On the Education of Children in India

Janaki Rajan

The Nehruvian vision of a pluralistic, socially just, secular, non-aligned federal democracy has been the bedrock of nation-building in independent India. This vision was primarily translated through the creation of institutions of excellence in science, technology, among others. The building of public sector enterprises in core areas and the mixed economy model has by and large sustained, despite attempts against it, to help make India the largest democracy and a rising economy. However, this model of institutionalising and promoting excellence has not succeeded when it comes to key social sectors such as public health and education.

This paper attempts to trace the Nehruvian assumptions of institution building and contrast it with institution building for the education of children in independent India and its spectacular failure when it comes to the millions of children in proverty.

Around half of India’s children and two-thirds of girls are out of school1. A recent study by UNICEF2 points out that 45% of children are street and working children. The NIEPA estimated in the late nineties that only 7% of youth in the age group of 18-35 years have access to any form of post-secondary education3. This has since been upwardly revised to 12% by UGC and 15% by NSSO4. The percentage of total provision for education in the union budget for the year 2003-2004 is only 2.2 per cent.

Continued Disparities

Despite the increased focus on policy documents in national and international circles, the gender disparities in education participation continue to be unacceptably high at every level. Most remarkably, girls constitute about two-thirds of the nearly 40 million out of school children in the 6-14 years age group in India. It is not that no improvement has been registered, but the pace of change has been slow at all stages of education (Tables 1 and 2).

Table 1: Percentage of Girls Enrolment to Total Enrolment by Stages

Year Primary Middle Sec/Hr. Sec/
1950-51 28.1 16.1 13.3 10.0
1960-61 32.6 23.9 20.5 16.0
1970-71 37.4 29.3 25.0 20.0
1980-81 38.6 32.9 29.6 26.7
1990-91 41.5 36.7 32.9 33.3
2000-01 43.7 40.9 38.6 39.4

Table 2: Education in India: Selected Indicators by Gender

Indicators 1981 1991 2001
Literacy Rate (Male) 53.48 64.13 75.85
Literacy Rate (Female) 28.47 39.29 54.16
Literacy Rate (Total) 41.44 52.21 65.38
Gender Parity Index (GPI) Literacy 0.53 0.61 0.71
GER (Boys) Primary Level 95.8 
113.95 105.29
GER (Girls) Primary Level 64.1 
85.47 80.06
GER (Total) Primary Level 80.5 
100.10 96.30
Gender Parity Index (GPI) Primary 0.67 0.75 0.82
GER (Boys) Upper Primary Level 54.3 
76.56 67.77
GER (Girls) Upper Primary Level 28.6 
46.98 52.09
GER (Total) Upper Primary Level 25.4 
62.14 60.20
GPI Upper Primary Level 0.53 0.61 0.77
GER (Boys) Secondary & High Sec. Level 34.2 
33.89 38.23
GER (Girls) Secondary & High Sec. Level 15.4 
10.27 27.74
GER (Total) Secondary & High Sec. Level 25.4 
19.28 33.26
GPI Secondary & High Sec. Level 0.45 0.30 0.73
Drop Out(Boys) Primary Level 56.2
Drop Out(Girls) Primary Level 62.5 
Drop Out (Total) Primary Level 58.7 
Drop Out (Boys) Upper Primary Level 68.0 
Drop Out (Girls) Upper Primary Level 79.4 
Drop Out (Total) Upper Primary Level 72.4 

GER: Gross Enrolment Ratio; GPI: Gender Parity Index
Source: Selected Educational Statistics (different years), MHRD, GOI;
Selected Educational Statistics, 2001-02

India’s first plan correctly laid great emphasis on education of the masses. The percentage of total allocation to education in the First Five Year Plan was 7.2 % as compared to the percentage of total allocation to education in the Tenth Five-Year Plan: 2.2 per cent, the lowest allocation for education in all of the five year plans. Government investment in education has never crossed 3.5 percent of GDP except in the First Plan period, way back in the 1950s and even then, most of it went towards building institutions of excellence.5

State budgets tend to be slightly higher.

Share of Education Expenditure in State Domestic Product (SDP) &
State Budget in Major States in India in 1989-90 and 1997-98

1989-90 1997-98
States % of SDP % of Budget % of SDP % of Budget
Andhra 'Pradesh 4.6 24.5 2.9 16.6
Assam 6
25.5 9.1 33.4
Bihar 6.3 28.1 6.9 29.8
Gujarat 4.3 24.3 4
Haryana 3.1 18.6 4
8.8 22.6 7.2 21.3
Karnataka 4.3 22.1 3.5 21.8
Kerala 6.5 30.4 4.4 23.9
Maharashtra 5
24.2 2.8 23.9
3.2 21.1 4.2 23.4
Orissa 5.4 24.2 5.9 24.4
Punjab 3.5 22.7 3.6 17.2
Rajasthan 5.3 26.5 5.3 25.2
Tamil Nadu 5
23.7 4.1 22.2
Uttar Pradesh 4.6 24
West Bengal 5.4 30.4 4.6 24.1
India 4.9 13.7 3.9 13.2

Source: Analysis for Budgeted Expenditure on Education, 1997-98 to 1999-2000.

