There is considerable excitement within the community of educationists, academics and social activists about the top billing education has received in the UPA government’s Common Minimum Programme (CMP). In its CMP, announced on May 28, the UPA had pledged to raise public spending on education to at least 6 percent of the GDP, impose a cess on all central taxes to "universalise access to quality basic education" and to reverse the creeping communalisation of school syllabuses of the past five years.

Given this sudden and unexpected top-level commitment to education, particularly elementary education, academics and education non-government organisations (NGOs) believe this is a good time to press their long-standing demand for a common school system (CSS). First recommended 40 years ago by the Kothari Commission on Education (1964-66) and subsequently given lip sympathy in the National Education Policies of 1986 and 1992, the proposed CSS has remained a dead letter for almost half a century.

"We are happy that the UPA coalition unlike many previous governments has made a public commitment to quality education for all children. Such purposefulness is new and a sign of changed priorities. In our letters to the drafting committee we had strongly recommended that the CMP should commit itself to a ten-year framework for developing a common school system up to high school. The rationale of CSS is self evident: to provide education of equitable quality to all children and end the canalisation of children into private, government aided and government schools on the basis of parental ability to pay and social status. Though the CMP is silent on CSS, we are encouraged by the commitment the UPA has shown to education and will continue to press our demand for implementation of a common school system in India," says Illa D. Hukku, the Bangalore-based director, development support, Child Relief and You (CRY).

Established in 1979, CRY is among the 2,400 non-government organisations which have joined hands to promote the National Alliance for the Fundamental Right to Education (NAFRE) which conceptualised and lobbied hard for the 86th Amendment to the Constitution of India unanimously approved by Parliament in November 2001. This constitutional amendment makes it mandatory for government to provide "free and compulsory education to all children of the age six to fourteen years".

With the 86th Amendment having mandated compulsory elementary education, educationists have discovered to their dismay that the constitutional amendment is silent about the type or quality of education to be provided, and that at ground zero level — in India’s 600,000 villages and multiplying slum habitats of urbania — the "free and compulsory education" being dished out to hapless children is in fact basic literacy instruction dispensed by barely qualified ‘para teachers’ in lieu of education. Therefore the constituent members of NAFRE have somewhat belatedly turned their attention to "the right to equity in education".

In August last year, NAFRE launched a public campaign demanding the implementation of a common school system in India. Ignored by the mainstream media, the campaign of NAFRE’s 2,400 member NGOs in 15 states across the country has drawn public attention to the pernicious segregation and class divide that characterises Indian education, especially its unique home-grown three/four-tier schooling system. Under this tiered system children of the rich and famous are typically enrolled in five-star English-medium schools affiliated to the upscale CBSE, CISCE and IB (International Baccalaureate) examination boards which offer globally accepted syllabuses and curriculums. Next in the pecking order are English medium government aided schools affiliated to state-level examination boards to which the children of the middle class are sent. And at the base of the education pyramid are shabby, poorly managed government/municipal schools which shove dubious quality language education down the unprotesting throats of the children of the poor majority.

Way back in 1964, the Kothari Commission on Education roundly condemned this separate, unequal school system: "…education itself is tending to increase social segregation and to perpetuate and widen class distinctions. At the primary stage, the free schools to which masses send their children are maintained by government and local authorities and are generally of poor quality. Some of the private schools are, on the whole, definitely better, but since many of them charge high fees they are availed of only by the middle and higher classes. At the secondary stage, a large proportion of the good schools are private but many of them also charge high fees which are normally beyond the means of any but the top ten percent of people, though some of the middle class parents make great sacrifices to send their children to them. There is this segregation in education itself — the minority of private fee-charging, better schools meeting the need of the upper classes and the vast bulk of free, publicly maintained, but poor schools being utilised by the rest. What is worse, this segregation is increasing and tending to widen the gulf between the classes and the masses," commented the report of the commission.

