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A commemoration and a counter-revolution in the making

A major event which hogged media coverage in July 2015 was the 25th anniversary of India’s economic reforms (1991). However, that coverage missed out the unintended and decisive contribution that economic reforms made to India’s quest for ‘universalising’ primary education (UPE), mainly because that contribution is little known. The Indian Constitution cast an obligation on the State to provide free and compulsory education to children in the age group 6-14. As early as 1966 the Kothari Commission had recommended that each district should prepare and implement a perspective plan for fulfilling the Constitutional obligation. It was only in 1992, a year after the launch of economic reforms, that the Kothari Commission’s idea of a district plan for UPE became an idea whose time had come.

Two factors contributed to the quantum leap caused by the idea of district planning. Firstly, the Total Literacy Campaign, which caught the nation’s attention; the success of quite a few districts in becoming ‘totally literate’ imparted a new thrust to UPE because it became clear that success would be ephemeral if an inadequate schooling system spawned year after year a new brood of illiterates. That success also gave rise (subliminally) to the question why the district-based strategy which made many districts ‘fully literate’ cannot be applied to elementary education. The second factor comprised a confluence of developments.

One such development was the critical dependence of India on the World Bank’s assistance to tide over the unprecedented macroeconomic crisis which left no option but to launch economic reforms. Another was the World Bank emerging as a champion of providing elementary education to all children, taking a lead role in organising the World Conference on Education for All in Jomtien, Thailand (1990), and assigning a high priority to elementary education in its lending policies. The World Bank offered a fast disbursing social safety net loan to tide over the acute balance of payment crisis, and help India plan effective programmes in areas like elementary education.

‘IMG_3477,’ by melgupta. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.

Few know about India’s response to the World Bank’s insistence, and how MHRD availed the opportunity to ‘operationalise’ the Kothari Commission’s recommendation, and develop the District Primary Education Programme (DPEP). Together with its progeny Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA), the DPEP was responsible for the rapid strides that India made in reducing out-of-school child population in 1993 to a mere 0.3 percent in 2010 when the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act (RTE Act), 2009, came into force. Few know how DPEP blazed a new trail in development cooperation and precociously introduced many practices commended by the Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness (2005). for example, such as the recipient country taking a lead in developing a strategy for achieving goals and objectives in a given sector, developing a programme for implementing that strategy, and the country exercising leadership in coordinating the contributions of different funding agencies. India’s experience is of great interest not only to educationists and education policymakers but also to many developing countries as well as theorists and practitioners of development cooperation.

Yet another event which received some attention was the publication by the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) of the consultation document Some Inputs for Draft National Education Policy 2016. From the perspective of the history of thought, the RTE Act accomplished a revolution overturning two of the cardinal postulates of the National Policy of Education, 1986. First, given the Indian socioeconomic reality, UPE cannot be achieved only through formal schooling and that a large and effective system of non-formal education (NFE) should complement the school system. Secondly, education being all about learning it is imperative to lay down essential levels of learning for each grade and assess how far these levels are achieved by the students. These cardinal postulates were overturned by the RTE Act which can be perceived as a successful revolution by constructivist pedagogues. Based on consultations with State Governments MHRD’s Input Document proposes to restore NFE as well as assessing learning with reference to norms of learning. The New Education Policy as and when announced would be a counterrevolution against constructivist pedagogy if it incorporates the proposals of the Input Document. Whatever, an intense policy debate could be expected over these proposals.

Featured image credit: Children inKarnataka India by gauthamkanchodu. CC0 Public Domain via Pixabay.

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