The models before the nation for education in the 1950s were – Gandhi’s Nai Taleem, which emphasised basic education wherein the principle of local work/craft was to be the pedagogy of learning of science, social science, poetry, language, mathematics and all that is education. The other model was that which had so successfully served the few Indians who had access to them the colonial school system with its Grants-in-Aid, government teachers, curricula, buildings. Faced with these alternatives, India chose both – the Basic Education Board as well as the continuation of colonial education, nationalised through the creation of the Central Board of Secondary Education. This proved to be the first institutional cleaving of educational system: one for the masses and one for the elites; for few among the elites were prepared to embrace Nai Taleem, and not many of the poor wanted to be part of an education which the elite did not want to participate in. Since then, many layers have been added to school education – Kendriya Vidyalaya for the Central government employees, Sainik schools for the defence personnel, private schools for the middle class, State government schools for the lower middle class, the ill-run municipal schools upto class 5 for the working class, and none at all for the rest.

This is the point to take a reality check on the Nehruvian vision. As far as basic schooling was concerned, the vision was limited to the Central government employees. It was as if the nation was being built on its employees, an eerie echo to the way the British understood governance in India. The ‘white burra saab’, in Macaulian terms became the ‘brown burra saab’.

This type of providing different layers of schools for different socio-economic groups continues beyond Nehru’s time, despite a brief check received by the Kothari Commision’s recommendation for a Common School System in 1966. By the mid seventies, the rural rich demanded and got Navodaya Vidyalaya. Private schools continued to flourish. It is true that Municipal Corporations and State Governments set up schools for the general public. The only ‘general’ among the public in the 60s and 70s who chose to avail of the schools were the middle class.

The first Education Survey and the subsequent surveys right upto the 6th educational survey continued to point out that the gross enrolment ratio of children in schools was well over 90%, and in some age groups it exceeded 100 as children from younger and older age cohorts were also said to be joining schools especially at class 1 and 2 levels. This scenario has been consistently presented with marginal variations until the late 1990s.6 It can therefore be no surprise that public perception on education was sanguine; further re-inforced by the increasing numbers of students obtaining admissions in world-class universities. All these contributed to masking the real facts of schooling – that it provided nearly wholly to the middle class. The chief culprit of course is the yardstick of gross enrolment ratio. As the term suggests, it pertains to children ever enrolled, but not necessarily retained in schools. Further, no gross participation ratio was ever put out, and nor is still. This meant that any child who ever stepped into a school was considered to be school-going, and this covers nearly the whole population which parent has not wanted to try to provide education to their child? The footsteps of India on its march to the nearby free school are the footsteps of poor parents, yearning to have their child educated. The millions who were left with just getting a form filled, but no actual admission would still be counted as ‘gross enrolled’, as would those who manage admission, but are forced to leave the school in a few months to join the huge child labour force.

How many children were really in schools became a matter of public debate only in the early nineties, at least partly heralded by Myron Weiner’s study on the Child and the State of India.7 Weiner rejects the argument that children were removed from the labour force only when the incomes of the poor rose and employers needed a more skilled labour force. He shows that India’s policies arise from fundamental beliefs, embedded in the culture, rather than from economic conditions. Identifying the specific values that elsewhere led educators, social activists, religious leaders, trade unionists, military officers, and government bureaucrats to make education compulsory and to end child labour, he explains why similar groups in India do not play the same role. He brought to focus what many in India working among the poor already knew there are no ‘drop-outs’ among school children, just ‘push-outs’, pushed out by competing class, caste, gender and religious factors operating within the system.

It must be remembered that in the 1950s through to the early 1970s, children from middle class were still going to government schools. Private schools were rare and expensive, and did not feature in the elementary schooling system, as it was generally assumed that all children are being provided school education under Part IV, Article 45 of the Constittution which reads:

‘The State shall endeavour to provide, within a period of 10 years of the commencement of the Constitution, for free and compulsory education for all children upto the age of 14 years’.

The Constituent Assembly debates are ample testimony to the push and pull of this provision being placed, not under Part III of the Constitution, under Fundemental Rights, but in Part IV, the Directive Principles of State Policy. That even the age limit up to 14 years of age was strongly resisted, in the Constituent Assembly, until Ambedkar took the floor to ask – if we seek to abolish child labour, where would the children be safe from it? It can only be in a public institution, which operates for the same hours as the factories – a school, where the children are safe from labour and are able to learn.

While Ambedkar’s passion may have carried the day with Article 45 as it stood until 2001, it also led to a larger myopic vision – that since Article 45 seemingly covered young children, policy makers in the 50s and 60s did not deem it fit to bring the millions of poor children of the deprived castes and communities into the the radar of public policy of affirmative action of reservation in state funded primary, middle and secondary schools.

