Sunday, June 28, 2009

System, not exams, causes stress (June 28, 2009)

By Swapan Dasgupta

An understandable desire to make a quick mark in the fiercely competitive world of politics may have prompted Human Resource Development Minister Kapil Sibal’s radical proposals to overhaul India’s schooling system. However, in shedding tears for the examination trauma suffered by lakhs of school children, not to mention their parents, Sibal forgot to ask a simple question: Why have the public examinations held at the conclusion of classes 10 and 12 become a cause of so much anguish?

In most developed countries, the debate over schooling centres on declining standards. Many educationists have expressed concern that the examinations are no longer an adequate test of a student’s actual worth. In Britain, for example, the GCSE for 16-year-olds are seen to be less demanding than the old O-levels. Likewise, many university authorities feel that the A-level examinations for 18-year-olds are inferior compared to the International Baccalaureate.

Developing countries such as India have a different set of problems. There is, of course, the question of standards. But this is balanced by two additional concerns. First, there was a need to ensure access to education for all but particularly those children whose parents and grandparents had suffered from either illiteracy or, at best, managed ‘class 8 pass’. Second, there was the more complex question of tailoring education to meet the requirements of the economy.

When S Nurul Hasan presided over the abolition of the 11-year schooling system and introduced the 10+2 system in the mid-1970s, he was guided by the firm conviction that the primary purpose of schooling was not to steer a maximum number of students into India’s over-stretched university system. Hasan believed, maybe even sincerely, that the public examinations at the end of class 10 would be the last occasion a majority of school children read text books. A majority of 16-year-olds, he believed, would either join the labour market or undertake some job-oriented vocational training. The remainder would go on to a more scholastic education and only the top layer of the 18-year-olds would enter universities.

Needless to say, it hasn’t quite worked out the way Hasan imagined. To cope with the problem of supply exceeding demand, employers simply raised the entry-level requirements. Today, for example, a class 12 pass is the minimum requirement for a police constable and a bus driver. Hasan imagined it would be class 10 pass. The result is that the schooling system has to cope with two very different sets of demands. There are those who just want a certificate that will make them eligible for menial jobs and there are those who want schools to prepare them for university.

Balancing the two is at the best of times difficult but they have been made doubly complicated by political pressure. To prevent the established middle classes from being the natural beneficiaries of a scholastic system where the quality of schools and teachers play a major part, Governments were forced to establish a system of equivalence. In plain language this involved the creation of an examination system where the advantages of social origin would be nullified and the students of a cash-strapped Government school would not feel disadvantaged.

In practice this meant that students would no longer be tested for their critical faculties, their ability to handle knowledge and their creative acumen. These, it was believed, would place students from better-off backgrounds at an advantage. Instead, it was felt that rote-learning and increased weightage on modularisation would be the great leveller because it lessened the subjective element in evaluation. To lessen the disparity in English language skills, for example, the thrust was no longer on the use of idiomatic language but on the ability to regurgitate a defined pattern of usage. Indeed, those students who have an easy command over English and are in the habit of reading books have often been marked down against those who know their text books inside out.

The trauma suffered by children preparing for board examinations is not on account of the hard work they have to put in. The disorientation is caused by the sheer mindlessness of the learning process and the equivalence process inherent in the evaluation.

In an ideal world, the authorities should have approached the problem by trying to secure better schools, better trained teachers, innovative pedagogy and more opportunities for bright kids from deprived social backgrounds. Rajiv Gandhi had the right idea when he started the Navodaya Vidyalayas in district towns. Sibal should have focussed his attention on a mushrooming of such schools of excellence throughout the land, particularly in the poorer regions. Instead, he has taken an easy way out by proposing to make the class 10 board exam voluntary. This is not going to solve the problem. Instead, the proposal to make school education uniform and regulated by one authority is certain to add to mindlessness. With one board, the challenges of diversity are going to be compounded by the problems of volume-a recipe for even more modularisation.

The paradox of India is its great unevenness. The education system tries to balance the brilliant, the plodder, the mediocre and the sub-standard under one roof. The result is an inevitable levelling down process. It is time politicians recognise that different levels of attainment cannot be accommodated under one roof. To be meaningful, to cater to the requirements of a dynamic, modern and increasingly globalised economy, and to satisfy the growing aspirations of an ambitious population, the one-size-fits-all approach has to be junked.

India is in need of a binary system which has to be sufficiently open-ended to accommodate social diversity. The country needs skills, but it also needs the ability to transform information into knowledge. If higher education has been defined by its centres of excellence, school education must have its share of the same.

Sunday Pioneer, June 28, 2009

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