Written by Yuvraj Singh
In India, a nation deeply steeped in the practice of caste, hierarchy is ubiquitous and the school ecosystem is no exception. In fact, the Indian school system can be seen as modelled after the Indian caste system. Scholars such as Disha Nawani have pointed out the parallels between the two. Just like the system of chaturvarna (four varnas – Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya, and Shudra), the Indian school system is hierarchical and can broadly be classified into four categories.
First are the elite, unaided private schools, often with affiliations to international curricula, populated by children coming from affluent families. The second category includes the government central schools and the good quality private aided/unaided schools, which children belonging to the middle class attend. Next comes the mediocre private aided/unaided schools, attended by lower middle-class children. And the last category comprises the regional government/local body schools and the low-budget private schools, which cater to the poorer sections of society.
It would not be an exaggeration to say that children from marginalised castes – SCs, STs, OBCs – are predominantly found in the lower two echelons of schools, while the dominant caste children, by and large, occupy the upper two echelons. Outside of the four varnas, there is the excluded fifth, avarna castes – the Dalits. Children who are out of schools can be said to be analogous with the avarna castes. This analogy seems pertinent in the light of the Oxfam report, which revealed that nearly one-third of the 6 million children currently out of school belong to the SC community.
Each category of schools differs from the others on several criteria. The upper two echelons outperform the lower two on most parameters such as infrastructure, resources, management and quality of teachers. In substance, this means that the quality education you get is a function of your milieu – while the children from marginalised backgrounds receive the lowest quality education, the children from the upper crust of the society get the best. The system intrinsically favours children well-endowed with social, cultural and economic capital.
Schools play a significant role in moulding children, weaving the fabric of the future, shaping the collective ethos of communities. As sociologist of education Michael F D Young (2009) wrote, schools as institutions have “a unique role in reproducing human societies”. A differentiated and graded educational system, therefore, reproduces differentiation in the society at large. In the context of capitalist class structure, Samuel Bowles (1971) called it “unequal education” – an education system that serves to reproduce social division of labour.
One of the suggested solutions to the problem of segmented schooling experiences is the common school system (henceforth: CCS) of public education – a system where all the children in the neighbourhood, regardless of their background, attend the same school. In India, the Kothari Commission (1964-1966) first formally proposed the idea of establishing a CCS, “which will be open to all children, irrespective of caste, creed, community, religion, economic conditions or social status,” with the aim of bringing “the different social classes and groups together and thus promote the emergence of an egalitarian and integrated society”. That CCS is a uniform school system and therefore would not work in a pluralistic society like India is a common misconception. In actual fact, the Kothari Commission envisaged CCS as a system where every school is “intimately involved with its local community” and “regarded as an individuality and given adequate freedom”.
Although, owing to various reasons, the implementation of CCS in India has been a failure, unlike NEP 2020, its antecedents didn’t abandon the idea of common school — explicit mentions of it can be found in both NEP 1968 and NEP 1986. Now, at a time when the need for social solidarity is more than ever, NEP 2020 has overlooked the idea of CCS. The key role that schools play in a democracy has been elaborated by several scholars. While a stratified educational system can deepen the existing fissures in the social fabric, an inclusive and equitable one such as CCS can help close them. By evading the idea of CCS, NEP 2020 has missed an opportunity of realising the vision of a more stable and cohesive society.
Further, the policy’s espousal of vocational education can be seen as the legitimisation of caste-based vocation. Claiming that there is no hard separation between academic and vocational education, the policy, without any compunction, stipulates that vocational training of students would begin as early as grade 6. It becomes more disconcerting when viewed in the light of The Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Amendment Act 2016, which allowed children to work in family enterprises, opening up the avenues for the perpetuation of caste ordained occupations. The upshot of this would be that the Bahujan children would be pushed into the spiral of labour, traditional family occupations forced upon them, their place cemented at the bottom of the ladder. It seems, then, that not only does the NEP falter in challenging the hierarchical school order, it also mandates the renewal of the caste hegemony in the society.
The writer is a researcher on education policy
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