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The crisis was foreseen by the Kothari Education Commission (1964-66) which unequivocally recommended the Common School System, with neighbourhood schools as the National System of Education, for all children of India. The most important feature of the Common School System is its equitable (not uniform) quality of education for all types of schools—private, private-aided or government. It has six essential and non-negotiable attributes:
(i)minimum physical infrastructure, including library, teaching aids, playgrounds and many other features (eg, early childhood care centres and pre-primary schools attached to primary/elementary schools);
(ii) professional quality of teachers and teacher-student ratio;
(iii) diversified and flexible curriculum to reflect the geocultural plurality of the country, while emphasising certain core curricular features of nationwide significance;
(iv) pedagogy for holistic, child-friendly and liberative education;
(v) pedagogic and social empathy for the Dalits, tribals, cultural and ethnic minorities and the physically- or mentally-challenged children, apart from gender sensitivity; and
(vi) decentralised and community-controlled school system. Our Parliament has expressed its unambiguous commitment to the Common School System three times in its resolutions on the National Policy on Education in 1968, 1986 and 1992. Yet, the concept could not be translated into practice because the political leadership and bureaucracy, along with the intelligentsia, found an escape route for their own children through the private school system. The present policy support to privatisation and commercialisation of education amounted to legitimisation of disparity, discontent and disempowerment.
The Central Advisory Board on Education (cabe) appointed a committee on the Common School System in 1988. The cabe committee proposed a 10-year phase-wise programme for reconstruction of the present school system into a Common School System. In 1990, the Acharya Ramamurti Committee, constituted to review the 1986 policy, extended the cabe committee proposals further. The chief features of a phase-wise reconstruction programme may be summarised as follows :
(a) highest political priority to improvement of both the access and the quality of the government and the private-aided schools;
(b) decentralisation of decision-making and management of schools through the panchayati raj framework and making the school entirely accountable to the community it serves;
(c) fulfilling the Constitutional obligation of a minimum of eight years of elementary education (instead of five years of primary education) under Article 45 to all children up to 14 years of age (including the early childhood care and pre-primary 0-6 age group);
(d) allocation of adequate financial resources, getting out of the '6 per cent of gnp' trap;
(e) a pedagogically and socially rational language policy for the medium of education (not instruction) common to all schools, so that language becomes a means of articulation, rather than imposition;
(f) a carefully constructed programme of incentives, disincentives, persuasion and eventually legislation to gradually bring the private schools into the fold of the Common School System—incentives to private schools may include grants for children from low-income groups.
Disincentives may include gradual withdrawal of all hidden subsidies to private schools, like the cheap land, tax-free income and exemption from income-tax on donations, etc. The elite in India have always been dismissive of the concept of Common School System by mocking at it as being politically too radical and, therefore, unviable. In contrast, the poor and the lower-middle class have for long internalised the concept as the only means for their empowerment and social justice. It is an irony that such an equitable public school system has been prevalent in several European countries, the US and Canada. Indeed, this is the only historical option left for India for building a secular and just society.
(The author is the head and dean of the department of education, University of Delhi)