As Director of the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT), Prof. Krishna Kumar has brought to his position an awareness of the systemic realities in Indian society’s approach towards Education for All. His sensitivity to the teacher-student relationship and openness to research in teaching methods relevant to Indian conditions have finally brought centre stage some of the exciting educational experiments, notably by Eklavya, the Hoshangabad Science Teaching Programme and the MV Foundation, among others. Some of these approaches have found place in the school curriculum.
However, the bottlenecks in democratising the school system persist. Krishna Kumar has gone on record to say: “There is plenty of evidence to say that India’s present-day society lacks the desire to see every child at school.”
For years, he and other educationists such as Anil Sadgopal and Shantha Sinha have been warning that the government school system founded on the Indian Constitution will collapse unless a genuine national effort is made to prevent it. The far-reaching recommendations of the Central Advisory Board of Education (CABE) and the new National Curriculum Framework (NCF) cannot take off “until people stop believing that only the best and the brightest matter … and that only their own children deserve education of the best quality….”
Krishna Kumar is the author of A Pedagogue’s Romance (Oxford). An advocate of peace education, he has written Battle for Peace (Penguin) and Prejudice and Pride, which is a study of Indian and Pakistani history textbooks. Excerpts from an interview with Krishna Kumar:
Education was mentioned no fewer than five times in the United Progressive Alliance’s Common Minimum Programme. But despite the work done by the revived CABE to achieve a national consensus, there is a feeling of let-down after the initial enthusiasm of 2004. We hear the Prime Minister expressing hope that the nation’s schooling system will improve. Has the agenda shifted away from education?
Education is a long-term investment. To make such an investment generously, one needs faith in the future and the hope that we will get there. For appropriate investments in education we also need socio-political imagination and a social consensus on certain basic ideas, such as the idea that every child matters. In our country such a consensus has yet to emerge. Far too many people still believe that only the so-called bright or smart children matter and deserve education of the best quality.
Also, a lot of people perceive education as a private concern, in the sense that they worry about their own children but don’t feel hurt or pained when they see others’ children exploited or treated badly. In such a social ethos, any government will have difficulty in pushing radical educational reforms.
In 2004, you took over as Director of the NCERT, which guides the State governments and provides replicable materials and models for school education and teacher education. After embarking on a curriculum overhauling exercise, in line with the National Policy on Education of 1986, you oversaw the emergence of the NCF in 2005. How representative were the debates and discussions held for this purpose?
I am very happy that the Ministry of Human Resource Development enabled the NCERT to build the National Curriculum Framework with the help of CABE. It is a document with tremendous potential for guiding long-term reforms in the system of school education. A massive attempt was made to enable all representative voices to be heard across the table so that ideas could be sifted. A major concern was to benefit from research to incorporate its findings in curricular policy. As many as 21 National Focus Groups were set up to cover all major points and areas relevant for curricular re-designing.
Each focus group included not only academicians and educationists from various universities and institutes of teacher education, as well as the NCERT’s own faculty, but also, very importantly, practising schoolteachers from all over the country. Quite a few rural teachers were among them. Their voices had earlier been largely ignored. In addition, we ensured that the voices of the more innovative NGOs [non-governmental organisations] known for their good work in education were also heard. These grassroots organisations had worked where the system had failed to reach, and NCF 2005 mainstreamed their ideas and innovations. The draft NCF also received wide attention and participation from the States. Its final approval by the CABE marked a historic national consensus on pressing issues in education and on the nature of curricular reforms required. We count this as a positive achievement.
The approval of NCF 2005 was followed by the preparation of new syllabi and textbooks with the approval of a National Monitoring Committee. The new syllabi focussed on reorganising knowledge in a psychologically and socially defensible manner. The issue of curricular burden, caused by the incomprehensibility of irrationally assembled syllabi and poorly prepared textbooks, was addressed.
The new textbooks are an entirely new kind of material. The main concern of NCF 2005 was: “Why has education become a burden rather than a source of joy?” The books are based on the recognition that children construct knowledge with the help of experience and activities. In every area, from science and maths to social science and language children must be given a space to reflect, ask questions, wonder, and probe sources of knowledge outside the textbook. The NCF process has been fruitful in bringing about a major shift in perspective. It permits the child’s view to become the centre of teaching.
Isn’t it a fact that NCF 2005 goes only to elite schools, mostly English medium, Kendriya Vidyalayas, Navodaya Schools and private schools? And there too, it is only after the eighth standard that CBSE [Central Board of Secondary Education] schools are required to use them? What is being done to promote these curricular guidelines and model textbooks in State-run schools?
The NCF is certainly not meant only for elite schools. Its approach and recommendations are for the entire system. A number of its recommendations, in fact, focus on rural schools. It is true that the syllabus and textbooks based on it are being used by all the CBSE schools. But several States, such as Goa, Sikkim, Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand, have already sought copyright permission to reprint them. So, NCF-based material is also being used in many State schools.
More significantly, quite a few States are currently preparing their own plans for syllabus and textbook reforms. Kerala, Bihar, Mizoram and Punjab are examples of this kind. Within the next few years we expect to see an NCF-oriented curriculum design in these States.
The NCERT had given a one-time grant of Rs.10 lakh to each State in the country to promote NCF in the language of the State and to compare its current syllabus with the syllabus we have proposed, so that a plan for future reforms can be made. Several States have taken up this challenge. This exercise is being carried out with the involvement of State Councils for Educational Research and Training (SCERT) and District Institutes of Education and Training (DIET). The most recent experience is that of Uttar Pradesh, which organised a seminar in Lucknow and invited all the DIETs to participate in the process of analysing the NCF and its relevance for the State.
