Equality, Quality and Quantity

Tehelka Foundaton’s education summit had some of the best minds in the field talking with those it concerns most: children from across the schooling spectrum. The result was electrifying.

We all know the ways pedagogical routines kill the inquisitiveness in children, conditioning them toward accepting the status quo. But one could take heart from the storm of insightful questions from the child participants at Tehelka’s summit on ‘Equality, Quality and Quantity: The Elusive Triangle of Indian Education’ last week. It showed what could happen when inquisitive minds are encouraged. For some, the panelists had answers; for many they could only try to keep up.

The summit on April 27 was timed with UNESCO’s Education for All week, held from April 23. Speaking of the reservation issue, one of the most hotly contested debates of our time, Professor Yash Pal said during his keynote address that the way for a system of education to be truly exclusive is by being inclusive. That, certainly, was what the summit aimed to be, being attended by almost 300 children from across the schooling spectrum: public, private, kendriya vidyalayas and those run by ngos such as the Salaam Balak Trust.

Session 1 in Progress

Session 1 in Progress

Among the panelists were some of the best people in the field, sharing experiences over two interactive sessions on ‘Empowering Public and Private School Education’ and ‘Inclusive Education’. Professor Yash Pal was in favour of a common school system, and demanded that “all children of India be treated on par with the children of government employees.” He went on to say: “Ours is a fantastic learning society but our learning is not connected to our formal education system. If what happens outside the system and inside it are connected then education will be transformed.”

HRD Minister Arjun Singh released Shiksha, a book produced under the aegis of the summit, with essays on the challenges facing education in the country. He lauded Tehelka for “the effort to create interactions between different kinds of people and organisations.” Fielding questions on the quota issue, he said, “It is not so much about caste as it is about the non-availability of opportunities for the broad mass of people, longing to be part of the system. If we don’t include them, it will be cruel on our part. It is very difficult to explain to the deprived sections why they are deprived.”

Educationist Vinod Raina drove the point home further when he said that no research had ever found a difference in learning potential between children across various economic backgrounds. Stating that he wanted to see deprivation dealt with from the beginning, he criticised the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan programme for “focusing on enrollments and not on retention of children”. One response of his went down very well with the audience: “If I could, I would do away with all Board exams,” he said.

NCERT director Krishna Kumar said criticism of National Curriculum Framework, 2005, shows how rigid and unfair the system is. “Can you imagine what the weakest and most oppressed feel in this system?” he asked. To a question on how children could be expected to learn everything from Harappan civilisation to the making of the Constitution in just 12 months, he replied that the new syllabus was not the chronological history of the old kind and that “it gives the taste of how a historian works”.

The high point of the summit was Sister Cyril’s presentation. She heads the Loreto School in Sealdah, a place where many of the recommendations made that day have already long been implemented. She spoke forcefully from her years working with the underprivileged: Cleanliness is a middle-class virtue, she declared. Merit is a myth. Punctuality is for those who can afford it. The greatest suffering is not hunger but loneliness. Dalit educationist Martin Macwan spoke of discrimination in the schoolroom: “When a dalit kid commits a mistake, he is made to clean the toilets; upper-caste kids are told only to repeat a poem twice or thrice.”


The question-and-answer sessions with the kids were electrifying. Here’s a sampler: The issues we talk about must have been around 10 years ago, why don’t you do something? Why is the government always shown to be doing well, why is there nothing contrary to that in the textbooks? Why can’t we be made part of policymaking? Why does the textbook have a lesson called ‘American Hegemony’; shouldn’t it be ‘So-called American Hegemony?’

As panelist Sudha Raju remarked: “Something has been going right if students are asking such beautiful questions!”

‘Mere expertise is dangerous. If you are a mere expert, you will be used’
Yash Pal
Space scientist and educationist

‘Is there a school, which reopens at night to show children the full moon?’
Krishna Kumar
Director, NCERT

‘Private tuitions are for intellectual cripples, they are an insult to children’
Sister Cyril
Loreto Convent, Sealdah

‘We confuse kids. At 18, they can choose the PM, but not the shirt they wear’
Arun Kumar
Vasant Valley School, Delhi

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