Why do we want Universalisation of Elementary Education?

Rohit Dhankar

As a nation India is committed to universalisation of elementary education[1] (EE), at the least on paper, even if the action encourages scepticism about this commitment. There is also a push to extend this commitment to secondary[2] level. There is an act called “The Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009”, in short RTE Act, to guarantee universalisation of quality education. There is a national consensus on this, stamped by the parliament.

We might feel comfortable about this national consensus and may think the matter settled. But there are debates on ways of achieving universalisation of EE, on whether the private schools should be forced to admit 25% at fee decided by the government, on what constitutes quality, whether no-examination and no detention is a good policy, what continuous and comprehensive evaluation (CCE) happens to be, and so on. We are trying to construct generally acceptable answers to these and a host of other such questions. In this context I want to pose a few old and baring questions yet again. First of them being: why do we want universalisation of elementary education?

This issue is considered debated enough and settled finally, which means we have a generally acceptable and accepted answer to it. That might be true. The policy makers and administrators might have an answer to this, the educationalists and university professors also might have an answer to this. But one wonder if every worker in education does. Does the community worker trying to mobilize local support for school improvement have an adequate answer to this question? Do the teachers have such an answer? Do most of the teacher educators have one? If they all do, are their answers coherent with each other? I am not sure.

Usually the kinds of answers we provide for the basic questions have a great influence on the further questions we raise and on their acceptable answers. There is good reason to believe that the kind of answer we construct and accept for “Why UEE?” will influence all our further questions like whether 25% quota should be mandatory, whether no detention policy is good, how do we define quality of education and so on. If all his be acceptable, the question “Why do we want universalisation of elementary education?” seems to be worth engaging with.

Therefore, I request those who happen to read this post to give their answers to this question in comments or any other way they like. I also request to please keep your answers within 1000 word and out of those 1000 do not in quotations more than 250 words.

So, why do we want universalisation of elementary education?


11th August 2013

[1] Elementary Education means education for eight years, officially defined as from 6 to 14 years of age; in common parlance education up to 8th grade.

[2] Secondary Education is supposed to be from 9th year to 12th year of schooling; or 9th grade to 12th grade. 9th and 10th grades are referred to as lower secondary and 10th and 11th as higher secondary.

12 Responses to Why do we want Universalisation of Elementary Education?

  1. When I ask the question “Why do I want ‘something’ ? , the answer usually lies in the purpose of that ‘something’. In this case as a society the question – Why do we want all our children to be educated, in my opinion lies in understanding the aims of education. So first we must answer the question – What are our aims of education ? The National Curriculum Framework 2005 (NCF 2005) describes the aims of education as

    Nurturing a democratic identity, being able to actively participate in the democratic processes, contribute to the society, being committed to democracy and the values of equality, justices and freedom , to be independently think and act as an individual and as a collective based on the democratic values imbibed

    The importance of making children aware and sensitive to their environment, how to preserve it and the understand the damage that is being caused to it.

    Creating an environment where children learn to accept different cultures, hence being sensitive and respectful of other’s feelings and coexist peacefully in a multicultural society such as ours;allowing all cultures to prosper equitably.

    Enable the child to participate in productive work in society thereby contributing to its economic growth.

    Say we do agree with these broad aims, that it benefits the development of society as a whole. One now needs to ask the next question are these aims met only through school education. Most likely not, any or all of these aims are and can be met through a variety of means within communities/families.

    So it brings us back to the question, then why do we need to make education compulsory, a right by law or universal ? This is because our society is highly unequal. On the one hand, majority of the communities are marginalised and the resources and access they have to enable all of the aims to be realised is not available to them. On the other hand, the minority who do have the resources and power may not necessarily want to fulfil some or all these aims. Hence the belief that making education compulsory and providing ‘quality’ education that is equal for every child will enable fulfilling these aims for every child.


