Meet Shobha and Yashpal Bhaskar, parents deeply anxious about their child's future. After a lot of thought, research and running around, they've got their six-year-old son Himanshu admitted to an upscale public school, affiliated to the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE), in Delhi. The school won their vote because it had an enviable record of students scoring above 90 per cent in the board exams and a good number making it to reputed engineering and medical colleges. "We want our son to get selected for a professional degree course. Eventually, we would like him to get a good job when he finishes his education," says Yashpal.
The Bhaskars typify the vast majority of middle-class Indian parents with a clear cost-benefit equation worked out for their children's schooling. The concept of "education" defined with reference to wisdom, values and overall development of character has begun sounding archaic and finds few takers, with the entire thrust of our schooling system shifting from education to "selection". And in this shift, the curriculum, which forms the bedrock of a sound education system, has been reduced to a mere means to secure a "good job".
Little wonder then that when a stormy ideological debate over the new CBSE curriculum made it to the front pages of papers, most schools and an overwhelming majority of students and their parents seemed little concerned. Experts trace this "degeneration of curriculum" to its framework. Explains Francis Fanthome, chief executive and secretary of the Council for the Indian School Certificate Examinations (CISCE), which conducts the ICSE in over 1,000 schools countrywide: "The system of selection has made education irrelevant. The government boards' curricula focus mostly on narrow cognitive capabilities. Rote learning is encouraged and students aren't taught to think, question or analyse." Learning then becomes a passive accumulation of 'facts'.
Although small in size, infrastructure and resources, when compared to the CBSE and state boards, CISCE is rated better than the rest for the quality and concept of its curriculum. "Unlike in other boards, schools affiliated to the CISCE get a lot of freedom in adjusting the curriculum to the choice and capabilities of students. It's not about competitiveness. It's about enabling the students to get the best out of themselves," says Abha Adams, director, Delhi's Shri Ram School. But despite good content and application, the majority of schools and parents don't opt for CISCE. Says Shraddha Jain, a Class X student in Delhi: "Since all competitive exams are based on the CBSE syllabus, it is most safe to study in CBSE schools."
That apart, most children in India are enrolled in schools affiliated to state boards that usually have 'lower' curricula and teaching standards. Shubhada Pereira, a teacher at Mumbai's St Columba High School, affiliated to the Maharashtra State Board of Secondary and Higher Secondary Education, points out some shortcomings. "We teach the children what to think, not how to think." For example, she says, the English syllabus for Class X prescribes just one text, which includes prose extracts and poetry, neither of which are really designed to create an interest in literature.
With anxious students, goaded by panic-struck parents, focused single-mindedly on somehow scraping through competitive exams, schools that cater to this demand are the most sought after. They ruthlessly follow the system of handpicking 'bright' students and eliminating average or poor performers for board exams to sustain a "good" academic record. Their impressive brochures are full of hardsell on how many of their students made it to the iit, how many scored distinctions or how many secured admissions in foreign universities.G. Balasubramanian, CBSE's director, academics, agrees that the curriculum adopted by most schools is too exam-centric: "We're a consumerist society." The board, he says, has adopted a "cafeteria approach" where it's offering various courses and leaving it to the schools to pick and choose. "We can't tell the consumer what product to buy."
Says Shyama Chona, principal of Delhi Public School (DPS), R.K. Puram, one of the capital's most in-demand schools: "Exams are important. (And my) students are getting top positions in the country." She, however, agrees that the curricula pose problems. "Both CBSE and ICSE are based on equity. They want to give the same fodder to all minds. There aren't levels that accommodate all kinds of students." But she believes that a lot depends on how the teacher adapts the content to make it more relevant for the students.
Schools like dps have the resources and expertise to work around the hidebound approach, introducing elements like maths labs for those so inclined, Class VI onwards. Similarly, Shri Ram School offers students stimulus in sundry areas—poetry, literature, weaving and even papier maché—to look beyond academics.
But few students can afford an upscale, accommodating school. Result: their packed curriculum leaves them no breathing space. Some tentative steps to mitigate this are being taken but they tend to be mere tokenisms. In Tamil Nadu, for example, the state has been revising its curriculum on a regular basis. "But it's only a ritual. The task is given to college professors who've not looked into school textbooks for ages," says Aruna Rathnam, a Chennai-based researcher on education who was formerly with the syllabus-rewriting sub-committee of the Tamil Nadu government. As a result, the curriculum content often leaves students confused. "The height to which the atmosphere extends above the earth surface is said to be 10,000 km in a Class VII social studies textbook. However, in the science textbook, this becomes 800 km," says Rathnam.
In West Bengal, the situation is worse. The state hasn't cared to change its secondary and higher secondary syllabi in the past 25 years of Marxist rule. More than a decade after the Soviet collapse, students in Bengal are still being taught the virtues of socialism and armed revolution (Class V 50-page history booklet) and the evils of automation. Ashok Kumar Maity, secretary, West Bengal Headmasters' Association, confesses to this grim reality: "The sad truth is that the ruling Left Front government couldn't care less. Teachers are appointed on the basis of their political loyalties. We've teachers who can't even write correct Bengali, let alone English." The reaction is predictable: well-to-do parents send their children to other states, or admit them in schools affiliated either to the CISCE or CBSE. Those who can't afford this settle for local English-medium schools that have mushroomed over the years.
Delhi-based educationist Anil Sadgopal spots a fundamental flaw: the elitist new curriculum of the NCERT, which serves as an advisory to all curricula in the country. (All educational boards either adopt NCERT's books or use them as a reference to design their own curricula.) Sadgopal points out that while on the one hand the NCERT has identified biotech and infotech as frontier domains to cater to urban students and global market needs, it doesn't even care to accommodate the concerns and requirements of the vast 60 per cent of our student population who are tribals, Dalits or minorities, and don't have access to any resources."Why don't the curricula make the tribals aware of their rights? Why don't they tell them the reasons they are rapidly losing control of forests and resources? Why don't they enable the tribal students to enquire into social and political processes responsible for their exploitation? The entire curriculum is devised to cater to the needs of the 15 per cent elite while the rest 85 per cent are fed with patriotism and spirituality."
Sadgopal is right. After over two decades, the Madhya Pradesh government this year abruptly scrapped the hugely successful Hoshangabad Science Teaching Programme (HSTP). The project, which covered 1,000 schools in 15 districts of the state and reached out to over 100,000 students, used universally acknowledged pedagogical methodology to teach science. Instead of memorising and teaching in classrooms, the curriculum encouraged the students to interact and conduct their own experiments to understand the basic scientific principles. This innovative package for Class VI, VII and VIII students, which was earlier recognised as a regular curriculum, was made supplementary to the state curriculum. So, the schools under the hstp were forced to include the state curriculum. Most of them, as a result, abandoned hstp and one of the most successful innovative grassroots curricula perished only to make way for the state government's uniform curriculum policy.
Elitist or flawed curricula are hardly the only problem besetting our students. Only 10-15 of Bihar's 3,500 secondary schools have computers. "These too are gathering dust with no teacher appointed for the job," says Girijanand Pathak, who teaches Hindi in Project Kanya Ucch Vidyalaya, Kako, Jehanabad. In a state where unpaid teachers are driven to suicide, this is not surprising. Says Amiya Kumar, a student of Patna High School: "We have no map, no chart, no chalk, no infrastructure, no trained teachers except our hard work to compete with students from boards like the CBSE and CISCE."
Then there's crass politicisation of the curricula. If socialism overshadows history, science and even literature in the West Bengal state board curriculum, Bihar's board has tried to include "secular" elements in textbooks to prove its point. Says Pathak: "In Hindi, instead of poems of contemporary Hindi poets, we have to teach Ras Khan and Abdul Rahim Khan-e-Khana. They've been include to make a political statement, not out of concern for relevance."
In some cases, the syllabi are simply outdated or irrelevant. The Class X English textbook used by the Maharashtra board is a weird combination of our arts, culture and history, while junking literature. "The text has chapters on dance, classical music, Jawaharlal Nehru, J.R.D. Tata and so on, instead of extracts from literary texts," says Pereira. The history syllabus too leaves a lot to be desired: it is almost entirely focused on the Indian freedom struggle and there's barely a discussion on ancient Indian culture or the Mughal era.
Students, naturally, are the worst sufferers. Shruti Govinde, a Class X student at Bangalore's Sishugruha Montessori and High School, complains that there's no integration of subjects and updating is rare. "In geography, we are taught about certain nuclear power plants 'under construction', whereas a couple of them have been already commissioned." Says Neelam Rao, principal of Hyderabad's Puja Public School affiliated to the state board: "Up to Class IX, there's no mention of Europe and then, suddenly, in Class X, the students are inundated with details of European history."
Clearly, changing the nature and content of curricula is the first step towards making education more meaningful. NCERT chairman J.S. Rajput agrees. He says the NCERT has been pushing for a switch-over to the grading system instead of awarding marks."The greatest damage is being done to the students by using an examination system that passes or fails the candidates. This demotivates and demoralises those who don't succeed." Sadgopal, however, contests Rajput's strong advocacy for grades. "Grading will be done on the basis of marks one gets in the exams. There is no talk of changing the evaluation procedure. The students will continue to be assessed on their cognitive abilities."
The results of such rote learning are evident: people are unable to deliver in their areas of expertise. Says V. Balakrishnan of the Tamil Nadu Primary School Improvement Campaign (TANPIC): "We've 240 engineering colleges in TN, but no engineer is talking about solving Chennai's water problem. That's because at the foundation level, in primary schools, respect for local, indigenous sciences is not fostered."
So much for India's education system, where students gorge on data and attain little wisdom.
Davinder Kumar With S. Anand, Priyanka Kakodkar, Ashis K. Biswas, B.R. Srikanth, Amarnath Tewary in Patna, K.S Shaini in Bhopal, Savitri Choudhury in Hyderabad