Forty years after this searing indictment of the Kothari Commission (endorsed by the National Education Policies of 1986 and 1992), little has changed. Ninety percent of the estimated 112 million children who enroll in primary school annually have no choice but to attend ill-maintained government schools staffed by unmotivated teachers, where they receive vernacular language education disqualifying them ab initio for aspiring to the best jobs and the good life in a rapidly crystallising English-dominated order. According to the Public Report on Basic Education (1999), one-fifth of government primary schools in the country are single teacher institutions without proper buildings, 58 percent don’t provide drinking water to students and over 70 percent lack toilet facilities.

This open, continuous and blatantly inegalitarian divide within the formative school system is arousing consid-erable anger and anguish within the nation’s intelligentsia. Comments Dr. A.K. Shiva Kumar, a Delhi-based consultant to UNICEF and visiting professor at Harvard University writing in the Times of India (November 11, 2003): "The widening gap between the learning opportunities available to the haves and have-nots is creating a kind of apartheid in education. The most deprived are rural, poor and socially disadvantaged communities which are increasingly marginalised and excluded from enjoying the exceptional economic resurgence taking place today. The way forward is not to restrict the expansion in choices, but to make them uniformly available to all children regardless of whether they are boys or girls, where they are born, who their parents are, where they study, or what caste they belong to. We have to develop zero tolerance for inferior education and a two-track schooling system. Even if all children are not born equal, they have the right to education of equally good quality."

The general consensus among intellectuals monitoring the nation’s socio-economic development effort is that the consistent failure to evolve an egalitarian common school system — endorsed by national policies on education in 1964, 1986 and 1992 — is lack of "political will". In effect, lack of political will is the inability of the silent majority — who by virtue of a substandard education have been condemned to a perpetual subaltern status in the English-dominated national economy — to press for equal quality education for their children.

Says Sathi Alur, a Dubai-based economist and financial advisor to the National Resource Centre for Inclusion and child rights activist: "The fundamental reason for the national failure to develop a common school system is the lack of a political constituency for education. Those who attend government schools are powerless while the rest — middle and upper classes — have no stake in them. I recall a conversation with the incumbent prime minister Dr. Manmohan Singh some time ago. He agreed with the logic of a common school system for all children but expressed helplessness without a powerful lobby being created for a CSS."

Not a few of the more perceptive social scientists ascribe the national failure to create a lobby for equal quality education for all children — which is the norm in all industrially developed countries — to a deep-rooted bias within the nation’s powerful middle class for a filtering process which offers subsidised quality education — especially higher education — to merit students while the rest of the child population is sentenced to serve as a pool of cheap, barely literate labour. "Some perceive the universalisation of elementary education as a threat to the opportunities of their own children. In their view the role of the schooling system is to act as a filtering process which picks the best and brightest and helps them to realise their potential. If too many children get on board, the prospects of those who currently enjoy the privilege of good schooling facilities will be threatened," observe the authors of PROBE.

Anil Sadagopal, the erudite dean and professor of education at Delhi University, agrees with this damning indictment of the nation’s establishment. "India’s Parliament has expressed its unambiguous commitment to the common school system three times by endorsing the NPEs (National Policy on Education) of 1968, 1986 and 1992. But yet this proposal has not been translated into practice because the political leadership and bureaucracy at all levels together with the intelligentsia have a convenient escape route for their own children viz, the private school system. This shift in commitment from the government to the private school system is the root cause of the lack of political, bureaucratic and social will to improve government schools," he says.

An ardent champion of the common school system, Sadagopal stresses that the most important feature of CSS is "equitable — not uniform — education for schools, be they government, government-aided, local body or private." "Most advanced economies including US, Canada, Britain and several European countries have been built on the foundation of a fully funded government school system providing education of equal or near-equal quality to all children. No country in the world has universalised elementary education without promoting a common school system. Therefore the lack of commitment to CSS implies that India will never be able to provide education to all children despite the rhetoric of the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyaan," says Sadagopal.

