An Uncommon Cause

Pawan Singh

November2007 Cover Story
In the global village, the local is slowly being forgotten as privatisation increasingly informs development agendas. The Indian education system is an example of how this process is taking place, as government schools languish for want of better infrastructure and quality education, while private schools deliver at a premium. The commoditisation of education has gone on for decades given the tenet, ‘the more you pay, the more/better you can get’. This is more so at present, as going to school is being packaged as an experience of air-conditioned buses and classrooms, technologically sophisticated learning environments and snazzy ad campaigns screaming the difference between a school and a brand name. Quality, of course, remains a lost cause. While the elite minority in India is easily able to pay for this experience, the middle-classes cut corners to afford their children the ‘best’ there is in the name of education. Clearly, everybody wants to run in the race. But where does this leave those sections of society that are still struggling with government schools running on grossly inadequate facilities, irregular teaching staff, and economic pressures to send their children to work instead of school? Education then ends up becoming a paid-for experience, much like a holiday package, with different slabs for different strata of society. The constitutional rhetoric of equitable education for all thus stands reduced to lip-service as reforms do not resonate with changing governments.

A case for common schools
Borrowed primarily from Western models of education, such as those in the USA, UK and Europe, a common school system in India was first recommended in 1964 with a view to promote equitable access to education. The Education Commission (1964-66) had recommended a Common School of Public Education as the basis of building the National System of Education with a view to “bring the different social classes and groups together and thus promote the emergence of an egalitarian and integrated society.”1 The Kothari Commission on Education appointed by the Central Government headed by Dr. D.S. Kothari, then chairman of the University Grants Commission, critiqued the Indian education system for promoting social segregation and widening the class divide. The Commission’s report identified the disparities that existed at the primary and the secondary level of education by distinguishing between private and minority schools that catered to upper and middle class sections, and the publicly maintained government schools where quality of infrastructure and learning was inadequate. Recognising the higher quality of education provided by private institutions, the report emphasised the increasing gulf between the classes and the masses.


Based on this assessment, the concept of a Common School System (CSS) with neighbourhood schools came into being. Subsequent resolutions made by the Indian Parliament in 1986 and 1992 pledged commitment to the implementation of the Common School System. Four decades later, it remains something of a dead letter owing to lack of political will and resistance from influential sections of Indian society. Also, there is lack of consensus on the definition of common schools. Are these schools for the common people or do they envisage learning through a common system of boards and examinations?

Understanding the CSS
The common schools in countries like the USA and the UK are publicly funded schools providing quality education to all children. The American common school concept is based on the idea of a common place of learning for all people rather than ‘a school for commoners’. Education in these institutions is available to all at no cost, producing an education experience that dissolves social and economic boundaries. In Britain, despite the presence of government and private schools, a common syllabus is followed in both with a common qualifying examination for classes X (GCSE) and XII (‘A’ level). In India, the vision of the Kothari Commission was premised on a policy of non-discrimination and inclusion. The common school was envisioned as:

  1. A publicly funded school open to all children irrespective of caste, religion and economic status
  2. Requiring no tuition fee
  3. Offering a quality of education that would motivate the average parent to not send their children to private fee-charging institutions.

It further suggested reformatory measures in terms of committing national outlay to improve the infrastructure in government schools, promotion of learning in regional language or mother tongue, phased implementation of the CSS within a ten-year time frame along with efforts to integrate private schools with the system through a combination of incentives, disincentives and legislation.

