About seven years ago when the then HRD Minister Kapil Sibal announced his decision to make the Class X board examination optional, I wrote a criticism. In spite of my consistent opposition to the colonial legacy of passing or failing children, my reasons for opposing Sibal’s move were multiple. First, making Class X board exams optional does not eliminate tension at all as the child still faces the same at Class XII board exams. In most private schools, this tension begins with the pre-board exams. Also, this move did not take into account the malaise of competitive exams which push coaching downward to KG, ruining childhood and parenting alike. In 2009, two-thirds of the high schools did not continue till Class XII, compelling children to either quit education after Class X or undertake the uphill task of seeking admission in a senior secondary school. In either case, a Class X board exam certificate opens the gate for a child’s future education. The vast majority of children in this category would belong to the oppressed classes and castes, particularly girls. In this sense, the decision was primarily anti-SC/ST/OBC (and, as per the Sachar Committee Report, Muslims too).
Third, the decision camouflaged the state’s abdication of its constitutional obligation to ensure education of equitable quality to all children, irrespective of their class, caste, religion, sex, language, locale or disability. This rising level of abdication, exacerbated due to the post-globalisation structural adjustment imposed by the IMF-World Bank, has been the hallmark of all governments at the Centre or in the states to date, their political orientation notwithstanding. Yet, the move won kudos from the middle class and the elite who were not adversely affected by any of the three reasons. They were confident of buying their entry into higher education through coaching or otherwise or, if missing the entrance test merit list, even going abroad to study in second-rate universities. The corporate-controlled media and many intellectuals chimed in, citing evidence from educational philosophy, psychology and pedagogic theories. Yet, none of their otherwise valid arguments would resolve the issues that concerned the aspirations of India’s Eklavyas and Shambuks, who have no option but to study in inferior quality schools.
Let us now examine the implications of the recent reversal of the 2009 decision by the CBSE, making Class X Board exams mandatory. CBSE affiliated schools constitute no more than 0.07 per cent of secondary and higher secondary schools. Yet, CBSE can’t be ignored as it exercises a hegemonic sway on the mindset of the policymakers, educationists and the media, apart from the public at large. Does the CBSE’s reversal of the 2009 decision undo the injustice of the earlier decision? It does not, since the very concept of examination as a socio-economic and cultural filter (not necessarily based on merit) is a double-edged sword. Yes, the children of the vast majority of the oppressed and deprived would now at least regain the opportunity to obtain a high school certificate and aspire to seek new careers outside their parental caste-based occupations. It is a different matter that, given the neoliberal development model of “jobless economic growth”, the opportunities the youth look for stand considerably restricted. Yet, for this small mercy, the children can thank the new dispensation.
How would this decision help the children of more than 80 per cent of India’s much acclaimed “demographic dividend” comprising mainly SCs/STs/OBCs/Muslims as long as the multi-layered education system from “KG to PG” continues to deny education? The situation is bound to worsen in view of the emergent National Policy on Education, 2016. Although the policy seems to be trapped in the HRD ministry’s confusion, its basic coordinates have become well-known. The new policy is determined to reduce education to skills. It is nobody’s case that skills should not be part of education. Education is incomplete without interweaving knowledge and values organically with skills. But education should not be replaced by imparting skills, which is precisely what the new policy is being designed for.
The new policy takes (mis)advantage of another parallel discourse on examinations — the so-called “No Detention Policy” of the RTE Act, 2009. Combined with the provision of Comprehensive and Continuous Evaluation (CCE), the provision of not detaining/expelling any child from school till Class VIII is probably the only advanced concept of education in the otherwise neoliberal Act. We opposed this act since it is aimed at demolishing public-funded elementary education and expediting privatisation and commercialisation through PPP. In this objective, the act has “unfortunately” succeeded. This is also the reason that an advanced concept of not “failing” children but improving education through the CCE collapsed entirely, giving its detractors an opportunity to attack the idea itself.
The new policy will restore examination at Class V and, after giving the children a couple of opportunities to pass, push them to skill shops. The twin decisions to restore exams both after Class V and Class X have an uncanny similarity of purpose — excluding children of the oppressed sections and pushing them to skill shops. At Class X, it would be achieved by splitting the board exam in part A and part B — the former primarily for the upper classes and castes on their onward march to higher education and part B for the bahujans who are destined to be excluded and pushed out to skill shops. Those shunted to skill shops will join the low-wage semi-skilled but compliant “foot soldiers” of the global capital. Those from the upper classes and castes will be enabled by the examination system to become eligible for seven or eight digit packages but will still be serving the global capital. This is how the exams as filter in the education act like a double-edged sword. The only way out is for the people to struggle for an education system that excludes, not children, but disparity and includes diversities.