Under Kamaraj’s scheme, enrollment went up to 75%, but now, every single year sees fewer students applying to study in government schools.

How TN painstakingly built a public education system and why its crumbling nowImage for representation only
news Education Friday, June 01, 2018 - 13:43

In 1953, C. Rajagopalachari’s government had to resign after it introduced the Madras Scheme of Elementary Education. Critics dubbed the new educational policy as Kula Kalvi Thittam or the Hereditary Education Policy brought forth with intent to perpetuate caste hierarchy.

A few major changes the scheme proposed was the reduction of school hours from 5 hours to 3 hours per day and the introduction of shifts so that every school could function in two sessions, catering to two groups of students.

It was suggested that during the time when they were not in school, boys could learn farming or other family crafts from their fathers and girls could learn housekeeping from their mothers.  The policy was brought forth considering the enormous cost of educating children in the age group of 6 to 11. Rajaji, being a fiscal conservative, did not want to expand the budgetary allocation for building more schools or recruiting more teachers.

But the issue that was neglected from consideration was the adequacy or inadequacy of 3 hours of formal schooling for students of that age group in a milieu where only about 20% of the population in the state was literate.  Another important question raised was whether the teachers could do justice to the taught with the additional burden on them.

Due to widespread opposition from within and outside his party, Rajaji had to resign, paving way for K. Kamaraj to become the Chief Minister. Kamaraj, recognizing the role of primary education in building a new nation and in tackling massive illiteracy, scrapped the scheme.

Kamaraj’s government took up large-scale revamping of the educational facilities, which involved reopening about 600 schools that were closed down and opening 12,000 more new schools. Efforts were taken to open a school in every village with a population of over 300.

In order to universalize enrolment, poor students were exempted from fees, uniforms were provided to weed out caste/class differences, the mid-day meal scheme was introduced and primary education was made compulsory.  These efforts bore fruits - the percentage of school going children in the age group of 6 to 11 increased from 45% to 75% and the literacy rate in the region soared by about 15%.

The lasting contribution to the education in the state by the Kamaraj regime was the wide network of schools created in Tamil Nadu, which were strengthened using infrastructure and instruction (by improving the curriculum, recruitment of qualified teachers, etc.) over a period of time.

But the trend has completely reversed in the past 25 years or so. Every year, there has been a decline in the percentage of students entering government schools. This has resulted in many government schools being closed down across the state owing to a lack of student strength in the past few years.

This year too, social media is ripe with speculation of 800 to 1000 schools with less than 10 students shutting down. What happens to these remaining students who most probably come from the poorest economic background? How far away from home is the new school that they are allotted to? Is the government ensuring that these students are not dropping out of school? And what about their peers who have moved to private schools with the dream of getting better quality education?  By just being privately run can these institutions ensure better quality of instruction?

A range of private schools with the promise to provide better quality, English-medium education has sprouted up across the state. What are some of the fallouts of this trend?

  • Not much research has been on the financial burden that this has caused the lower-income families.

  • Many of these parents are not equipped to ascertain if the education received by their wards in these private schools is indeed of good quality.

  • Looking at the rate at which English-medium schools are sprouting up in every small town and nook of a city, one is left wondering where these schools source trained teachers to impart instruction in English on a salary that would probably be one-fourth of what the government teachers get paid.

  • Finland is considered to have one of the best school systems in the world with almost all students in the country receiving free schooling. Pasi Sahlberg, an educationist attached to Stanford University attributes the Finnish success story to the fact that every single class in their schools has students from a mix of socio-economic background. The exact opposite has happened in the Indian scenario with our school system stratifying our children by placing them in the institution catering to their respective socio-economic group.

What led to this situation? Can the government abdicate one of its most important welfare responsibilities to the private sector?

The failure of government policy to keep pace with the aspirations of the people is one of the foremost reasons for this condition. The infrastructure of our public schools have been completely neglected with many of them not even having good toilet facilities. It is believed that our government schools have not been equipped with modern teaching resources and have fallen behind in use of technology. Educated parents, who have been exposed to other systems of learning, find the curriculum and methodology outdated and, hence, unsuitable for facing national level entrance exams. Of late, government schools have been forced to open English-medium sections in order to prevent the student strength from going down further. Corruption in the recruitment process, has led to a lack of leadership to manage many of these schools.

If this trend continues, the remaining government schools will become fortified ghettos (have you seen the tall compound walls surrounding our government schools?) catering to the poorest section of the society, those from troubled family conditions and the destitute who cannot afford anything more.  But what the Delhi government schools have achieved offers us some clues towards how some of these issues can be addressed to reverse this downward trend.

The views expressed are the author's own.

Lakshmi Ramachandran taught at Olcott School, Besant Nagar, Chennai after having trained as a teacher in the United States. She has also had a long stint in the education-technology sector. She is also Secretary, Tamil Nadu All India Professionals Congress.

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