  2. Aruna says:

    Why do we want Universalisation of Elementary Education?
    The answer to this question has to follow the answers to following questions: What is education? What is its need for individuals to live in a society? How does the society negotiate the meaning/s of this term called education? at a formal level how does education take place in a culturally and socio politically heterogeneous society like ours? Now answers to these questions are well debated, discussed in academic arena , but seem to be rather oversimplified in everyday discourse by individuals as mentioned in the theme question.
    Now if we analyse the phrase ‘Universalisation of Elementary Education’ it suggests that education is something like a public good which can be distributed or spread geographically to places of remoteness or to individuals suffering from depravity of this good which is of great necessity for survival, co-existence and off course overall growth and development. The government recognizes the means of this universalisation through increasing the numbers of primary schools, by facilitating enrollment of children in schools through deliberations and by devising measures to help children remain in schools through provisions of basic necessities and food. So it can be derived from these facts that the socio political system of our nation recognizes that the young children of the nation have to be brought out of their homes into places called schools where there are deliberations to be made in order to make these children able to do something which is not a routine affair for them like reading text, writing, computing and many non routine things. This is an oversimplified analysis of EE. This is because there is no official or debatable effort by the government of India to understand the meanings of term Education apart from an overwhelming document of NCF 2005. Even if there are various policy level guidelines, and efforts to improvise quality of education through proper conceptualization there is certain incoherence within those directly involved in the implementation of these policies namely teachers and teacher educators and more than that in the administrators of educational institutions, schools etc.And to do away with these incoherent understandings the law of land needs to stipulate certain minimal level of mandates. Coming back to the question of “why do we need UEE” here who are “we”? If “we” implies society as a whole rather than individuals of varied socio economies then the answer lies in the way “we” accept the meanings of deliberative, modern and liberating education, and if it (education) does good to the society then it is extremely necessary. So if there is any way to come to a conclusion that education does bring overall well being then this way/s needs to be found out, but it may also be an obsolete endeavor. I think we can rely on evidences from the history that education has indeed done good for human beings, but there are certain divergences, wrong doings which need to be corrected while accepting the meanings of education and hence its implementation for all; though not in a similar manner but most suitably for different individuals and that is more complicated thing to do. As pointed out by Bindu, we can look back to well accepted Aims of Education and how we can meet fulfill these aims secondly there is no substitute for formal, modern institutions to undertake the task of imparting education at least for a diverse society like ours, and hence this mandates political initiatives like the UEE. I do not think individuals or communities can solely do this task. Yes UEE is necessary but with greater thinking over and better conceptualization of ideas like quality, equity and ultimate social aims of education.


  3. Samir Samnani says:

    1. As global citizen MDGS no. 2 and 3 clearly talks about it. So I want UEE, 2. As India citizen my constitution under RTE GIVES every child shub have free and compulsary primary education so I want., 3. As society of member I want each of member of society/community should understand constitutional values and behave accordingly and school is the platform to practise these values prescribe in constitution. ! 4. As family I want every member to understand constitution and act accordingly and as human being my only objectives would to create products and processes that benefits, develop and sustain us in world. So I want UEE!


  4. Anonymous says:

    To me it appears that friends are making an assumption in the previous posts, namely, that without formal mass education, the aims largely outlined by Bindu cannot be achieved [in brief: (development of) democratic identity building; democratic values, participation in democratic processes, independent thinking, sensitivity to the environment, to different cultures, and being productive work-wise. (Sorry for ‘capsuling’, but this is simply for ease)].

    I am not sure whether that assumption is correct. To me it appears that a tribal community living in harmony and peace within themselves and their environment should be capable of developing all these in their young, without universal mass schooling of the modern kind, if they are committed to such values, and there seems to be enough anthropological evidence to show that such values have existed to different extents in many communities. I think development of all this is, in principle, possible through simply a culture (except, perhaps, sensitivity to different cultures, which may be difficult without exposure to other cultures). In principle, skills of reading, writing and numeracy by themselves also do not necessitate mass universal schooling. (If all homes were literate in a society, children could have become literate simply by induction)

    The reasons for insistence of UEE seem to lie somewhere else, in equality and justice required in the modern world, as previous posts have also hinted. It seems to me that preparation of the young without essential schooling could have been possible in isolated, self sufficient, internally democratic communities. But with the world becoming increasingly inter-connected, inter-dependent and complex, such possibilities are thinning sharply or have gone permanently. No individual or community is able to survive in isolation today, in modern nation states. In today’s complex world, survival with dignity with a limited set of traditional knowledge resources is also becoming nearly impossible e.g. Agrarian communities which could survive on produce based on indigenous knowledge, face market and other assaults on their livelihoods, lands and primary production. This makes awareness of political rights (in a modern polity) also an essential survival need. In such a scenario, any democratic society, if committed to a minimum dignity for ALL its citizens, will need to take responsibility of giving uniform access to a minimum set of mores/knowledge necessary for survival in a modern nation state. To me, that seems to make UEE essential.


