Decreased allocations for education, reluctance to recognise pandemic fallout, focus on exemplar schools, will sharpen educational divide

In a modern society, particularly one which is high on aspirations and low on resources, spiritualist pursuits are often pitched higher than materialist desires. Our national policies and budgetary provisions, it seems, regard education in the esoteric domain, which is not/will not be constrained by financial resources. How else does one explain the contradiction between enacting the Right to Education Act, making education a fundamental right, the implementation of which will certainly require more resources than ever before, and the gradual shrinking of state funds for education? Added to this is the new National Education Policy, 2020 (NEP) where the state’s commitment to strengthening the Public Education System (PES) is reiterated and yet the government allocates Rs 6,000 crore less on education in Budget 2021 as compared to last year.

Before examining the ways in which the state has been wriggling out of this impasse, one must acknowledge that it was the “inadequacy of funds” and “legal implications of making education a fundamental right”, which forced the Constitution makers to place education under Part IV, the non-justiciable directive principles of state policy — not Part III, the justiciable fundamental rights. In alignment with this legacy, education policies over the years have exacerbated differential educational provisioning for different groups of people. That explains measures like allocation of more funds for a particular kind of a school — the budget talks of setting up 15,000 exemplar schools — or making just a few seats available to the dispossessed in supposedly good private schools.

More recently, the state’s position with regard to the provision of education in general and budgetary allocations to education in particular hinges on two paradoxical axes. On one axis, is its appreciation of the commitment and passion of the community volunteers to reach out to children who may not be learning for multiple reasons. They are intrinsically motivated, driven by passion and selfless service. Acknowledging the contribution of such people, the NEP proposes ideas of “peer-tutoring and trained volunteers” as “voluntary and joyful activity” to support teachers to impart foundational literacy and numeracy skills to children in need of such skills. It also proposes tapping of active and healthy senior citizens, school alumni, local community members and maintaining databases of literate volunteers, retired scientists, alumni, and educators for the same. None of these measures have any cost implications. While such efforts need to be applauded, they cannot be regarded as substitutes of the formal state apparatus. Such a view also de-legitimises the teaching profession-associated qualifications and the training mandated by the state for people to become teachers. In the name of passion and commitment, salaries and working conditions of the local community, most of whom are unemployed youth and women, are often compromised. This is exploitation and needless to say, it also impacts the quality of education for the poor.

On the other axis, is the position advocating partnerships between public and private bodies which rests on the belief that the dysfunctionality of PES can be tackled by infusing them with managerial principles of choice, efficiency and accountability. Not that the involvement of private individuals/organisations/schools in education is anything new in India. However, in the past, private schools catered to the relatively better-off but now the poor are being targeted for profit. This narrative draws its support from two sources: Poor learning outcomes of children, particularly those studying in government schools as reported by large scale assessment surveys, and large-scale absenteeism/dereliction of duty on the part of government school teachers. Reasons for these are attributed to government school teachers having no accountability.

NEP 2020 also states that the non-governmental philanthropic organisations will be supported to build schools and alternative models of education will be encouraged by making their requirements for schools as mandated in the RTE less restrictive. This is clearly problematic but convenient as the justification underlying this position is that one needs to shift focus from inputs to outputs, clearly indicating that schools can do with lesser financial resources, and compromised inputs may not necessarily lead to compromised outputs. The nature of the partnership between public and private has also changed from the private supporting the public to private jostling for space with the public, even replacing them. It’s a win-win situation for both — the state gets to spend less and private players make profit.

It’s strange that this year’s budget makes no reference to the pandemic and the multiple challenges it has thrown up for the poor. Parents who depend on the lowest rung of free government schools are the ones who need maximum state support and they are the ones who will be short-changed by further reduction of state expenditure on education. The pandemic has worsened the misery of this group and the state need not be reminded of its responsibility. With poor parents being economically constrained with means of livelihood being snatched away from, with neither cultural capital to support their children’s online learning, nor money to buy gadgets, nor food to replace mid-day-meals given in schools, nor provision of a stable, secure, stress-free environment to grow up in, more financial resources are required.

Additional resources would perhaps have helped in drop-out children returning to school, maintaining infrastructure, which out of disuse may have got spoilt, open schools with a secure and hygienic environment, ensure that teachers work with children either in or outside schools, conduct surveys etc. While money may not ensure quality education, lack of adequate resources will only deepen the social divide between people.

The writer is professor and dean, School of Education, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai

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