Evidence that this was a deliberate myopia, to keep children from poorer homes away from education, comes strangely, from the NCERT school textbooks in Civics, from which the CBSE religiously drew its almost mandatory question:

‘What is the difference between Directive Principles of State Policy and Fundamental Rights?’

Anyone answering that the former was not justiciable, while the latter was, were awarded 3 marks. Countless crores of marks for this answer is responsible at least in part for the many fortunate enough to have schooling till class X and the CBSE examination, who have emerged successful in India today.

It took the Unnikrishanan Judgement of 1993 to state Directive Principles of State Policy are just that – directions for creating policies. If the government consistently creates policies that are at variance with these directions, well then, these no longer remain directive principles – they become fundamental rights.

Despite the Supreme Court Judgement that practically made education up to 14 years a fundamental right, the Government of India decided to once again ‘make’ it a fundamental right, but more about that later.

Stepping back in the time line, it was not until the late 70s and 80s, when large scale unemployment and impoverishment in the agrarian sector got connected with education that poorer families began viewing education for their children as an alternate route for jobs. Their determined bid to enter government schools also coincides with the middle class opting out of government schools in favour of the ever increasing private schools. This left government and municipal schools with overwhelming majority of poor children, while teachers continued to come from the middle classes, given the attractive salaries in government schools. The cultural gap between students and teachers and the lack of accountability of the school system, now that the children of the middle class were no longer in government schools, spelt the doom of the government school system. The Municipal Corporation schools, which provides primary education upto class V is in even great decay leading to what Maxine Bernstein terms the collapse at the foundation.8

Though complex, some patterns for the flourishing and collapsing of different kinds of educational institutions is discernible. For instance, Kendriya Vidyalaya continue to perform exceptionally well. The most notable pattern is the composition of the students. The neglect of institutions irrespective of the management, be it centre, state, district coincides with the withdrawal of the middle class from the institutions. Once this withdrawal is complete, the collapse is near total. Kendriya Vidyalaya today, while it no longer atrracts children of senior officials, still caters to the middle and junior level government ‘servants’, constituting around 1% of the population that constitutes the governance workforce, and has precious little to do with Indian people.

Another pattern that emerges is the expenditure per student per annum in elementary schools. Most state schools run by state governments spend between Rs. 800 to 5000 (higher end at metros) per child per annum. The Tapas Majumdar Committee constituted soon after the Unnikrishnan Judgement, arrived in 1997, at a recurring cost of Rs. 840 per child per annum as a norm while calculating outlays required for elementary education (up to class 8). Kendriya Vidyalaya catering to the central government employees spend around Rs.10,000 per child per annum, Navodaya Vidyalayas, catering to supposedly ‘talented’ children who overwhelmingly comprise of the landed rural gentry, around Rs. 8000 per child per annum. Under the Sarva Shikhsa Abhiyan (SSA), supposedly for every child in India, a centrally sponsored scheme created in response to the Unnikrishnan Judgement, this amount is Rs. 800/child/annum without any other non-recurring costs including building, equipment or teacher salaries.9 Clearly, the state’s commitment to children is directly proportional to their socio-economic status – the poorer the background of children, the less the State provides for their education.

This inversion of priorities is also seen in the kind of education offered to children from lower socio-economic classes once they complete class 8. The general stream caters to curriculum that can lead to white collar occupations, such as engineering, medicine, law and so on. For blue collar occupations, a separate stream known as vocational education, parallel to the general stream has been created. The two are impermeable. For instance, a student who has studied automobile repair as a vocational subject and has excelled in it in class 12 would not be permitted to appear for the Engineering Entrance examination, as he or she has not studied mathematics and physics that is offered only in the general stream.

The National Policy on Education, 1986, has been heralded as a fresh way forward. Within it is embedded the seeds of what has since proved to legitimise inequality. Since the 1986 policy on education10, even the pretence of equal education for all children has been done away with. The policy proposes non-formal education for working children, under the guise of the seeming attractiveness of non-formal ways of learning; but in reality, it was a sanction for child labour that prescribes that children earn by day and learn by night. How much learning a tired child can take in, after a hard day’s labour is one matter, the curriculum prescribed is nothing more than the most superfluous of literacy skills.

This policy of sub-standard education for the poor has been used as the base for the SSA. Under its guidelines, a class X pass (Class VIII in case of girls) can become the ‘shiksha mitr’ or para teacher, for Rs. 800 to 2000 and teach poor children under a scheme ironically named Education Guarantee Scheme (EGS). One cannot but help note the determination with which government school systems is being diluted – an estimated 6 lakhs parateachers form the backbone of the Sarvashiksha Abhiyan As was to be expected, as the SSA Scheme reached its 7th year, there have been large-scale widespread protests by para teachers for regularisation of their services in several states.The most signifcant factor of SSA is that these para teachers are not required to have pre-service teacher training, which is actually mandatory under the NCTE, a statutory body created by an Act of Parliament. The thinly veiled logic for non-requirement of teacher training is obvious – if parateachers had the requisite training, they would become legally eligible for regularisation of services. Another thinly veiled policy11 for promoting that para teachers in the name of decentralisation, is their selection by the Village Education Committees, thus not only laying open selection of teachers to local influences and nepotism, but also to ensure that if challenged in the courts, the state directorates of education can claim that teachers so selected are not the Directorate’s employees.

Since the 1990s, policy makers have assumed that since the government and municipal schools have failed to draw in all children into schools, there is need, as per the 1986 policy to create non-formal schooling. Remote areas are often quoted to buoy up the need for alternative programmes. Under EGS a parateacher can start a ‘school’ with 20 children currently out of school. But this does not explain why the EGS which at best could be considered for remote areas, is being promoted as a nation-wide programme, encouraging states to opt for EGS when in fact they should be starting more government schools. For states, the SSA has become a useful ploy for not expanding regular educational facilities to reach all children. The SSA also does not permit states to draw its funds for payment of regular salaries of teachers, thus effectively strong arming larger, cash strapped states to abandon filling up of posts of teachers. It is learnt that Madhya Pradesh has not recruited teachers since SSA became effective. Recently, when Bihar recruited 2.5 lakh teachers, they will still not get regular wages, but a contract wage. The kind of education poor children will receive under SSA can be imagined. The fact that none of these children are likely to reach high enough levels to seek admissions in higher education under SC, ST, OBC, Minorities categories will also ensure that only the middle class among these categories will benefit from affirmative action.

All this is unfolding even as private schools look for still higher qualifications for its teachers and providing state-of-the-art facilities for hefty fees. The middle class continuously seeks to upgrade the curriculum to be comparable with the western world. These questionable policies have gone unnoticed also in part because of the strong Central presence through the NCERT and the CBSE in education. These agencies have become resource centres largely for the middle class private schools, ironically titled ‘public schools’ or central government-run schools. All their efforts are concentrated on CBSE affiliated schools which are a mere 3% of the total schools in the country.

Even more important to note is that there has been an explosion in growth of recognised private schools. These schools acquire land under institutional prices [often a token Re.1] but with the right to levy fees; hence the children from poorer families are effectively left out. In this way, more and more of the common wealth of public land is being earmaked for fewer and fewer number of children. Since government schools are not being increased, overcrowding is the inevitable lot of poor children. In metros and even smaller cities, the private school has successfully emerged as a commercial venture. Franchising of popular brands of schools, ‘purchasing’ of the Societies which were allotted land are commonplace.There is no official count of ‘teaching shops’ – the millions of cramped space touted as ‘Public Schools’ in every neighbourhood, charging 200-800 Rs. per month, for children to sit in cramped space and taught by ‘teachers’ who are members of the family. These developments cannot happen without stated or unstated policies.

The SSA has another legacy. Under Social Safety Net (SSN) of the Structural Adjustment Programme of the IMF (SAP), when India adopted the New Economic Policy in 1992, a Rs. 2000 crore loan from World Bank was provided to India for the District Primary Education Programme (DPEP)12 in 112 districts. All the questionable policies of the SSA were tried out under DPEP for 7 years in a large number of states (in itself a large scale version of earlier multilateral programmes such as the Andhra Pradesh Primary Education Project (APPEP) and the Bihar Primary Education Project (BPEP) of the 70s and 80s (and they, in turn a result of the earlier economic policies of 1972) and one cannot escape these developments coinciding with the rising assertion of parents of the deprived, for education of their children. At any event, under SAP, the commitment for aid is connected with reduction of public expenditure. This has been translated to reduce teacher salaries. The current ingenious ploy to recruit untrained and local para teachers are part of the DPEP legacy.

When the Delhi High Court recently upheld a decades-old provision that private schools which have acquired land at institutional prices must provide admission free of cost for 25% of chidren for economically backward sections, the furore and antagonism from private schools needed to be witnessed to be believed. A number of ingenious ways to circumvent this order can be seen in private schools – afternoon classes for children of economically weaker sections, generally taught by the school clerks, volunteers, invariably not trained to teach; separate sections for the poor, filling the the quota with children of school employees – in any case, we would be hard put to find a single school that has scruplously provided 25% seats in letter and spirit. Around the same time, admissions to nursery schools in private schools became a subject of legal intervention. The Ganguly13 committee arrived at a 100 point scale covering all categories: girls, SC, ST, Minorities, children with disabilities, children in the neighbourhood. Yet no media report has pointed out that these provisions are still only for those who can afford to pay the fees, which can range from 800 to 3000/4000 Rs. per month excluding bussing, books, stationery, costumes, picnics, ‘study tours’ to Europe, Australia or Far East etc. Despite the fact that both provisions, freeship for the economically weaker sections and the nursery school admissions emanated for the same High Court for the same school system, one has engaged public attention, the other has not.

Access and quality issues in Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) are embedded in and are critically dependent on policy instruments in education and social sectors. The 86th Constitutional Amendment to the Constitution, 2001,14 ostensibly making education a fundamental right for our children has actually done away with the legal obligation for care and education of the most vulnerable group of children, the children of the 0-6 age group.This tender period of childhood did not survive the short journey of Article 45, Part IV, the Directive Principles of State Policy to Article 21A, Part III, the Fundamental Rights in our Constitution. The words ‘up to’ 14 years in the Directive Principles of State Policy has been replaced with ‘6-14 years’. Indeed the early drafts of the Constitutional Amendment indicates that the children in the 0-6 age group could have been knocked right out of the Constitutional provision altogether, if it had not been for the spirited protest against such a move by a large network of NGOs, academics, activists and members of the civil society. It is thanks to them that the provision for ECCE continues to have a tenuous presence in the form of the amended Article 45 of Directive Principles of State Policy.

Currently, under existing provisions, of around 14 crore children in the 0-6 age group, less than 4 crore are provided early childhood care and education by all the schemes put together – the Integrated Child Development Services, the Creche for Working Women and the National Creche Fund.

Even for the roughly 25% of children with some provisions for ECCE, the Schemes under which they operate are themselves open to questions of adequacy when viewed in the framework of the Child Rights Convention. The Anganwadi operates for a few hours in a day, making it impossible for working parents – and most poor parents are working, to send their children there – who will take care of the children after the 3 hours? What option do they have but to take their children to work? It is no wonder that the boom fuelled by the rising economy also lands a vast majority of India’s children, literally in the dust of the construction sites or the dry fields of failed farms. The Court Order that all constructors shall pay 1% cess for provision of creche facilities is now over 5 years old, [there is no similar Court provision for the vast rural landscape] yet we continue to see infants at every construction site. This would not have been the case, if ECCE had come under Article 21A. Like the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, a figleaf measure that it is, at least a similar, Shishu Vikas Abhiyan would have had to be put in place.

The case for ECCE for school preparedness has been repeatedly and convincingly proven, but for follow through with pre-school provisions, there is no legal binding, just a directive for policy making, hardly a provision that would convince the Planning Commission to make the substantial outlays required for universal ECCE.

If children from poorer socio-economic conditions are deprived of ECCE by lack of legal provisions, the children from the wealthier classes face a different kind of neglect of their right to be children. For instance, the Delhi High Court has ruled that there shall be 1 year of pre-school at 4 years of age before entry into formal schooling at age 5. This seemingly child friendly direction takes on a different hue, when viewed with the hands-off policy of the Directorate of Education with respect to the mushrooming pre-schools in the city. Put together, what it means is 2-3 more years of unregulated ‘play school’, for these children, with accompanying high pre-school fees.

These key developments relating to ECCE in the last decade is symptomatic of a larger paradigm shift in education at all stages. As India’s economy grows, the need for preparing ‘foot soldiers’ for globalised capital increasingly influences the purpose of education, shifting it from the social objective of education for nation-building and human rights to education for a market-oriented economy.15 Once this shift is acknowledged, all these developments make perfect sense.

Although the groundswell of support in favour of the market economy objective increases day by day, some questions nevertheless need to be asked:

1. Does India really not have the resources for quality universal ECCE and universal elementary education when the economy is growing at over 9%?

2. Education comes under GATT, and is considered an economic activity – does it justify privatisation and commercialisation of pre-schools?

3. What kind of Human Development Index would India have if 75% of its infants are malnourished through lack of ECCE?

4. How can India sustain its growth rate in 2027, if its workforce has been stunted due to lack of care when they were infants in 2007?

These are some of the issues that we have to grapple with.

Education as a Concurrent Subject

The APPEB, BPEP, DPEP and SSA are signs of the Centre’s assertion in school education on the states. Two significant attempts made by the centre to improve quality in schools apart from these merit mention. Operation Blackboard was a centrally sponsored programme that attempted to provide at least two classrooms, toilet blocks for girls and boys, teaching-learning materials and at least two teachers, of which at least one would be female. Caroline Dwyer16 states, in her study of Operation Blackboard.

‘Ever since it was first written into the new nation’s Constitution in 1950, achieving Universal Elementary Education (UEE) has proved an elusive goal for India. A good deal of policy rhetoric has accompanied the notion of free compulsory education, but progress in the face of some extremely demanding circumstances has been slower than expected. A series of deadlines has been set, each one subsequently shifted when the target could not be met in the allocated time.. The Fifth All-India Educational Survey, in 1986, established that just over half of the children who enrolled had dropped out again within only 5 years… Over a third of elementary schools were single room, single teacher establishments run by a single teacher. 53% of them had no playground; 51% had no water; 83% no toilet facilities; and 40% not so much as a single blackboard. Yet education had been identified by a highly influential national commission as ‘the cornerstone of a nation’s progress’ (Education Commission, 1970, p. xx) and by Mahatma Gandhi as ‘the spearhead of silent social revolution’ (cit.Majumdar, 1957, p. 135). If education is so central to progress, why were policies and plans promoting Universal Elementary Education having so little impact? How could such infrastructural deficiencies arise; what did they mean?

I set out to explore the gap between policy rhetoric and practice. There appeared to be, for the Indian context, virtually no published research into the link between the two… Analysts within India tend to focus on policy analysis (Guhan, 1985) and to regard implementation as a separate, self-explanatory – and less prestigious – phase, which lies in the domain of public administration (Jain, 1990). As a result, little had been documented about the procedures adopted to implement policy, although there was increasingly widespread concern within the policy community itself (cf. Dhingra, 1991) and among analysts (eg. Khan, 1989; Jain, 1990) with the failure to implement policy successfully. The remarkably slim body of research into practices in elementary school classrooms in India still remains a major problem, leaving policy makers with little relevant research to draw on. The objective of the initial research project was to carry out an applied policy study that included description and analysis of conditions in elementary schools in the public sector. The resulting book is a case study of how one particular policy scheme – the militaristic-sounding ‘Operation Blackboard’ emanating from the 1986 National Policy on Education – was implemented during the early 1990s. In pursuit of the wider policy intentions of enhancing the quality of elementary education, this ‘Operation’ was to upgrade physical facilities in elementary schools across the entire country. Remarkably, given the scale of the challenge implied by the statistics, completion was scheduled for 1990.

My strategy of research was one of ‘backward mapping’ (Elmore, 1980; Dyer, 1999), using qualitative methods and beginning with classroom observations and teacher interviews in 30 government lower primary schools in the District of Baroda in Gujarat. Since by the time I started my field work, Operation Blackboard was scheduled to have been completed, I began by finding out what contribution the policy scheme had made to upgrading conditions and improving schools’ teaching-learning environments. I then mapped backwards – or upwards, in policy terms – through tiers of bureaucratic administration in the governments at the District/Municipal Corporation and State levels, to the point from where the policy had come – the central government in New Delhi. The mapping process lasted for a year, and was greatly facilitated by generous access to extensive official documentation, and the support of an Indian researcher (see Choksi & Dyer 1996 for an account of this, and a second, collaboration; Dyer, 1999 for a fuller account; and Appendix 1 for mapping routes).

Operation Blackboard is widely perceived to have been an expensive failure. In terms of achieving its intention of establishing a minimum norm of essential facilities for primary schools, it was largely unsuccessful. As a policy innovation, it offered many rich policy lessons, and many of the reasons for its relative lack of success seemed to be characteristic of the highly centralised and top-down mode of implementation prevailing at that time: many elements of this still exist. As this case study will illustrate, this strategy of implementation is an ineffective way of bringing about change in India. Even when the same policy goal is overtly espoused, as it was with Operation Blackboard, central directives meet with active opposition or passive resistance when key stakeholders at other levels are not drawn into policy dialogues. Apart from conditions in some classrooms I visited, in respect of the will to bring about change, some of my findings were dismal indeed. Certainly, it was evident…. that the then prevailing view of implementation as something straightforward, centrally prescribed, amenable to central control and following seamlessly from the policy blueprint, was deeply flawed for all sorts of reasons…

Defining and providing effective, quality educational services for all children are professional challenges of the highest order, and re-orientating staff towards the prime raison d’être of a school system – children – is a demanding process. I hope that this case study will be useful in stimulating reflection on the wide range of areas which, recent changes notwithstanding, continue to require improvement if all children are to be offered good quality schooling.'

The second scheme was the creation of District Institutes of Education and Training (DIETs) in 1990.17 The obective was to create pace-setting institutions at the district level with the twin objectives of working toward universalisation of elementary education and adult education. 17 years down the line the DIETs are still to come into their own. Unlike the Kendriya and Navodaya Vidyalaya, there is no cadre of DIET teacher educators. Though centrally funded, it is administered by the respective States. Sandwiched between the Centre and State, DIETs have been reduced to a pre-service training institution, one of the innumerable such institutions offering poor quality preparation of primary school teachers. With para teachers being recruited without any training, even this meagre role of pre-service is no longer of much importance. DIETs were sidelined both during the DPEP and the SSA Schemes, which created their own parallel stuctures.

Questions being asked today regarding DIETs, after already having been provided central support in 3 Five-Year Plan cycles are18:

* what aspects of education academic functioning can be decentralised?

* what relationship does this institution need to have with other institutions at the state level and within the district?

* what are the implications of ‘district’ location for orientation and activities?

* what are the concerns of school quality which DIETs can address?

* what organisational structure and functioning will best support the institutions aims?

* what recruitment and personel policies would best support DIETs and what kind of capacity building may be required?

* their human resource personnel.

* How can DIETs mesh with various central and state education projects and missions?

* What kinds of collaboration and involvements of academic and non-government agencies can be forged?

It is not a coincidence that DPEP deliberately sidelined the newly created SCERTs and DIETs, often creating parallel State Missions which later became SSA Missions. It is also true that there were no budgetary allocations for teacher education institutions such as the IASE during the 10th Plan and only salary components were paid to SCERTs and DIETs even though they were Centrally sponsored Schemes too, like the SSA. In retrospect, it must have been necessary to weaken teacher education in order to make room for untrained teachers. (The SSA offers 20 days training to para teachers as compared to 1100 hours and 180 days as per NCTE norms)19. Under the 11th Plan, there is a move in some quarters for the teacher education scheme to be merged with SSA for all intents and purposes. Also during the 10th Plan period, unprecedented growth of private teacher education institutions took place to complete the privatisation process in all sectors of school education.

Why is it that institutions that were so successful in some areas in the same socio-political setting, under similar government norms, prove to be so disastrous in other areas?

Why has public institution building failed in school education for the larger public but has suceeded in select institutions such as Kendriya Vidyalayas, IITs, IIMs, a few Central Universties? Is the model of institutions that have evolved in India an appropriate one to provide services to the larger general public, especially the poor?

The successful institutions under the Nehruvian paradigm do share some common features: limited capacity, healthy financing, strong management by public spirited citizens, the large presence of the middle class among the students and researchers, the support and goodwill of extra-institutional agencies – especially civil society, commitment to the success of the students, strong governmental support, policies and norms; strong internal motivation of teachers, ability of parents to negotiate with institutional machinery; and the readiness of the work world to absorb the students once they pass through these institutions. The institutions for the marginalised in India, on the contrary do not seem to have any of these elements.

To evolve institutions that are truly people-friendly, the features identified among successful institutions will have to be infused in all institutions.

1. Foremost, of course is the adequacy principle. We need adequate number of institutions with adequate financial resources to cater to the larger public. Current policies such as providing a primary school within 1-km radius are not valid, for instance, there may be need for many more schools in a 1km radius in some densely populated areas and none in some other areas (such as in a reserved forest, for example). The actual number of institutions required will need to be worked out based on the population of school-going children in a specified geographic area.

Even this clinical, adequacy policy will not take into account the ‘social distance’ – invariably primary schools are located near the upper caste Hindu homes in villages – what it costs for a child, espcecially a girl child from the OBC/SC/ST/Minority background to traverse the short distance to the school, wherein she can only expect discrimination has been documented widely by activists, but is yet to find place in established literature. Until it does, even the Nehruvian paradigm however rigorously applied in terms of effective elements will not work.

2. The second principle needs to be public provision of education from pre-school all the way at least up to class 8 within a single institution over the next 5 years and progressively expanding the institutions, one year at a time, all the way up to Class 12 in subsequent years. The India of today has no place for the colonial practice of having one public school from classes 1-5, another school for 6-8, yet another for 8-10, in the ratio of 9 primary, 5 middle and 1 secondary school has to be done away with. Each public institution must assume responsibility for the child from pre-school till class 12 as it is done in private schools. Accountability can be built only then.

3. It is now more than ever clear that diversity is essential for quality and excellence at any stage of education. School for the children from marginalised communities alone are not likely to succeed. Islands of excellence really work only for a narrow band of the homogenous middle class, tied together with the colonial ‘school-tie’. The school classroom composition needs to be diverse, with a critical mass of children from middle class backgrounds.There is no reason to believe that the children from the poorest of homes do not recognise true quality and participate in it. A feedback study undertaken recently on 17,000 children in government schools of Delhi shows that the children in government schools unerringly picked those lessons as their most favourite that exactly mirrored the lessons rated high in academic quality using the best of international standards.20 The school classroom needs to be diverse even among the marginalised groups – it is through interactions everyday in the classrooms that leadership is built, as children mix and measure and negotiate with each other and shed the historical feelings of inferiority (or superiority). There would be no difficulty in getting middle class children, essential to build a diverse classroom, into free public school classrooms, provided it functions well – the kind of money private schooling requires has many parents reeling under it.

4. The colonial education system of gigantic Directorates of Education needs to be re-organised. Schools need to be autonomous, with every school being under a management committee drawn from civil society, as is the case with private schools, the IITs/IIMs etc. The present system wherein one Director, Education, manages thousands of schools is bound to fail.

5. No private school survives without coaching classes and tuitions after school, so much so the one has come to mean the inevitability of the other. It is impossible to ascertain which helped the child most anymore – my premise is that the school offers them the status and the ‘old boy network’ – the real engagement happens one on one in the tuition class. If that is indeed essential for academic success, well then, support systems outside the school hours need to be organised as essential part of free public schooling.

6. School ambience needs to improve. We need clean, colourful space, reflecting nature, the school children, needs to be environmentally friendly, radiating peace, with space for solitude as well as friendships.

7. While every child must go through the prescribed curriculum if only to experience the mainstream of the day, they must also learn to discern the valuable and not valuable in it. One way of doing this, and this has never been fully tried in this country, is to devise ways for children to test their knowledge within their own realities. The National Curriculum framework for school education 2005 prepared by the NCERT hints at this, but the fact is, NCERT continues to centralise the preparation of textbook at the national level thus contradicting its own recommendation for decentralised, contextualised textbooks and learning materials. A more effective role that NCERT can play would be to prepare a wide range of resource materials for teachers and textbook developers and then help each individual state to prepare their own contextualised materials.

8. The school-society divide needs to be bridged. Communities must engage with school activities, and need to be part of decision-making on children’s learning. Continous presence of parent representatives throughout the school day can go a long away in preventing religious, class, caste and gender bias in the classrooms; teacher absenteeism, and can help promote a more professional attitude on the part of teachers.

9. One of the ways to bridge the school-community divide and localise curricular content would be for parents and schools to collectively study the geo-cultural diversities in the neighbourhood of the school. These studies need for both parents and schools to view diversity as strength and not weakness; to document the diverse knowledge and cultural base, trace the historic development/barriers to universal development, provide for positive discrimination through enhancing and focussed time-bound development with outcomes that are child based and not activity/course based. The school as an institution must provide programmes that are designed using a life long approach, towards enabling meaningful work after school and for professional development thereafter.

10. A school can only be as effective as the teachers are. A massive, well-thought out programme of teacher orientation needs to reach every teacher, a programme that enables teachers to reflect, unlearn and re-learn their knowledge, attitudes and skills that will lead to the teachers’ professional commitment to ensure effective learning among all children.

The hard truth is that independent India has even enabled subverting the use of the term ‘public’ to mean high fee paying schools, and the term ‘government’ school for the real public school. The word is the world. Terms matter. What we call the Public school is anything but that. What we call government school is the real public school. When we internalise this, then we will get closer to the ideational India that Nehru’s vision invoked but did not quite manage to follow through.

11. Last but not the least, is a call for an autonomous people’s movement for education. If during the freedom movement, people supported leaders on the promise they symbolised, it is now time for support that is conditional to the concretisation of that promise for each and every one of India’s children.


1. Selected Educational Statistics, 2001

2. UNICEF: State of India’s Children Report, 2007

3. NIEPA, 1998

4. Thorat, S. 2007

5. Thakore, D., Chatterjee G., Nehru A. 2007. Illusory bonanza for Indian education. Education World. Bangalore

6. 1st to 6th Education Surveys, MS University, Baroda and NCERT

7. Weiner, Myron, The Child and the State of India, 1997

8. Bernstein Maxine (1980). Collpase at the Foundation.

9. Majumdar, Tapas (1998)

10. National Policy on Education, 1986, GOI

11. Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, 2001

12. District Primary Education Programme, GOI, 1992

13. Committee appointed by the High Court of Delhi under the Chairpersonship of Dr. Ganguly, Chairperson, Central Board of Secondary Education

14. 86th Amendment to the Constitution which makes education for the children of 6-14 age group a Fundamental Right under Right to Life

15. Patnaik, Prabhat – at the Conference of Vice-Chancellors of the Northern Region, New Delhi, 2007

16. Dwyer, Caroline: Decentralisation of Elementary Education

17. Guidelines for District Institutes of Education and Training, 1988, GOI

18. DIETs: Potentialities and Possibilities, MHRD-NIAS Consultation, 2007

19. National Commission for Teacher Education is a statutory body for all teacher education

20. Indradhanush Elementary Series of Textbooks – From Creation to Reception, SCERT, Delhi, 2007


GOI (2003). Selected Educational Statistics: 2001-2002. New Delhi: Planning, Monitoring and Statistics Division, Department of Secondary and Higher Education, Ministry of Human Resources Development.

Mehta A.C. (2005): Elementary Education in India: Where do we Stand: District Report Cards 2004. New Delhi. National Institute of Educational Planning and Administration.

Hasan, Z. (2005). Regulatory Mechanisms for Curriculum, Syllabi and Textbooks. New Delhi: Central Advisory Board on Education, Ministry of Human Resource Development, Government of India.

Kothari et.al. (1968). Education and National Development. Ministry of Education, Government of India: Delhi.

Rosser, Yvette. (2001). The Clandestine Curriculum: The Temple of Doom in the Classroom. Education About Asia. (Vol 6 (3)), Winter. Association of Asian Studies: University of Texas, Austin.

Spray, C. (2005). Female Political Leadership in India. Bristol: BASAS Annual Conference, University of Leeds.

Sadgopal, Anil. (1995). Lokshala: An Alternative Vision for Universalising Elementary Education.

Hasan, Z. et al. (2006). Report for the Sub-Committee on Education of Minorities for the 11th Plan, Ministry of Minority affairs, GOI.

Majumdar, Tapas. (2005). Report of the Sub-Committee on Girls’ Education and Common School System, Ministry of Human Resource Development, GOI.

NCERT. (2005). National Curriculum Framework, New Delhi.

Weiner, Myron. (1991). The Child & the State of India, Princeton University Press.

Dyer, Caroline. (2001). Operation Blackboard: policy implementation in Indian elementary education. Symposium Books. Oxford, UK.

Journal of South Asian Development, Vol. 2, No. 1, 75-105 (2007).

Praveen Jha. (2007). Guaranteeing Elementary Education: A Note on Policy and Provisioning in Contemporary India, Sage, New Delhi.

P. Geetha Rani. (2004). Growth and Financing of Elementary Education in Uttar Pradesh: A Province in India. Education Policy Analysis Archives. Gene V. Glass (Ed.). Arizona State University.

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