One important difference that emerges from the recommendations of the Education Commission is the significance of the local context in devising a common system. The term neighbourhood school conveys a better sense of the underlying philosophy behind having such a system of education. Spelling out the guiding principle of the CSS, Professor Anil Sadagopal, a member of the Central Advisory Board on Education (CABE), clarifies the misperception that the CSS implies a uniform school system. Instead, it requires intimate involvement of the school with the community to respond to the local contexts and reflect the rich diversity across the country.2

Gurveen Kaur, who runs a kind of neighbourhood school called the Centre for Learning in Hyderabad (CFL), offers a simple definition of common school: “A school where children from different socioeconomic backgrounds attend the same school. Ideally, it should also be an nclusive school – with separate arrangements for those severely challenged. It is not a new idea – earlier government schools, and then later most Christian missionary schools were common schools. One cannot say that they didn’t succeed but later the commercialism and high academic competition (not necessarily improvement in quality) that crept in made these schools out-of-reach in both the senses for children from less privileged backgrounds.” This definition provides a basic model which is local and community-oriented and perhaps goes a step beyond by also responding to children with special needs.


Ekta Hattangady, from Ahmedabad-based Education Initiatives, stresses diversity and inclusion, “My understanding of the Common School concept is very basic. It calls for a ‘common school’ for children from diverse backgrounds to study together under a ‘single roof’. This goes beyond just having ‘common syllabus’ or ‘right to education’…. this concept talks of an integrated school itself.”3 This may be a desirable situation that mitigates the social and economic divisions in the administration of education. However, the two concepts, that of catering to local contexts and creating an inclusive space flourishing with diversity, appear incompatible. Recognising different learning abilities entails differently tailored solutions to address the specific needs of each group that adds to the diversity. This may prove to be a practical challenge, one not easily resolved. In evolving a practical approach to implementing neighbourhood schools as part of the Indian education system, Dr. Reddy’s Foundation (DRF) in Hyderabad has set up the Pudami Neighbourhood Schools to fulfill the mandate of universal education for all. Recognising the importance of an Englishmedium education experience that prepares a child to compete with his or her privileged peers, the Foundation has started English primaries in the vicinity of bigger neighbourhood schools catering to urban poor and low income groups. These English primaries are intended to provide pre-primary education to the age group of 3 to 8 within the local neighbourhood before the children can be integrated into a more mainstream system. These schools, in turn, are supported by an Education Resource Centre that provides additional support by undertaking teacher training, preparing educational material, designing curricula and developing academic monitoring mechanisms.

Sharat from DRF explained this initiative further, “The vision behind neighbourhood schools is to undertake the universal mandate of equitable education which is non-divisive in terms of class and ability. It is not a replacement for mainstream schools, rather an intervention in the larger context of education.”

DRF’s concept of neighbourhood schools thus adds another dimension to the CSS. Ability is assessed in relation to learning needs, and not necessarily performance. The focus on ensuring that children are better prepared to go to the next stage of learning is maintained through bridge courses that fill the learning gaps, not addressed by a linear system of education with grade-wise progression. The school syllabus has been adapted from NCERT and the State syllabus. Sharat maintains that English as a medium of instruction is not an alienating factor and that the support of Education Resource Centre ensures that all related needs are met.

DRF already has a school functional in the Hyderabad suburb of Chandanagar. It plans to have four more schools within this year in Hyderabad. DRF’s work and vision is certainly commendable as far as implementing a context-sensitive school system is concerned. But it fulfills the CSS philosophy only partly. The idea of having a common school for the classes and the masses still remains unaddressed in this model of neighbourhood schools. The Pudami schools largely focus on addressing the plight of slum-dwelling child labour, and in doing so they have established schools with regular teaching staff and modern infrastructure in terms of space and facilities.

Bridging the class divide
The CSS propounds an equitable system of education that brings together social classes to create an egalitarian and integrated atmosphere of learning. However, the greatest resistance in the implementation of such a system would come from the elite sections of society. The CSS has been perceived to work as instruments of state that will limit the choice of the parents to send their children to a desired school.

Ekta Hattangady reflects on the viability of the CSS, “I will speak from personal experience. I went to a government-aided school, a convent school, which two decades ago were supposedly the best schools. This is a time before the advent of private schools as we see today. I think that going to a school like mine was a blessing in disguise. Not only did I interact with people from different religious backgrounds, but also from different economic backgrounds. And I would say I learned a lot of acceptance. Acceptance as a virtue is higher than tolerance, and that comes only when one is in close contact with others who are from a different background.”