    • While I agree with most of the comment made by the anonymous wr iter, the sentence “ will need to take responsibility of giving uniform access to a minimum set of mores/knowledge necessary for survival in a modern nation state “ frightens me and hence this quick response.

      A few years ago I was in Orissa, and had the good fortune to meet a ‘patachitra’ (traditional scroll painting) artist (who had many awards to his credit) and his family in their home. He had two young boys who were assisting him with his work (it was a Sunday). He described his own initiation into the art by his father at an early age and how he spent many hours everyday working to learn the art form. I asked him about his sons, and he said, I send them to school, they know the art, but not enough because they don’t have the time to give with school. His hope was that the school education would give his son’s good employment opportunities, because they really wouldn’t be able to continue with the art. What happens when these children get minimum skills/knowledge in school to survive ? Will they be able to survive ? A bigger question to ask is why should they get minimum knowledge and skills ?


      • Anonymous says:

        Dear Bindu,

        I would make the distinction of necessary and sufficient conditions. For survival, a minimum set of mores/knowledge is necessary for any individual today. It is definitely not sufficient. An elementary education is not sufficient for economic sustenance in any field. Can it be, even if it were very high quality? I do not think so.



      • Dear Anshumala
        I agree with you that an elementary education is not sufficient for employment, but what is that minimum requirement. Is it the ability to pass the 10th board exam, the ability to gain entry into higher education institutions or the ability to actually participate meaningfully in higher education programmes etc…. The same as quality. What is high quality education ? The issues with ‘minimum’ and ‘quality’ are the same. How do we define it, measure it. They are just words to describe the same thing according to me, but the word ‘minimum’ has a much more negative connotation to it than the word ‘quality’. Setting higher expectations seem to be easier to do with quality than minimum 🙂


  5. Anonymous says:

    Dear Bindu,

    I feel compelled to say something in response :-), and beg others’ pardon for speaking once again.

    I would not consider ‘entry to higher education’ necessary for every citizen. It may be highly desirable of course, depending on what elementary education is (un)able to give, how it fulfills (or not) the individual citizen needs, and what higher education offers for individual lives/ vocations. Most higher education available today is nearly useless for a whole lot of vocations, particularly primary production (agriculture, animal husbandry, crafts, forestry, manual skills…).

    I don’t see why minimum should necessarily have a negative connotation. We could be talking about the ‘minimum essential set’ which could be a benchmark, a standard, a level, for talking about what ‘quality’ could possibly mean to begin with. Anything more than this set would be highly desirable.

    I of course agree with you that defining this minimum would be tough. But isn’t that what curriculum setters (for elementary education) do?



  6. Deepika says:

    I would like to begin with making a distinction and divide my response
    – Do we need Universal Elementary Education
    – Do we need ‘similar’ Elementary Education for All.

    If we assume that all humans are born free and equal and should be provided equal opportunities for development then Universal Elementary Education is needed. But the way one size fits all kind of approach is implemented in our education system i.e the formal education system, the aims of education ( as articulated in NCF 2005) are defeated in-fact one can take an extreme view and label it as violence on children who have to go through it and are not even able to acquire minimalistic reading, writing and comprehension skills.

    Another question that would emerge is can ‘some thing’ that is universal be differentiated for different groups/communities meaning can the ‘education’ of adivasis, urban rich, urban poor be of different kind. This can be easily countered with the argument that if ‘same’ education is not provided to all then the artisans would only remain artisans and serve the rich who have access to ‘quality’ education.

    Can Universal Education be a framework where diverse needs and certain common goals are addressed , then Universalization of Elementary Education can actually add meaning to lives of varied communities or else its just a policy on paper which THE STATE would like to achieve by showing data on enrollment and completion of elementary education and never raising question of quality or every articulate ‘ Quality is function of what?’

