- Shobha Shukla
It is heartening to note that the [Indian] Ministry of Human Resource Development (HRD), under the able guidance of Sri. Kapil Sibal, wishes to overhaul the education system in the country. It envisages replacing marks with grades (already been done by some Boards), having a 'one nation -one board principle (an excellent idea), and bringing a tough law to prevent, prohibit and punish educational malpractices (very laudable, indeed).
So the air is seeded with well intentioned reform clouds getting ready to burst upon our sick education system. Whether they will infuse the much needed new life to it, or drown it, is what we need to ponder on. Very often, the erudite reformers take a blinkered view of the scenario, while sitting in their ivory towers. So it is important to initiate a nation wide debate on this issue, inviting not only heads of Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) and higher institutes of learning, but persons at the grass roots' level too, that is the teachers and parents and students from different strata of society, who will be the direct beneficiaries or losers in the process of revamp. A mere scrapping of the class X board exam or introducing the grade system would mean poor cosmetic changes, without addressing the more vital problems.
Reforms need to begin at the lowest rung of ladder, viz. the primary level. It is at this stage that the child needs to be free from stress and the monster that a teacher/school is made out to be. With an increasing number of women joining the work force, the utility of play schools cannot be denied. But unfortunately, despite their mushrooming number, they are in the unorganized sector, with hardly any standards of quality control. The Honourable Minister would do well to strike at the grass roots, so that play schools do not become a mere extension of the 'learning by rote' system. It is here (and later in the primary classes) that the child can be introduced to environment protection, good hygiene habits, healthy food habits and communing with nature, in a very subtle manner, without the use of the written word. This becomes all the more important as parents find less quality time to spend with their kids. Corporate houses and government offices would do well to have such a 'home away from home' on their premises. This is one of the best ways to discharge their social accountability duties.
The primary level stage is the next one which is again largely into private hands. Education, for them, is big business, at least in the urban areas. Almost every other house in any locality has a board proclaiming to offer the best facilities (through English Medium) to a four year old child in the form of 'computer education', general knowledge etc. Very few boast of any sort of a play field. People, from even the lower middle class families, send their children to these schools, where they virtually learn nothing, by way of the three 'R's, even on reaching class V.
The situation could be slightly better in the missionary and public schools, the latter charging hefty fees. Computer is the buzzword these days. Parents do not seem to be interested in letting their child enjoy a carefree and happy childhood. Instead they want them to be store houses of crammed facts and figures. It is at the primary level that we can inculcate good moral and social values in the child as also a love and respect for nature and fellow human beings. Some schools score very high on this, but they are few and far between. One of my relative's daughter studies in class three in a reputed Parsi school of Mumbai . At this young age she sees to it that there is no wastage of water/electricity in her house and that garbage is reutilized as far as possible. She is totally against junk food and aerated drinks. And she has effortlessly imbibed all these values from her school, which have now become part of her psyche. At this tender age, it is easy to mould the young characters as they look up to their teachers and try their best to emulate them. If they are made environmentally conscience at this stage, there will be no need to 'Study' Environmental Education as a subject in higher classes (so many of us are up in arms against this additional burden of having to memorize another subject with no tangible benefits). And please, let us not replace the play ground with the computer lab. The irreparable harms of this are already there for all of us to see.
Surely till class V there should be no exams. This is the time to arouse the curiosity and hone the natural talents of the child. Interests in fine arts like music, dance, painting (so very important and so much neglected) will help to ignite their imagination, encourage their creativity, and groom them for a well balanced personality. There is much more (and better) to life at this stage than being adept at handling the computer and reciting dialogues from television programmes of the cartoon network. Reading (apart from textbooks) is another habit which has taken a backstage, thanks to the absurd notion that 'any activity which doesn't fetch high marks is a waste of time.' The intangible benefits of a love for reading are far too many and stand by us life long.
With the number of obese children on the rise, it is also important to emphasize on healthy eating habits and physical exercises and a love for nature. And I can say with certainty that all this is very much possible, if we have the will to do so.
Of course, we need specialized educators at the primary level to ensure a proper and balanced development of the child. It should be mandatory for schools to have play fields, airy class rooms with not more than 30 children to a teacher, compulsory yoga, and music and painting activities under competent teachers. The number of schools following these practices is abysmally small. If all schools follow these basic stipulations then parents would not seek specialized coaching of their child, from private tutors, to succeed at the interview for admission to nursery class in a school of their choice. It may seem grotesquely absurd, but such tuitions are immensely popular in urban areas.
The menace of 'coaching institutes' is another area, which needs immediate attention. If it is stopped, the students will be able to manage their time better and be de stressed. Gone are the days when taking private tuitions was a sign of the student's incompetence. There is big money in coaching these days and nowadays it seems to be a matter of prestige, rather than necessity, to join one. Parents feel it is part of their parental duty to send their ward for private tuitions, right from Class I to Class XII, whether there is actual need of it or not. Obviously the child will be stressed due to paucity of time, having to manage 'two study shifts'.