Sharat from Dr. Reddy’s Foundation explains how, instead of becoming instruments of state control, the CSS will actually produce a more vigilant educated class, “The absence of neighbourhood school education leads to a corrupt scenario. The poor are excluded from participating in education policies as there is no lobby for government schools. Neighbourhood schools create more accountability in the process of education and allow participation of the marginalised.” The absence of a strong lobby for government schools is ironic in the light of the fact that it is the government’s mandate to provide equitable education to all. The support from the leadership, intelligentsia, and the bureaucrats would be more meaningful if these sections chose to send their children to a common school.

Gurveen Kaur, CFL says, in this regard, “Just calling it a common school system won’t make it so. As long as private schools exist – especially as commonly as they do now – a common school system will be one in name only. Most privileged parents will opt for private schools.” Since private schools are here to stay, the CSS’s co-existence with the mainstream system would appear to pose an unviable scenario.

The question then is, how realistic or utopian an idea is the CSS, given the lack of political will, competition from private schools, and the class divide that essentially cannot be bridged? Ekta Hattangady remains optimistic yet uncertain about the viability of such a project, “You ask me if this is possible, I would say, YES… and desirable. But then, I am one individual. I work in education today, to reduce educational disparities between public and private domains, but will I be able to bridge the sociological gap? I have no answer to that.”

Gurveen Kaur sees a crucial role for privileged parents to make the CSS a reality, “It is not unrealistic at all but subscribing to this idea cannot stop at legislating it, but also working doggedly and determinedly to make it a reality within and outside the classroom to help people realise that this is the way forward. Till parents continue to choose ‘more’ for their own child over ‘the best for everyone’, the common school idea will remain utopian.”

The UPA government’s pledge in its Common Minimum Programme (CMP), to raise public spending on education to 6 per cent of the GDP was a big step forward in universalising access to quality education for all. Where budgetary commitment is absolutely mandatory to implement the CSS – for quality education translates directly into infrastructural adequacy – the issues outlined above need the necessary attention for CSS to materialise. It cannot be just the vision of an education commission or Parliamentary legislation. It has to be a ‘common’ vision for ministers, academics, and the civil society that comprises the privileged as well as the marginalized.

Bonding of a different kind

A visit to the neighbourhood school set up by Dr. Reddy’s Foundation in Chandanagar, a suburb on the western fringes of Hyderabad provided an insight into how the idea may be implemented. Kallam Anji Reddy Vidyalaya has a campus comparable to any other private school in terms of space and facilities. The school caters to (primarily) children from disadvantaged backgrounds in the neighbourhood between the ages of 6 and 25. With a holistic vision of education that starts with community mobilisation, this initiative takes into account individual needs and meets them through a variety of programmes. A Residential Bridge Course, meant for the age group 8 to 14, equips children from the slums with basic language and mathematics abilities before they are integrated with the mainstream. The mainstream education imparted in the school offers age-appropriate and activity based pedagogic inputs responding to the specific needs and capabilities of children.

The school focuses not just on enrolling children but also – and perhaps more importantly – on retaining them. Parents’ participation in the process of their children’s education begins at the point of counselling, where they come to understand and accept the benefits of a school education. There are regular community meetings to address their concerns and discuss problems to build awareness into the system on both sides. The fee structure too has been devised to suit their pockets.

The classroom is a mix of different age groups and emphasises practical learning as well. The children’s enthusiasm is palpable, both inside the classroom and on the playground. In the true spirit of community, the whole school, teachers, administrators and children, eat together, sharing their food… And perhaps that’s where it all begins – when the children share a meal, they also begin to experience the advantages of sharing a learning environment.

1. Sadagopal, Anil (2005). ‘A Compilation of Notes on Common School System’, Presented at the meeting of the Central Advisory Board of Education (CABE), New Delhi.
2. anil_sadgopal.pdf
3. This is not necessarily the viewpoint of the organization but the interviewee only.

Leave a Reply