One factor which has been consistently ignored by Indian politicians, social scientists and educationists is that all developed nations of the first world including the UK and US have a very strong government funded school network which is on a par with private schools in terms of infrastructure, quality of education and testing.

For instance in Britain there are only two types of schools: government and private and all students in either stream follow a common syllabus and upon school leaving (classes X and XII) are tested by the common GSCE and ‘A’ level exams. On the other hand in India, students in private schools write the English-medium pan-India CISCE board exam; some private and all Central government-managed schools write the all-India CBSE exam, and students of state government and aided schools write the school leaving exam of state examination boards. It’s hardly disputed that the 28 state boards offer inferior infrastructure, sub-standard education and less rigorous syllabuses and examination assessment.

Though the formation of a single pan-India syllabus and examination board such as the GCSE in Britain would go a long way in establishing at least a common syllabus requiring near-equal academic inputs, this proposal is fiercely resisted by education NGOs and child rights activists. The general consensus among them is that India is a heterogeneous society and requires community-specific (read state-specific) syllabi. "Contrary to popular perception, a common school system is not synonymous with regimented, homogenised education across the country — a colonial legacy. It should guarantee equity in education and educational opportunities, not merely equal quality education. The word ‘common’ in CSS refers to state-financed quality education, not a common syllabus-setting and examination board. The school system has to leave space for expressing the wide diversity of our people through locally developed context-specific syllabuses," says Virgil D’Sami, executive director of a Chennai-based NGO Arunodhaya and convener of the Tamilnadu Alliance for Right to Education and Equity, the local chapter of NAFRE.

D’sami’s argument in favour of several community-specific syllabuses is endorsed by Lucknow-based educationist and former director of basic education in the government of Uttar Pradesh, Dr. H.P.Pandey. "Syllabuses have to reflect the variations that exist in our country. In fact education rests on the belief that the greater the variety, the better for society. The preference of schools to affiliate with all-India exam boards is for the snob value they represent and while such students may score over those from state boards in college admissions, children from state boards to equally well in competitive exams. What we need to really change is the system of evaluation to make it more reliable. This can be achieved through common training programmes for all evaluators," says Pandey.

While some opponents of a genuinely common school system with a common syllabus and school leaving examinations are driven by issues such as sub-nationalism and cultural diversity, critics of the "context specific" education system are inclined to look deeper for economically advantageous motivations. "When people reject tried and tested policies — such as the common school system in Britain with a national syllabus and school leaving exams — one should look for economic motivations. The regional particularism and professed love of regional culture which has prompted the setting up of state examination boards is essentially motivated by the compulsion of state level politicians and bureaucrats to derive rents, commissions and kickbacks from construction, teacher appointments and text book printing rackets in government schools. The educated upper and middle classes who were certain to complain about the subaltern education dispensed in government schools have been mollified by the provision of CISCE and CBSE affiliated schools. As usual the poor and powerless have to suffer the third class state government school system," says Dilip Thakore founder-editor of Business India and Business World and currently editor of Education World.

Kothari Commission recommendations

In 1964 the Central government appointed a high-powered committee under the stewardship of Dr. D.S. Kothari, then chairman of University Grants Commission (UGC) to frame a national policy which would give shape and direction to newly independent India’s school education system. The resultant Kothari Commission Report on Education (1964-66), a learned critique of Indian education, four decades later is still regarded as the most in-depth study of primary and secondary education in Indian history. The commission report inter alia advocated a common school system. According to the commission the characteristics of a common school system (CSS) are:

• Publicly funded schools open to all children irrespective of caste, creed, community, religion, economic condition or social status

• Where access to good education will depend not on wealth or class

• Adequate standards in all schools and at least a reasonable proportion of quality institutions

• No tuition fee is charged

• It meets the expectations of average parents so that they would not ordinarily feel the need to send their children to fee-charging schools outside the system

The Kothari Commission also suggested some essential reforms to implement CSS effectively. The report called for:

• Significantly increased national outlay for elementary education to build required levels of infrastructure and provide quality education, thereby transforming government, local-body and aided schools into genuine neighbourhood schools

• Allocation of special funding for improvement of school systems in backward areas, urban slums, tribal areas, hilly tracts, desert and marshy areas, drought and flood-prone zones, coastal belts and islands

• Providing free instruction for all in the mother tongue at the primary level, particularly for linguistic minorities; active encouragement of teaching in regional languages at the secondary level and discontinuance of state aid to schools imparting education other than in the medium of mother tongue/ regional language

• Phased implementation of the common school system within a ten year time frame, and essential minimum legislation, particularly to dispense with early selection processes, tuition fees, capitation fees etc

• Exploring ways of including expensive private schools into the common school system through combinations of incentives, disincentives and legislation

Source: NAFRE

Even if belatedly, there is growing awareness of the division of the school system into first and subaltern classes followed by a rising tide of public indignation. This is evidenced by the massive support NAFRE’s ‘Perspective paper on common school system’ has received. Presented at the launch of the CSS campaign in August last year, this concept paper circulated among educationists, social activists, teachers and the public for debate, has resulted in a well argued blueprint for implementing a common school system based on the recommendations of the Kothari Commission (see box p.52). At the centre of this implementation strategy is rapid upgradation of state and local government schools to meet minimum physical infrastructure and academic quality standards to transform them into "genuine quality neighbourhood schools."

"A common school system requires every neighbourhood to have access to a good government school equipped with all the facilities available in private schools — qualified teachers, infrastructure and quality education. If children from rich and poor households attend the same school, its management and teachers would be accountable, as at least the rich will be a pressure group for quality education. Such institutional upgradation will result in an overnight transformation of government schools. I don’t believe it’s anybody’s case to downgrade private, so-called elite schools. The proposal is to upgrade corporation and government schools to the highest level to engineer a social transformation," says V. Vasanthi Devi, former vice-chancellor of Gandhigram Rural University and Manonmaniam University and currently chairman of the Tamilnadu State Commission for Women.

Nor are the resources required to upgrade government schools to an acceptable level mountainous. The Tapas Majumdar Committee, constituted in 1999 observed that if an additional outlay equivalent to only 0.7 percent of GDP is allocated to education every year, the government will be able to provide education of satisfactory quality to all children in the six-14 age group within ten years.

But while NAFRE’s all-India CSS campaign has undoubtedly helped to create public awareness about the inequities that exist within the Indian school system, it has also come under heavy criticism from education observers and liberal intellectuals for its ‘utopian definition’ of CSS as also for some of its recommendations such as the government takeover of private schools to integrate them with the common school system, and insistence of the child’s mother tongue as the medium of instruction in primary school. In the common school system recommended by NAFRE, (which, it bears reiteration, has the support of 2,400 NGOs across the country) there will be no private schools; the entire school education network will be controlled, financed and managed by the Central and state governments. This proposed incremental role in education of government which since independence has been responsible for the pathetic condition of India’s 700,000 government schools, will intensify licence-permit-quota-raj and multiply opportunities for corruption and politicisation of education, say critics of the NAFRE common school system blueprint.

Common school system hurdles

The Kothari Commission’s recommendation of a common school system (CSS) across the country was endorsed by the National Education Policies of 1986 and 1992. However the recommendation has never translated into action. In 1990, the apex Central Advisory Board on Education (CABE), which appraises the extent to which the National Education Policy is implemented by the Central and state governments and other agencies appointed a committee to review NEP 1986. The CABE constituted Acharya Ramamurti Committee in its analysis, outlined the following reasons for the common school system proposal not having made headway:

• Economic and social disparities; the well-to-do communities send their children to schools with better infrastructure, teachers and teaching standards; ordinary schools are not sought after and in turn this results in low investment in them.

