A good school is a national asset of the highest value at any place or any time. Schools are the laboratories which produce the future citizens of a state. The quality of the state therefore depends upon the quality of such laboratories. ~  Maulana Abul Kalam Azad

The recent Union budget’s allocation for education is totally disappointing. A sum of Rs 39,466 crore has been earmarked, against Rs 38,317 crore last year. The nominal increase of Rs 1000 crore for the vast population of young learners is not adequate to meaningfully implement the Right to Education (RTE) Act. The marginal 3 percentage point hike is indeed ludicrous, much less than the rate of inflation. The amount of allocation per student will almost certainly decrease in the days to come, considering the burgeoning population.

The allocation for education is also less in comparison to the proportion of the nation’s GDP. The scenario is extremely unfortunate, and runs counter to the Finance minister’s assurance, let alone the long march towards a knowledge economy, development of skills and digital India. It would have been prudent to allocate more funds for the reform of elementary education which is now in a sordid state, notably the decrepit infrastructure. There are many primary schools in rural and backward areas without blackboards and and pure drinking water. There seems to be a propensity both in rural and urban areas to focus on private schools that provide English medium instruction, rather than government aided institutions.

There is practically little or no reference in the budget for qualitative improvement of primary and secondary education with a holistic approach, including training of teachers. As a matter of fact, in order to strengthen the quality of education, the training of teachers in modern pedagogy is absolutely imperative. The hundred percent foreign direct investments (FDI) in education as proposed is rather disingenuous for the improvement of education. Many of the offshore campuses, anxious to set up shop in India are not the best abroad and suffer from limitations too. The budgetary outlay on education might impede the search of learning by the poor and meritorious students and may even endanger the success of the Right to Education (RTE) Act. Educationists have made earnest efforts to impart meaningful education by setting up more schools.

There was a time in our country, when schools were regarded as temples of learning. The poorly paid teachers were considered to be backbone of society. They were respected and honoured. Good teachers were well organised, firm and fair with a sense of humour. The children now are trapped in a vast network of schools. The environment of schools with its strict discipline, rules and regulations and the cognitive demand are remarkable. Personal relationship between the teacher and taught is important and conducive to the teaching-learning process. The situation has undergone enormous changes in the last decades. Barring few exceptions, most of the schools are a prison-house with a vast curriculum. This is testified by the size and weight of the school bags. The child’s daily routine is another dimension of the problem of joyless learning with permits no time for play. Education always implies learning.

Many educationists are concerned over the wider societal context and the nature of the subjects taught. The inclusion of broadbased psychological issues such as intelligence, motivation, emotion, thought and concepts has often posed an intricate problem. School education, particularly at the elementary level, is in a sordid state. Despite recommendations for the improvement of quality by several commissions since Independence, little improvement has so far been achieved. Both governments at the Centre and at the state level are incurring substantial expenditure on qualitative improvement and proliferation of elementary education but with little success. Recommendations on lightening the burden of the school curriculum have turned out to be a hoax. transpire to be a hoax in the present scenario. Several decades ago, Prof J P Naik wrote that his secretary had virtually collapsed under the weight of the education committee’s report. He had to be rushed to hospital.

Despite recommendations for the improvement of quality by several commissions before and after Independence, (like Sadler’s, J P Naik, Mudaliar, Radhakrishnan, Kothari etc) little improvement of the situation has so far been achieved. Somehow the crisis was addressed at that point of time. Nearly 65 years have passed since then. Today the system of elementary education in our country has virtually collapsed. The elementary education policy and its pattern in our country changes from time to time without much difference. In fact, the basic education (buniadi siksha) formulated by Mahatma Gandhi to bring about critical changes in the primary stage in the pre-independence period was remarkable and challenging. Cooperation, harmony rather than competition was given due importance in buniadi siksha for the overall development of the body, mind and soul of the child. Community programmes, games, the dignity of labour, work education, creativity and imagination, enhance psychological attitudes and develop the personality of the child. This is integral to basic education. The launching of literacy programme, universalisaiton of elementary education, Sarba Siksha Abhiyan, collaboration with Unesco, Unicef and other international bodies like DFID have so far yielded little progress.

NCERT’s sincere efforts are commendable, but we must admit that it has achieved only partial success with many limitations. The role of SCERT is many states including West Bengal, is poor and dismal, and needs thorough evaluation and re-examination. It transpires that implementation of public education by means of compulsory schooling is incompatible with its social, economical and pedagogical legitimacy. The gradual polarisation of a large number of substandard schools and the limited number of good schools plunge millions of children into darkness and despair every day. This necessitates a justifiable social demand to restructure the school system. In view of the rapid expansion of Information Technology, invention of sophisticated gadgets, including computer aided learning materials, the traditional lecture method of chalk and blackboard has lost its real significance and are considered obsolete. The knowledge explosion and its assimilation by the young through lectures need to be transformed and revamped. This will rekindle the imagination of the child in a pragmatic manner.

(The writer, a former Reader in Chemistry at Presidency College, Kolkata, was associated with UGC and UNICEF)

(To be concluded)