How can India’s education system escape the vicious cycle of inequality and discrimination?

How can India’s education system escape the vicious cycle of inequality and discrimination?

India’s economy is grossly uneven. As the Oxfam India 2020 report highlighted, the top 1% individuals hold more than 4 times the amount of wealth held by 953 million people (or the bottom 70% of the population). Indeed, the wealth of top 9 billionaires is equivalent to the wealth of the bottom 50% of the population. The total wealth of Indian billionaires is higher than the total Union Budget of India for the fiscal year 2018-19. Social inequalities and educational inequalities go hand in hand. While education is seen as a great equalizer, inequality in access or quality in education risks reinforcing social and economic inequalities. As the Oxfam International report  highlights, schooling that is segregated by class, wealth, ethnicity, gender or other signifiers of privilege and exclusion, cements inequality.

This year’s Global Education Monitoring (GEM) report highlights the need for education systems to be inclusive and equitable and makes some specific recommendations in terms of making this happen. The worldwide wave of Black Lives Matter protests calls for India to examine its own complex relationships with its marginalized communities and some of the factors that have contributed maintaining the status quo.

The many inequalities and exclusions in India’s education system

India’s education system is marred by gross inequalities in access, completion and quality. Class, linguistic background, gender, ethnicity and place of birth all have impact on the educational experience children have in India. These, in turn, contribute to inequalities in knowledge in India’s society.

1. The question of class. In India, the median number of years of education girls from the poorest families receive is zero, compared to 9.1 years for girls from the richest families. This is not just a function of unequal access to facilities of different classes. The government itself often discriminates. Thus, while India’s government run many schools of questionable quality, it also runs some that are of the highest standard. In 2014–15, the average (median) expenditure in government schools (at INR 16,151) was 58% of that in its Kendriya Vidyalayas (INR 27,723). The latter are a chain of government run schools for bureaucrats in transferable jobs. Parental class matters in how well students are treated.

2. Linguistic exclusion. India’s linguistic diversity is ranked fourth in the world (Skutnabb-Kangas, 2000); it also heads the list of countries in the Atlas of the World’s languages in danger. Despite legal protections to mother tongue education, there has been a gradual decline in the number of languages used as a medium of instruction from 80 in 1981 to 34 in 2009. Less dominant languages have been neglected contributing to the sense of alienation of tribal learners. Accordingly, it was heartening to read the GEM report’s praise for the work in Odisha multilingual education work.  One of India’s longest running experiments on multi-lingual education, it has over the last two decades shown how tribal languages can be built into the mainstream modes of instruction to benefit India’s tribal students. It has expanded to cover about 1,500 primary schools and 21 languages of instruction showing that the practice is scalable. Oxfam India’s own work in the state highlights the potential of multi-lingual education to not only improve the educational experience of tribal learners, but also to promote respect for indigenous knowledge. However, despite these obvious benefits, the state remains the only one in the country with an explicit Multi-lingual education policy for its students.

3. Geography- the disadvantage of remote schools. The GEM report is correct in highlighting the fact that India has made historic efforts to expand its school network since the 2009 Right to Education Act, which required primary schools to be located no more than 1 km from a child’s home. This has brought large numbers of hitherto out of school children into school, particularly in scarcely populated regions of the country.  This has, however, as the report highlights,  increased  the number of small schools with “inadequate infrastructure, resulting in an ongoing process of rationalizing education resource distribution which has affected school distance for secondary and higher education, particularly for girls and learners with disabilities” (GEM, 2020).

This has been a huge area of concern given that, by some estimates, almost 150,000 schools have been merged. The MHRD Minister in response to a question in Parliament, said that over 40,000 schools across Jharkhand, Odisha and Madhya Pradesh alone on the recommendations of a single project (SATH-E led by NITI Aayog). Evidence shows that increased distance due to school closure has led to a rise in drop-outs, particularly among girls. Ironically, recent research suggests that learning levels in small schools are in fact better then bigger schools; their closure would, therefore, not only result in improved learning, but negatively affect marginalized communities and girls and revers the gains of India has made in achieving gender equality in education.  Consequently, the process of consolidation of remote schools risks not only undermining the gains in access to education from India’s marginalized communities, but also fails to improve quality.

4. Girls. Girls in India continue to have lower rates of completion. One of the major areas of concern is safety. Thus, the GEM report highlights that in Delhi young women were willing to enrol in a college of lower quality if it was accessible by a safer route (Borker, 2018). States have taken steps to address girls’ education, but many of these do not address systemic causes of the lower performance of girls- poor teacher capacity, inadequate quality of schools or the hidden curricula of classrooms, focussing more on familial factors. This is not to say that there are no victories in doing so. Thus, as the report highlights, in Bihar, girls were provided with bicycles to facilitate access to secondary school which resulted in a 32% increase in their enrolment and a 12% increase in the number of those who passed the secondary school certificate examination (Muralidharan and Prakash, 2017).

5. Discrimination based on caste. India’s Dalit children experience inequality in access (frequently needing to walk longer distances to main village school which may be segregated by caste) and quality (often studying in schools with higher percentage of single teacher and schools with poor infrastructure). They also often face discrimination within communities, school and classrooms, including in the Midday Meal. As the report highlights, lower-caste children (Dalit) were made to sit separately from their upper-caste peers (National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights, 2017), and scheduled-caste children received less food (Sabharwal et al., 2014). However, hope is on the horizon, as the share of teachers from scheduled castes, which constitute 16% of the country’s population, increased from 9% in 2005 to 13% in 2013 offering hope for introduction of Dalit role models in classrooms.

6. Persons with disability. The national Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, 2016 (RPWD Act) defines inclusive education as “a system of education wherein students with and without disability learn together and the system of teaching and learning is suitably adapted to meet the learning needs of different types of students with disabilities” Most states have, however, not notified state rules under RPWD Act, despite mandatory requirement to do so within six months. According to the 2011 Census of India, only 61% of CWDs aged between 5 and 19 were attending an educational institution; 27% CWDs never attended any educational institution, as opposed to the overall figure of 17%.States of Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan have developed a roadmap to implement residential Bridge Courses for children with special needs to develop their skills of readiness, academic competencies and sense of motivation for successful integration in regular schools.

What reinforces this trend?

The Oxfam India Background paper for the report highlights some factors that are responsible for the above trends:

Legal and Policy Provisions: Dimensions like discrimination lack a legal framework in India. Furthermore, models of delivery are often non-inclusive, supporting the creation of separate homogenous residential schools for marginalized communities, instead of strengthening local government schools. Absence of consistent quality standards for residential schools and special schools for children with disability have also created educational systems that are separate and unequal.

Implementation Capacity: Where provisions exist, there is limited knowledge of these provisions, especially among frontline and middle level officials tasked with their implementation. Enforcement and grievance redress systems are also weak with the RTE Act tasking quasi-judiciary (NCPCR/SCPCRs) to act as ombudsmen bodies for ensuring the right to education. While the intention to task a body outside the implementing line department with the enforcement of the legislation is understood and appreciated, enforcement capacities of the same is weak. Monitoring, technical support and supervision mechanisms at the sub-state level have been weak. Thus, 32% elementary schools have not received even one visit from a block or cluster resource centre in India at the preceding year (UDISE, 2016-17). With the system as a whole under-resourced and understaffed, incentives and capacities to devote time and effort to provide individualized support is lacking. School level staff, furthermore, frequently lack capacity to implement provisions both as the result of the limited agency and absence of funds to deliver. Lastly, both teachers and officials often share popular stereotyped views of marginalized groups held by the rest of Indian society. Low representation of marginalized communities and PWDs at the higher tiers in the education and other line departments also preclude opportunities for self- advocacy of these groups.

Resource Capacity: Underfinancing of education and IE in particular results creates a system where overall infrastructure of schools is poor. Staff that one could consider important for the education of persons with disability (e.g. therapists) or for all students (eg. counsellors) are not appointed. The absence of consistent standards of quality for all government schools creates inequalities within the education system. Governance bottlenecks like procurement and other delays also delay delivery of the committed entitlements.

Teachers’ Capacity: In the end any education system is only as good as its teachers. With a shortfall of a million teachers and another million odd untrained, capacity to deliver inclusive education is limited. There is a shortfall of special educators. Teacher training capacity, furthermore, needs to be strengthened overall and for inclusive education. In the face of less than optimal inclusive education delivery, mainstream school teachers are not able to deliver quality IE and often share the belief that children with disability are best taught in special schools.

Attitudes: However, at the heart of the problem is the fact that India has a high tolerance of inequality and there is a fairly pervasive belief that the poor, marginalized communities and PWDs are somehow responsible for their own condition. As a result, teachers, government officials, communities and parents often hold low expectations of girls and children about marginalized communities, which are often then internalized by the students themselves creating an intergenerational cycle. At the same time, parents, teachers and society as a whole tends to prioritize academic results over inclusion and equity agendas. The focus on attainment of learning outcomes and the introduction of national and state level standardized tests in several states creates additional tension points.

What is to be done?

The manifestations and the causes of the unequal education system in India are known and understood. Concrete changes in legislative provisions, steps towards sensitization and training of teachers, actions to enhance government implementation, monitoring and enforcement capacities (particularly in the middle levels of the education machinery) and enhanced financing to education are some of the steps needing to be taken to address equity in education. There is the overarching need to change popular perceptions, the need to win over the hearts and minds of citizens, parents and policymakers alike to the idea that educational inequality is unacceptable and equity is possible.  Global and domestic best practice exist highlighting some of the critical building blocks that contribute to creating truly inclusive education.

Despite this, the situation does not improve as fast as it should. Indeed, the prevailing COVID 19 Pandemic will make the task even harder. How did countries with truly inclusive education systems break the wheel of educational inequality? While active citizenship and social accountability by civil society forms part of the answer, it is not the complete solution to the puzzle. The real question of policy reform for inclusive education is not the what, but the how.


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