• The constitutional protection given to minorities to establish and administer their own educational institutions is incompatible with a common school system

• In government schools, the quality of education dispensed has remained poor

• Lack of political will

• Public schools, privately managed English medium schools, schools charging capitation fees and those offering expensive coaching have proliferated

• Proliferation of exclusive Sainik schools and Kendriya/ Navodaya Vidyalayas in the government schools sector

Source: Perspective Paper on Common School System prepared by NAFRE

"I’m resolutely against a common school system because I believe it will be far worse than the existing system. If implemented it will encourage schools to operate as instruments of the state and authorise bureaucrats to determine education policies and parents’ choice. This is a retrogressive proposal. In the proposed CSS there won’t be any private schools, so it will snatch away the right of parents to decide the choice of school for their children. In my opinion government should simply get out of the business of running education and leave it to forward-thinking progressive individuals, trusts, NGOs, etc. The CSS will create more centralisation of authority and anybody with a bit of sense would oppose it, as it would vest powers in the hands of a few and nourish corruption," says Dr. Parth J. Shah, a former professor of economics at the University of Michigan and currently president of the Delhi-based NGO think tank Centre for Civil Liberties.

According to Shah, developed countries such as the USA which have been built on the foundation of efficient public-funded school education systems are gravitating towards a charter system where the state funds only a part of student fees. "Rather than a common school system we too should opt for a voucher system under which the state can issue vouchers of varying denominations to all students. The local community could determine school fees payable by vouchers and cash. Under such a scheme, a villager would be entitled to low denomination vouchers whereas those living in expensive metros would receive higher denomination vouchers as the cost of living is higher in urban areas. This is the ideal system for India," says Shah.

Given the continuously low priority given to elementary education by the Planning Commission and the Indian establishment in general, a US-style voucher scheme is likely to prove too ambitious. The Central and state government are hard put to mobilise 4 percent of GDP for education and only half of the Rs.9,800 crore committed by the Centre has been allocated to fund the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyaan (Education for All between six-14 years of age) initiative. Moreover to meet SSA targets, perennially deficit-running Central and state governments have begun trading off quality to attain quantitative targets. Disturbing evidence of promotion of non-formal education centres and appointment of para teachers under SSA indicates a further dumbing down of already sub-standard education provided by government schools to the children of the under-privileged.

That’s why perceptive social scientists (such as Parth Shah) believe that the NAFRE concept paper is a levelling-down blueprint when the requirement is to raise infrastructure, teaching and learning standards in government schools in particular, upward. They are well aware that contemporary India boasts an estimated 10,000 independent schools providing globally accepted primary and secondary education. These independent schools constitute a valuable national resource and educationists warn of the dangers of a common school system which would level their academic standards downwards.

Comments Madhav Chavan, the Mumbai-based director of Pratham, an NGO which since its promotion in 1994 has educated over one million children through its pre-school, in-school and out-of-school programmes: "Currently we have a four-five tiered system of government, government-aided, slum and shanty private schools, private schools affordable by the middle class and super private schools plus the unique Jawahar Navodaya Vidyalaya schools. Breaking this system down will result in chaos. However it is possible to devise a long-range plan to upgrade and improve government schools and eliminate at least three of the five tiers over a decade. As parents witness improved infrastructure and academic standards in government schools, the demand for admission into private, independent schools will decrease. I believe this is a possible and positive methodology to build an equitable school education network. On the other hand demolishing the existing system without having devised a provenly better one will result in chaos and confusion."

Refreshingly, even as a national consensus on the need for a common school system — in effect a consensus on upgrading pathetic government school standards — is gathering steam, the newly elected Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government at the centre is exhibiting new resolve to attain the Education For All ideal. The coalition government’s CMP (common minimum programme) promises to double national expenditure on education to 6 percent of GDP within the next five years and specifically makes a commitment to providing access to "quality basic education" to all child citizens.

With 59 million children out-of-school and another 90 million in school learning very little, the common school system is not a utopian ideal dug out from the archives of the Kothari Commission, but an imperative that will decide India’s place in the comity of nations.