Decolonizing Indian school education

G. Gautama

Decentralized, local, approachable attempts must be the way ahead.

The aims of education need to be such that the citizen and the state flourish. We seem to have moved seamlessly from British colonization to colonization by capital, Indian and Western. While there was widespread opposition to the British colonization, there seems little or no resistance to the global companies extracting Indian resources and labour. It is not even seen as colonization.

Education, culture and GDP
“The British came to trade with one of the richest countries in the world – a country which had 23 per cent of global GDP… a country where poverty was unknown, a country that was the world leader in at least three industries – textiles, steel and ship building. A country that had everything… and after 200 years of exploitation, expropriation and clean outright looting, this country was reduced to one of the poorest countries in the world by the time the British left in 1947.”1

All pre-British schools were multi-age schools. How did the teacher learn to teach? In India we have had school buildings with walls, without walls, with roof made of thatch, stone or tiles. Surely the small schools that ran in these myriad places could not depend on a common design. Centuries of experience and honed processes say that education does not depend on the shape of the building, size or material used in construction. A culture was founded on such institutions of learning.

All learning then happened without Internet, computers and yellow buses running hither and thither. Are we learning enough from the ancient culture of this land?

With centralized control by British rulers, the schools run by entrepreneur-teachers gave way to schools run by employee-teachers who were answerable to the ‘owners’. Schools moved from low infrastructure and high value for the teacher to high value for the building and lower value for the teacher. The teacher became a cog in the business of education. With capital in the hands of the few, and governance in the hands of the ruling dispensations, people lost their capacity to initiate, iterate and reiterate, evoke and revoke, subvert and transform, find stable, relevant, solutions. But all such learning did not die.

For example2, at least 50% of plumbers in India come from the region of Kendrapara. Yes, the region of the size of about half a district gives us this astounding number of plumbers. In many villages every home has at least 2-3 members as plumbers…. A village elder told me that children here did not play with toys. The tools of the plumbing trade lying in their homes serve as toys! Another said, “Here plumbing is in the air.” Plumbers or not, people of the household all have basic plumbing skills!

Kendrapara is no freak story. North of Varanasi every village has a story. One will see a “welding village” or a “fitting village”. Any construction supervisor knows that the best masons come from Malda, best bar-benders from Jharkhand and Odisha, cooks from Jagatsinghpur, tile layers from around Jodhpur. Every district has a unique story, undocumented but rich and worthy.

Data from the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) suggests that 1.7% of India’s 400 million workforce learn skills on their own. These schools of learning, educate eight million individuals. These individuals are learning and contributing to the economy. Should we learn something from a tradition as old as the hills in this country?

Capital, infrastructure and the human being
Our policy supports only capital-based institutions. Today institutions themselves are the barriers to learning. When technology has made information access a cheap commodity, it is visible that information does not equate to learning. NEP 2019 asks for partnership but mainly investment. It is not possible to stoke the entrepreneurial spirit by making people dependent. If we need entrepreneurs we need to make way for them.

This vast country’s education continues to be hostage to capital and infrastructure. This approach, to serve a master with different priorities, is not concerned with unleashing the genius of this land. How different is our vision of education today from that in the 19th Century?

Institutions with high capital investment need high running costs to pay their employee teachers. Investors want Return On Investment (ROI)! The HM is answerable to one boss, and the boss is answerable to the next one. In the government system the chain is long! The gap between the spirit of the child and the top of the educational ladder is large. Visions do not percolate easily. Even well intentioned structures cannot avoid dilution when the chain is long. Employee teachers most often need to go beyond the call of duty to touch the spirit of children.

The genius of this land was that it made the teaching and learning holistic and easily accessible, in the community without barriers of administrative structures. A teacher with a small number of students, sitting beside, working alongside the learner was the established model. India, in the grip of modernity, has failed to grasp the significance of the decentralized approach to learning that characterized the country before the British.

We see, broadly speaking, one model of school. And without altering the form, the end result will not change. The COVID moment presents opportunities to rethink and re-examine some of the fundamentals of this form. We do not count plumbing shops of Kendrapara, or homes where Madhubani is practiced as viable institutions of learning. What if we legitimized them, learnt from them, improved them? What if India asked for, and identified people, to teach the young, and took down barriers?

Before British rule, learning did not bow to capital. Learning in Madras and Calcutta presidency, happened irrespective of caste or religion or gender, so all could read, write and do arithmetic (thus spake Robert Clive!), The socially regulated entrepreneur-teacher survived and India flourished. The British rule reduced the teacher to a tethered job horse, a cross between a blue and white-collar worker. Sowing seeds of self-reliance, does not flow from British rule, which was aimed at extraction of resources.

