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Published in THE HINDU, ON 7th July 2015


Rohit Dhankar

Maharashtra’s recent decision to conduct a survey of what it calls “non-school going children” seems to have created a storm. Political parties are now up in arms calling it an anti-minority move and Muslim leaders in particular have declared their resolve to fight the decision. Some intellectuals have even called the step as “insensitive” and one that will only raise the suspicions of the minorities. In the midst of this, there are claims being made that the education being imparted in madrasas has helped (and is helping) minority students pass even difficult tests such as the civil service examinations. But the point is that this entire debate is being conducted in an environment charged with emotion and irrelevant facts. In general, these arguments, if allowed to flourish, are likely to harm the cause of education in the country.

What is the issue all about? News reports of July 3-4 say that the Principal Secretary of the Minority Affairs Department sent a letter to the Principal Secretary, School Education, saying that students in madrasas and Vedic institutions which do not teach mathematics, social science, science and English should be considered as “non-school going”.

National system of education

After Independence, India has struggled to craft a National System of Education (NSE). The D.S. Kothari Commission recommended such a system and efforts to realise this goal have been on ever since the National Policy on Education 1968 or NPE 68 was in force. NPE expresses a commitment to realise this goal and every single national curriculum framework since 1975 has declared that one of the important concerns of the National Curriculum Framework is to realise the NSE. NPE 1986 states: “[T]he concept of a National System of Education implies that, up to a given level, all students, irrespective of caste, creed, location or sex, have access to comparable quality” of education. This is the commitment to equal opportunity in education. In order to meet this commitment, the NSE must be in a position to compare standards across the country.

Important features

The country has been struggling to establish the ‘10+2’ structure of education in all States. Without a uniform structure, there can be no idea of standards of achievement that can be worked out for India. Without setting such standards, a comparison of quality cannot be established. Therefore, the goals of equal opportunity for education become vacuous. However, in regard to the madrasa debate this is not the most important issue.

NPE 86 states that the NSE “will be based on a national curricular framework which contains a common core along with other components that are flexible”. Also, “the common core will include the history of India’s freedom movement, the constitutional obligations and other content essential to nurture national identity.” Further, this core “will be designed to promote values such as India’s common cultural heritage, egalitarianism, democracy and secularism, equality of the sexes, protection of the environment, removal of social barriers, observance of the small family norm and inculcation of the scientific temper.” It is not optional and has to be part of all State curricula and syllabi.

Another feature of NSE that emerges out of the commitment to this core is the “common scheme of studies”. This scheme — though described in somewhat variant terms — remains more or less the same as outlined in the “National Curriculum for Elementary and Secondary Education—A framework” or NCF 1988. The three subjects that remain common at the primary level in all States are language (mother tongue/regional), mathematics and environmental studies. At the upper primary and lower secondary levels, the common subjects are three languages, usually regional, Hindi and English, and in the Hindi-speaking areas, Hindi, another Indian language and English. There is also mathematics, social studies — which includes history, geography and civics or political science — and science. Art education, work experience and health and physical education are also part of the curriculum at the upper primary and lower secondary levels. But there is variance in them across States.

Right to Education Act 2009

What is important to note here is that there is supposed to be a common core curriculum across the nation, and there is a high degree of uniformity in the scheme of studies at the elementary level. These two aspects emerged from a felt need for a NSE and articulated in the NPE 1986.

The Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009 (RTE), has some stipulations for curriculum and what will be considered “completion of elementary education” — which should be legally free and compulsory.

The RTE, in Section 29(1), stipulates: “[T]he curriculum … for elementary education shall be laid down by an academic authority to be specified by the appropriate Government, by notification.” All the State governments have already notified their own State Council of Educational Research and Training (SCERT) as the “academic authority” that will lay down the curriculum. Maharashtra also has a curriculum specified by its SCERT, which as per the RTE is its official curriculum.