    Unless these questions are dealt with UEE has meaning only for reporting purposes in International forum since India is a signatory to some of the treaties and conventions.


  7. Kuldeep says:

    I am just adding not giving complete answer of the question. India as nation state and India as a society are ontologically two distinct entities. As a nation state it is devoted to democracy; however, as a society it is destined to be unjust and undemocratic most of the times just because of its inherent institutions of caste and religion and subsequent exploitative and hierarchical social order. Any social institution e.g. democracy and caste is, in a sense, a way of thinking, acting and feeling. The values shared by democracy as social institution seem to be draconian to anyone who is socialized in caste system. Moreover, the values shared by caste as social institution are highly offensive for democracy. Therefore, a sort incompatibility seems to be emerged between India as nation state and as a society. The same incompatibility is one of the root causes behind the scathing attack on schooling and withdrawal of the students from schools by their parents (or even they were forced to do so by certain dominant forces). However, these incompatible social institutions have to be weeded out if we genuinely want to own democracy as a way of life (way of acting, thinking and feeling). And to do so, universalization of education seems to be most efficient way since it socialize our young generations in democracy not through indoctrination but through a rigorous process of critical examination and systematic facilitation in developing a core of necessary knowledge, abilities and dispositions which in turn give a space to our youngsters to understand such incompatibilities and develop enough courage and abilities to emancipate themselves from the same.


    • Anonymous says:

      Dear Kuldeep,

      While I agree with you that a nation/society committed to democracy can take help of education to weed out non-democratic institutions, I would not call elementary education the ‘most efficient means’ of doing so. If this were the case, all nations that achieved UEE long back should have eliminated all their undemocratic institutions. I think many more measures would be needed assisted by law/constitution, and a serious political will, to ensure that democratic institutions slowly overpower feudal structures.

      Why is education not sufficient to ensure this? Because it has no ‘teeth’ to correct or check wrongs done, particularly in circles outside its purview. Even within its own bounds (in schools), socio- cultural power structures and institutions have enough currency. How much has caste system been questioned in Indian schools so far, or democratic discussions held on these, to develop the necessary dispositions (even if the formal curriculum had these included)?

      Again, this is the gap between what we would like to see against what actually happens largely.



      • Kuldeep says:

        It is a tricky issue, Anshumala. I have been thinking about this and still could not reach on any clear position on this. I think I need to be more aged or older to tell you something tangible. However, just putting my own understanding here in front of you:
        The same thing can be said about a collective impact of various policies and laws what you have said about the UEE’s impact. If UEE alone could not yield a democratic culture then it is also true that an ensemble of various policies and laws could not yield the same. Then question arises here that why such a condition is? I do not know too much about this; however, maybe we can try to find out the answer of this question in two major areas- i). By understanding the nature of negotiations between policy and societal groups and its impact on social action (which is very chaotic and ad hocery also) and ii) By understanding the state’s understanding of democracy and its strategies to establish a democratic culture.
        I feel that policy introduced by the state is always taken positively by one societal group as well as negatively by the other one since it tries to impart justice which ultimately disturbs the status quo and consequently goes against certain societal institutions. And it provokes a resistance against policies. Similarly, we need to be aware of state’s understanding of democracy as well as of those societal groups that are being addressed by it. How do state perceive the democracy? How do state perceive the communities/society? This perception is likely to affect the procedures of policy formation and its implementation. I am not going into more details here.
        I believe that education here becomes a crucial institution which not only prepares the citizen who contribute in society but it also prepares them to contribute in state’s functioning. This is our new generation that are likely to be a part of governments, bureaucracy, civil societies, corporate houses, political parties, temple/mosque/gurudwara or any other religious space’s committees; panchayats and other societal systems of production and social life. This is the same new generation who will contribute in developing, shaping, questioning, modifying the understanding (of democracy and other social institutions) of state as well as society. More this understanding grows (of state and of society) lesser would be the resistance. Here I see actually a very crucial role of education. That is the source of my value assignment to education as most efficient way to inculcate a democratic culture.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: