private schools as commercial enterprises compromises the principle of universality, for it offers services only to those who can pay. Thus the deprived and the marginalised are automatically out of its net.

If left unregulated, the higher end suppliers would foster further exclusion and reinforce class differentiation. The rich and the poor will never meet. This will inadvertently operate as a system of hidden apartheid.

In a situation where children attend the schools in their locality, and when equal standards are maintained in all schools in all neighbourhoods, it creates citizenship, not consumers.

The children are thus able to transcend their immediate environs and locate themselves in the context of a reality which is informed by a sense of larger society and its complex milieu.

Thus, the first step towards bridging the gap is actually taken in schools that provide access to all in the neighbourhood, without spelling out preferences of any kind. So children aspire for a similar kind of learning regardless of their class or cultural background.

The essential principle that guides state schools is inclusion as it cannot deny any child its right to participate in the school on any ground.

But when structures are created to exclude children, the solution is in reforming the system, rethinking the policies on education, making greater investments, embedded in a legal and normative framework as enshrined in the Constitution of India and taking forward the mission of schools for an inclusive democracy.

In this sense education is a great levelling process and a prerequisite for creating citizens.

All of us have to ensure that our children’s right to education is guaranteed. All institutions must agree that they have a role to play in this and the battle is in arriving at this agreement and commitment for the children.

This will require firmly wading through the logic of market and profitability that has unfortunately seeped into education. This is not an easy task. But the debate must go on and capture everybody’s imagination for universalising education in India.

Education being a public good must nurture and enhance the principles of inclusion, non-discrimination, equity and justice. It cannot be a commodity for sale to those who can afford it. It must be an entitlement and a right that is guaranteed by the state.

The writer is the chairperson, National Commission for Protection of Child Rights

Courtesy-Asian Age


Gamin Gamata - Presidential Community & Welfare Service

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