‘Studying a subject’

According to RTE, the State government is duty bound to make provisions for every child to complete elementary education according to the norms of the prescribed curriculum. If the SCERT in Maharashtra has mathematics, science, social studies and three languages in its curriculum, then it becomes imperative for it to see to it that every child studies all these subjects. Otherwise, the condition of completion of elementary education cannot be met. Therefore, if the State government is trying to identify children who are not getting educated, as per RTE, it has to include those children who are not studying all these subjects, be they in a madrasa, Vedic pathshala or any other religious or community school. If there are madrasas which do not teach one of these subjects, then the government cannot consider — as per RTE — these children to be “school going children”; technically, it has to declare them as “non-school going”. It does not matter whether many of them go on to universities or “crack civil service examinations” or any other competitive examinations. The purpose of establishing a national system of education is to not only prepare students for a livelihood and jobs, but also to make all children aware of the national movement for freedom, nurture a national identity, inculcate a scientific temper, and so on. In propagating these aims, mathematics, science and social studies are seen as necessary. However, if the madrasas are teaching all the subjects mentioned earlier along with religious studies, the State has to consider children studying there as “school going”. But that does not seem to be the case. The government letter seems to be defining “non-school going” as meaning only those children who do not study one or other of these subjects. Another point to keep in mind is that “studying a subject” here means “studying the government prescribed syllabus in that subject”. For example, if the children study the history of Europe or Africa, or Islam but do not study the history of India and the freedom movement, they cannot be considered as completing the prescribed curriculum.

Some news reports mention that Bihar and Uttar Pradesh recognise madrasas as schools, which is perfectly fine if the madrasas are teaching all the subjects prescribed by their State curricula. But if they are not and are still recognised as schools, and the children studying there are considered as school-going children completing their elementary education, then these States are guilty of dereliction of duty and are flouting the norms of NPE 86, NCF 2005 and RTE. I am not a lawyer, but I think that they are liable for legal action under RTE.

Harm to national consensus

The project of developing a national system of education is at least a 100-year-old one, though it took concrete shape only after Independence. The idea was debated by leaders of the freedom movement by the beginning of the 20th century. Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, Sri Aurobindo, Annie Besant, Madan Mohan Malaviya, and many others saw the ills of the system of colonial education and had their own ideals of national education. But many began to recognise that these ideals of education could not become a national system of education. In a systematic analysis, Lala Lajpat Rai rejected all the ideas mentioned earlier as being unworthy of national education status as he felt it would be sectarian. He recommended nonsectarian secular education in his book, The Problem of National Education in India , which was published in 1920. Tagore and Gandhiji wanted a system of education without any sectarian element. The Zakir Hussain Committee Report on Basic National Education articulated an ideal of citizenship that was strongly democratic.

After Independence, the University Education Commission 1950, the Secondary Education Commission 1952, and the Education Commission 1964 were all aware of the need for a national system of education. But education was a state subject in all its aspects including structure, curriculum and pedagogy. Therefore, the national system was more of a cherished ideal than a reality. Only after the 42nd Constitutional Amendment in 1976 did it really become possible to develop a national system of education. The characteristics of the ‘10+2’ structure of school education mentioned earlier, a common core of the curriculum and a more or less common scheme of studies emerged after that. It has taken a lot of hard work to achieve this state. The work is still unfinished as we still do not have commonly accepted standards of achievement. Also, we still do not have the ‘5+3+2’ structure of the first 10 years of education as some States have four years of primary education. But because of the common core of the curriculum and common scheme of studies we can now think of common achievement standards.

This kind of debate will dismantle that hard-earned consensus in structure and curriculum, thereby making equal opportunity impossible as there will be no criteria for judging equality or the lack of it. In any case, RTE is not being implemented with serious commitment in the country. If attempts like identifying “non-school going children”, as per its norms, are embroiled in unjustified controversies, political correctness will further demotivate governments from implementing whatever little is being attempted.