Large institutions vs multiple small ones
Ivan Illich writes in Tools For Convivality, (1973) “I believe that society must be reconstructed to enlarge the contribution of autonomous individuals and primary groups to the total effectiveness of a new system of production designed to satisfy the human needs which it also determines. In fact, the institutions of industrial society do just the opposite. As the power of machines increases, the role of persons more and more decreases to that of mere consumers.”

The economy of scale model believes that big scale is cheaper! This approach often doesn’t count the hidden cost of subsidized land, power and infrastructure, or the immeasurable cost to human potential of such a model. Big looks attractive to elevate the GDP on the world stage. In India before the British, we had multiple small institutions, the Lilliputians. Can the Lilliputians be encouraged, as much as Apple and Google and Microsoft, particularly as they don’t ask for subsidies? They need to be allowed, not choked, legitimized, not contemptuously pushed away. Gandhi pointed out that the genius of this land will be unshackled by legitimizing flexible, small schools. This legitimacy was denied to Indian schools by the British overlords, by making certificate from recognized institutions as criteria for government jobs.

It should be possible through centralized exams to verify competency and to ensure that the educational processes are happening. However unrealistic it looks, a decentralized approach to learning and teaching, is the way for the young to be educated in a convivial social setting. COVID 19 has provided India an opportunity to test, at no loss, the efficacy of the model of education before the British.

If the idea looks far-fetched, one may suggest – please see what is happening in your neighbourhood. Are there not a few small groups who gather? One would be very surprised if, with the innate genius of this land, such a thing were not already happening, as a sensible, viable way of moving ahead in this time of crisis.

Centralized AND Decentralized
Big data and high technology while serving individuals, serve those who strive for control and domination. But the balance is tilting. The capital and infrastructure intensive schools and colleges have been beached by COVID 19 much like the beautiful bridge in Choluteca in Honduras. The river has shifted!

While quantitatively India is inching closer to universal education, the quality of its education has been questioned particularly in its government-run school system. While more than 95 percent of children attend primary school, just 40 percent of Indian adolescents attend secondary school (Grades 9-12). While only 25% of all K-12 schools in India are private schools, they account for 40% share in student enrolment.3 Decentralized, local, approachable attempts have to be the way ahead.

And those who last the course, obviously, look for white collar possibilities. Most drop out, knowing this is not going to be possible. India’s children carry hopes of a future with work, steady income, dignity. The dropout rates should be a matter of concern. It means that as the young grow, they don’t see relevance of education in the real world. With the march of AI, an imminent crisis is emerging. Jobs are going to drop off more steeply. Entrepreneurial approaches are the only hope.

The number of jobs were anyway dropping before COVID swept the globe. Governments may still wish to gamble with the large companies at the high table, as they are not sure. However subsidizing large systems is to risk all one’s money on sinking ships, as the corporate debts show.

Is it riskier to continue or riskier to change?
Multiple small institutions can be a real investment in India’s genius. Local manageable environments, when the individual or small group is fully in charge, can be a hedge against large-scale system failure. With more sweeps of more viruses expected4, putting all our faith in one model of schooling is unwise. Citizens need space to craft solutions, not just consume solutions from the global markets. Deregulation, in our time, could provide a resurgence in education, work and jobs.

Kendrapara and teachers of art, craft and dance, show us that the wisdom and spirit remains. They are not called schools, just as Kendrapara is not recognized as a training institution. Do we see the Vikalp Sangam gatherings as learning, sharing, innovating institutions, educating many across the country? Are these lessons not valuable, possibly more than those learnt through teacher training?

The tech education will happen thanks to the momentum of the high tech companies and their financial clout. With that the paradigm intones, “You, the person, matter little, the gadgets matter more!”

It may be important for the nation to say, “You, the person, the citizen, matter more, and manufactured things are for your use! As a creative human being you have options. You don’t owe allegiance to brands, computer programs or operating systems” Knowing the limitations of the current approach, will India again make space for the banished teacher-entrepreneur? To ride out the Covid crisis and do justice to its young, can we legitimize and deregulate the small school, that does not depend on infrastructure and capital, but only on teacher-entrepreneurs.

1. Shashi Tharoor Talk at Oxford Union 2015
2. From Unleashing the forgotten billion, Yuvaraj Galada

The author, an Educator-Learner at Pathashaala, a young residential school under Krishnamurti Foundation India, has worked in KFI schools for about 30 years, of which 18 were as Principal, The School KFI in Chennai. He can be reached at

The first part of this article appeared in the November 2020 issue.

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