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Introspecting Public Education in India

The opinions expressed are that of EdJustice’s volunteer Arjun Kumar Singh.

“We believe in the importance of public education, public information as a vehicle for change. Speaking to a class of 30 may seem to be of little consequence compared to the issues we’re dealing with, but it has a sphere of influence beyond that.”- Phil Fontaine

Public education, in a broad sense, is a system of schools that are funded from the government treasury and are managed by the state itself. However, the adequacy of this notion falls short when it is viewed through the lens of today’s circumstances. Dissatisfaction with public education is rife and the state, who, under immense fiscal pressure, has a predilection towards adopting convenient market solutions that emanate from the private sector, further exacerbating the situation of public education in the country. Perhaps therefore, middle class onwards part of the society had completely forsook the public schools. Naturally, this reduced the burden on the state to increase the quality of public education as an important and influential stakeholder was now eliminated from the equation.

This necessitates us to find the meaning of ‘Public’ in ‘Public Education.’ Anurag Behar of Azim Premji University, highlights two important components- ‘for whom’ and ‘for what’. He believes that at a structural level, it involves being equally available for all. Further, it involves furthering public good through education. This forms the basis of the value proposition offered by the brand ‘Government School.’ Our democratic state has been founded on the pursuit of justice, liberty, equality and fraternity so, the question must be raised whether an infernal deviation has been made from the principles that our preamble has given us, for the creation of an equitable and just society.

Historically speaking, Indian education system has been obnoxiously elitist. From the Brahman hegemony to the European monopoly, the country has experienced an education system working to preserve the dominant position of the privileged classes in society. Today, impressive strides may have been made to eliminate social inequalities yet, economic inequalities are still rampant. India attempts to portray herself as a global leader in the 21st century yet, the abysmal quality of education system portrays an antipodal image. A 2013 report by a non-profit, Pratham, entitled ‘The Annual Status of Education’ (ASER) has reported that the proportion of all children in Class 5 who can read a Class 2 level text has declined by almost 15 percentage since 2005! More shockingly, the portion of students in Class 8 who can do divisions has declined by almost 23 percentage points during the same period. There are several other reports by national and international agencies that have invariably stressed upon the need to improve the quality of education in India, which have continuously ignored by several governments. This has proven, and continues to be, a major encumbrance in the growth of the nation.

The three pillars of any educational system are quality, equity and access. While the latter two has been largely taken care by efforts like Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan and the Right to Education Act, quality of education remains appalling. As per AESR 2016 survey, one in two Indian students can’t read books meant for three classes below. As per the MHRD, in 2016 there was a shortage of more than 5 lakh teachers in elementary schools and 14% of government secondary schools failed to meet the prescribed norm of having a minimum of six teachers. It seems that the education system in our country has been in perpetual lockdown since centuries!

Several causes of the poor performance of public education has been identified by several organisations and research bodies. These causes range from non-availability of teaching staff, where teachers are present their quality is ludicrous, bureaucratic inefficiencies, shift of middle class towards private education, low budget allocation for education and so on. Several traditional and innovative solutions have been offered as well over the years. Some experts emphasise about government pro-activeness, while others talk about public-private partnership in the education system as done in England. Most of these factors are beyond an ordinary citizen’s influence, but what we all can do is fulfill our ‘Individual Social Responsibility’. This entails the realisation of a social responsibility to improve the society in one’s own personal capacity.

EdJustice People’s Campaign is one such effort and is founded on the idea of ‘education justice’. For when a child secures education justice, he/she is empowered enough to secure all justice in life. This article is not meant to serve as a panacea, but simply to serve as an attempt to veer public discourse on the quality of education system in India.

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