Fulfill the promise of education: It is a national imperative

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Savitribai Phule and her husband Jyotiba ran three schools for girls in Pune in the mid-19th century. Her courage in the face of adversity showed that education is more than literacy and academics, it is potentially the most powerful force for social reform.

From the late 19th century, missionary schools spread across the country, providing a good education, sometimes combined with religious zeal. These well-organized schools were often better equipped than others and captured the imagination of rich and poor alike. Over the decades, as these schools continued to proliferate and stay thriving, the phenomenon of faux-convent schools grew, with the sole intention of exploiting parents’ hopes for their children.

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The powerful ideas of four people have shaped the deep subtext of Indian education: Rabindranath Tagore’s universalism, humanism and self-realization as the goal of education; Mahatma Gandhi’s practical educational wisdom about combining head, heart and hand to self-reliance; Bhimrao Ambedkar’s clear vision of education as the basis of true democracy, significantly influenced by his own guru, John Dewey; and Jiddu Krishnamurthy’s concept of education was essentially focused on self-liberation, harmony and wholeness, which had a profound impact on the ‘alternative schools’ movement in India.

In 1961, the National Council for Education Research and Training was founded with a vision to advance education and promote pedagogical thinking. As a result, corresponding institutions were set up in the states. The founding of Kendriya Vidyalayas (KVs) in 1963 was an excellent example of how good education can happen within the public system. Since then, various high-quality public schools have been modeled after these KVs.

The Kothari Commission produced a report in 1966 that led to the 1968 National Policy of Education, the first such comprehensive policy. The soul of this groundbreaking effort was JP Naik. In the practical architecture of the Indian educational system, there is an era before Naik and one after him.

In the early 1960s, the Tamil Nadu government started a systematic lunch program in public schools. In 1981-82, the state premier, MG Ramachandran, expanded and institutionalized it and formed the basis for our current statewide lunchtime meal program, which provides at least one decent meal for millions of children from disadvantaged families who might otherwise go hungry.

The Kerala Sastra Sahitya Parishad (KSSP) began as a citizen science movement in 1962 to promote scientific temperament and rationalism. It had a profound impact on pedagogical thinking across the country. The Kishore Bharati and Friends’ Rural Society and later other institutions such as Eklavya, together with the Madhya Pradesh State Government, developed and managed the Hoshangabad Science Teaching Program (HSTP). The HSTP has played a key role in developing the curricular and pedagogical vision of education in India. As a side effect, a large number of highly gifted people were attracted to school education. It was also a model for collaboration between public systems and civil society.

The first Saraswati Shishu Mandir was established in 1962 in Gorakhpur. As the number of these schools increased, Vidya Bharati was formed in 1977 to coordinate their growth. Over the years it has grown into what is arguably the largest private school network in the world with a genuine commitment to education and an alternative to commercial private schools, few of which have any real interest in education. In addition, these schools have played a central role in a resurgence of education informed by and empowered by ‘Hindu culture’.

Inexpensive private schools have mushroomed, most selling the promise of “monastic and English education” while delivering poor quality in every respect. Elite private schools also grew in line with the growth of India’s middle class after 1991.

The single-minded pursuit of parents and students for admission to engineering and medical schools relegated all subjects except math and science to secondary status. It has also spawned India’s insidious education industry that places less emphasis on learning and achievement in schools while entrance exams have become a major concern, effectively turning our education system into a testing system. In 1993, the National Council for Teacher Education was formed to regulate and govern teacher education, along with a set of policies that allowed rampant commercialization.

The second National Education Policy was published in 1986, which was only replaced by the third in 2020. The District Primary Education Program was initiated in 1993 to generalize primary education in 272 districts. The introduction of the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan in 2001 transformed access to schooling across India by ensuring that there was a public primary school in every residential area and a middle school nearby. In 2009, the Right to Education Act made it a fundamental right for all 6-14 year olds.

Hopefully in a quarter of a century, when independent India turns 100, we would have fulfilled the promise of education – “not quite or fully, but very substantially,” as Jawaharlal Nehru put it. If that were so, we would have attained our nation too, very significantly.

Anurag Behar is the CEO of the Azim Premji Foundation.

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