Which are the areas in which change is not up to the expectations – such as examination reform and teacher education, both of which will impact the implementation of NCF 2005?
These are two sectors that need urgent attention. A modest beginning has been made in examination reforms. The Council of Boards of School Education (COBSE) has made an effort to build consensus among the 42 school boards in India, on some basics like improving the quality of questions. This is no small matter, and I am happy that the CBSE has taken some concrete steps to include at least some questions of a reflective nature in the examinations to be held in March. It is not clear whether all the subjects will show evidence of this effort, but I am hopeful that the change will be visible. Among other boards, Kerala has taken some measures. Let us see how much change they bring about. Evidently, examination reform is a complex exercise and India has a long way to go before its children can benefit from an improved strategy to assess them. The NCF’s recommendations on other aspects of examination reforms have received scant attention. For instance, it recommends a staggered examination calendar, offering children the freedom to take some papers in March, the remaining later on.
Similarly, the NCF says that children who repeat Class X should have the option of taking a school-based exam for Class X rather than the Board exam if they wish to do so. Schools have welcomed this recommendation, but no Board has moved in this direction. The NCF’s focus group on exam reforms talks about several other measures to reduce stress and to make examination an educative process.
If progress in examination reform has been slow, the case of teacher education is worse. The sector is facing a grim situation, with rampant commercialisation on the one hand and a lifeless, uninspiring B.Ed. curriculum on the other. Quality teacher education programmes such as the B.El. Ed. of the Delhi University, focussing on the specific needs of elementary education, are rare. We need drastic reforms in B.Ed. and other teacher training programmes for primary and pre-primary classes. We are currently designing a new course structure for our own Regional Institutes of Education. It will be a modest beginning. The real power to bring about major changes in this sector lies with the National Council of Teacher Education.
Would you agree that for young people looking for opportunities, teaching is the last option, and a woman’s option? That is, given the status of women, it is not a “serious” profession.
These are very negative trends. Frankly, I feel quite worried about the state of teacher education in the country today. We are in a situation far worse than when the Chattopadhyaya Commission took stock of the issues of ghettoisation of the profession. They made significant recommendations for making teaching attractive and for teachers’ welfare. But after the 1990s and globalisation-related structural adjustment programmes, teaching lost out both in terms of status and in professional autonomy.
And this has happened even as the teacher’s responsibilities have greatly increased. Society does not recognise the contribution of teachers in dealing with the problems that children face today, with many stresses in the social fabric and in families. Nor does the state. With the result, statutory reforms for improving the available provisions for teachers have remained neglected. The profession is in a deep crisis today and in certain parts of the country it is in shambles, with unqualified, part-time para-teachers serving in place of professionally committed teachers.
The CABE discussions were followed with considerable interest. They ranged from girls’ education and inclusive education, universalisation of secondary education, autonomy of higher educational institutions, integration of culture education in school curriculum, regulatory mechanism for textbooks and parallel textbooks taught in schools outside the government system and financing of higher and technical education. Also, there were discussions on the often repeated promise of neighbourhood schools for all, the Common School System. What is happening to these recommendations?
The CABE was a remarkable exercise, and has performed a very important role. If the recommendations given by its sub-committees over the last four years are implemented, they would move India towards a national system of education with improved quality. But the CABE, like the NCERT, is an advisory and not a statutory body. It is only an instrument of dialogue, and has no executive authority.
And yet, despite the different political scenarios and viewpoints, a national consensus was achieved in the deliberations over the NCF in September 2005. The CABE also approved several other reports submitted by its own sub-committees.
The Eleventh Plan has received enormous inputs from these reports – for example, on girls’ education and on incorporation of culture in the curriculum. The report on regulatory mechanisms for textbooks used outside the government system of schools was also approved, but the States have done little in the matter of the recommendations.
On higher education, the CABE approved a range of good proposals, but this is an even more difficult sector for reforms than school education, apparently not only because of its commercial potential but also because several basic reform ideas have been neglected for a very long time. Curricular reforms belong to this category, and it includes the question of orienting college teachers towards communicative and interactive teaching.
The CABE had recommended a Right to Education Bill to implement in the 86th Amendment to the Constitution. Are we anywhere near passing this Bill? Will the Bill be passed by the Centre or the States? How will the Bill negotiate the difficult space of jurisdiction over schools, given that education is a State subject?
That is a moot question. The Right to Education Bill, even if it is passed by the Centre, will have to be implemented in the States. So the Government of India decided to formulate a Model Bill for the States to pass. But the States’ response has not been positive. The Fundamental Right to Education Bill has yet to be notified in order to get enforced.
Centre-State relations in this crucial area are complex and have not been properly defined or even examined in the current context. The Centre provides broad orientations and the States are supposed to look after execution plans. We need far greater clarity, we need to put our minds together. It is not so much a political but an administrative issue, which has remained unaddressed since colonial times. For instance, the Kothari Commission back in the 1960s recommended a pattern of 5+3+ 4 years of schooling. This has not happened everywhere. More than 10 States continue with the practice of four years of primary education. Similarly, there are multiple boards of education.
In Tamil Nadu, for instance, there are as many as four boards, or streams. We have a backlog of reforms in education, both of structural and administrative nature. As for the Bill to enforce the right to elementary education with financial support, we need Central legislation.
We live in a very divided society. People just defend themselves and their own interests in everything. (Points to bottled water on the table) We even drink different kinds of water, and education is like that. It all depends on class, caste, gender. For at least two decades there has been a high value placed on education even by the poorest. But the system has not evolved to the point where their children get the attention they deserve.
This interview first appeared in Frontline Vol. 25, Issue V, March 1-14, 2008. It is reprinted here with permission.