Several of my class 12 students admitted that they joined some coaching centre more out of peer/parental pressure. But once the heavy fees were paid they kept on wasting their time without improving their education levels at all. Incidentally, most of such students fare poorly at their Board Exams and also fail to qualify for a good professional institute. They would do much better if left to themselves, provided their teachers in school are sincere. Some state governments have tried, (but failed), to uproot this menace in the past. But the education/coaching mafia has such strong tentacles that nothing short of a strong diktat can deter them. This is one field where the HRD ministry needs to do some thing drastic.
At the middle school and secondary/higher secondary level again, it is a good idea to have a uniform pattern of education throughout the country, with some lee way given for regional modifications. But there should be just one examining body/board for the class XII level examinations. It will not make much of a difference if the class X board examination is scrapped, or the marks are replaced by a grade point system. The gradation in marking will and must remain. It is only the allotted marks that are changed to grades and some examining bodies are doing it already. But it does not make much sense to make the class X board examination optional. Either it should be there or not there. Else it will create more traumatic discrimination in the students.
What is more important is to revamp the examination system. At present it seems to be more of a farcical comedy than a serious exercise. There is an absurd emphasis, right from school authorities, to parents and students to get high marks. So much so that the latter are encouraged to cheat and score well by hook or by crook. The undeserving students stand to gain, at every step of the process. These days the teacher is always held responsible /accountable for good results, but rarely for the good conduct of her pupils. Many school managements encourage students to cheat, (particularly in the practical examinations), use unfair means and score high marks. Students obviously are no longer ashamed to cheat. They feel rather proud at having hoodwinked the authorities. There are numerous cases where parents have withdrawn their child from a particular school (after Class X) as the management did not guarantee to her full marks in Class XII Practical examinations. They preferred to send their ward to one which delivered these goods. So much for the moral character of the so called 'character builders'.
But my contention is why have such a system which encourage one to cheat and get away with it with impunity.
At present, every Board is trying to outdo the other by way of giving high marks (by diluting the marking scheme), and not by way of imparting quality education. We have students getting 100% marks in subjects like English, Hindi and Economics. Yet their knowledge of the subject is abysmally poor. The system of conducting practical exams in the Science subjects is fraught with aberrations and needs to be seriously revamped.
Exams should not be an ordeal, but make students capable of tackling pressures of life, without getting affected psychologically. Stress is an over hyped and fashionable word these days. The media has contributed to this stress factor in a big way, by making much ado about nothing. It is ridiculous to see students being interviewed before and after taking the Board Exams. It is pathetically amusing to see parents (particularly fathers) discussing the entire question paper with their ward as soon as she/he comes out of the examination hall. What is worse is the anguish and discomfort writ large on the face of the child at this 'childish' behaviour of the parent. I have witnessed such scenes very often during the course of my invigilation duties for Class XII examinations. It is such irresponsible behavorial attitudes which increase the stress levels of the students and not the actual exams
Some stress is necessary for all of us. Human beings are generally said to perform better under stress. Too much of dilution will make life insipid and unpalatable, in the same way as over stress will crush it completely. It is more important to impart life skills to our students. We should neither molly coddle nor suppress them. They have to be made competent enough to face the challenges of life; not to be deterred by failures; to accept success with grace and not brashness. They should not feel happy in walking with the crutches of their parents' power/position. Rather they have to learn to earn their place in society by rightful means.
All this cannot be achieved without the cooperation of the teachers. There needs to be more accountability and better compensation in the teaching profession. It is only the government schools which implement fully any pay scale revisions for teachers. Yet they are notorious for under performance. Private schools (including missionary schools) maintain better standards, but their teachers are grossly underpaid, especially those teaching the higher classes. They always cite paucity of funds as a major problem. The HRD Ministry would do a yeoman's service if it applies the 'equal pay for equal work' policy and makes a sincere effort to remove these discriminatory anomalies. Of course, higher financial benefits will have to be matched with better performances on part of the teacher community. They will also have to utilize their expertise and energy for teaching in class and not in coaching centres.
It is true that achieving this (or even some part of it) involves getting across many hurdles-political as well as logistic. Already there are loud voices of disagreement coming from some states. But instead of being carried away by populist measures, the 'powers that be' should don their thinking caps to figure out how to make it happen. A sensible education policy is in the interest of the students, parents and teachers-- in fact the entire nation.
(The author is the Editor of Citizen News Service (CNS) and also teaches Physics at India's prestigious Loreto Convent. Email: email@example.com, website: www.citizen-news.org)