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Elementary Education


Inclusion, Equity and Elementary Education

For education to be truly inclusive and equitable, a strong political will and greater efforts are required on part of the government to ensure that all children are not just in school but receiving an education which they can relate to, which represents their experiences and enables them to make sense of their lives and things around them

Universalisation of Elementary Education (UEE) has been unequivocally accepted as an objective in all countries which have still not been successful in bringing all its school going children into the fold of a formal system of education. As an integral part of ‘right to life’, a life of self-respect and dignity, ‘right to education’ was recognised as a fundamental right by the Supreme Court in 1993 itself (Unnikrishnan Vs State of Andhra Pradesh) but it took almost 16 years for the Constitution to be amended and the Right to Education to be enacted as a justiciable right in 2009. Despite its limitations, one of which is the most obvious exclusion of children under six and those above fourteen, it needs to be celebrated and mechanisms put in place to ensure that all children get good quality and meaningful education that they rightfully deserve. 

It must be noted that ‘inclusion and equity’ have several meanings in the context of education- all children, irrespective of their age, gender, region, religion, caste and class etc are able to access education (complete school cycle) of a formal type as against a part-time, short-term or non-formal education; all children receive an equitable, uniform and good quality education and; there is adequate and proper representation in the curriculum, syllabus and textbooks of the lives, experiences and worldviews of children studying in those schools. While the myriad meanings that ‘inclusion and equity’ imply are acknowledged by almost everyone, there are still innumerable challenges in translating them into reality. India on one hand revels in its rich geographical and cultural diversity and on the other hand, moans its deeply divided and hierarchical nature. With its multiple social contexts, a child has several identities and not all of them are a matter of pride to him because of the social placing of pegs (class, caste, gender, religion etc) onto which those identities are hinged. For instance, being an upper class, upper-caste, urban male is certainly considered to be superior to being a female, or belonging to a working class, low caste or tribal. While it is well known that there are complex ways in which these multiple identities actually interact with each other in real lives of these children, what is disturbing is the perpetuation of these social inequalities in the education system.

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This essay looks at the exclusion of not just those children who are outside the school system but those who are within it as well. In the end, it also discusses the attempts of the National Curricular Framework (NCF) 2005 and the debate surrounding private-public- partnership model to address some of these challenges.

Children Excluded from School

In consonance with the hierarchical nature of the Indian society, the education system is also unequal and as a basic rule, the rich send their children mostly to private or better-off government schools and the poor to low fee-paying government or low- cost private schools.

There are various reasons why children remain outside school or drop out even after joining school. Poverty is an overrated argument which is often given as a reason for parents' unwillingness to send their children to school. This has important implications for not just understanding the causes of low enrollment or high drop- out on part of children but also for finding suitable solutions for addressing these problems. If poverty is accepted as the central reason for children's exclusion from schools, then one conveniently overlooks the nature and kind of schooling facilities actually available to such children. While, it cannot be denied that a large number of parents in our country both in rural and urban areas do not send their children to school as they are unable to bear the cost of schooling of their children or unable to bear the loss of additional income which their children earn or can potentially earn, this is primarily true in circumstances of extreme poverty. Research in this area also shows that poor parents are quite keen on sending their children to school and in fact, find the inadequate and shoddy schooling facilities available to their children, resulting in lack of learning on their part, quite discouraging and frustrating.

There are several other important factors which have less to do with people- their economic inabilities, cultural, religious inhibitions or reservations but more to do with the availability of schools, distance from home, presence of adequate teaching staff and basic infrastructural facilities etc, which are instrumental in either preventing or pushing the children out of school. For instance, it is well known that there are still many schools in India which do not even have proper classrooms, teachers to transact the curriculum, or teaching-learning aids as basic as the blackboard. Some of these schools do not have boundary walls or facilities like, clean drinking water or toilets with stored or running water arrangement for children, leave alone separate toilets for boys and girls. This poses huge constraints for children, especially young girls who spend a considerable part of their day in schools, often travelling long distances to reach school. The question of playgrounds, laboratories or libraries in such schools does not arise. In the same country, we also have schools which have air-conditioned classrooms/buses, state of the art laboratories, modern technological teaching-learning aids, qualified and competent teachers and even banal stuff like skin-sensor water taps. Though this by no stretch of imagination means that such schools are more successful in giving good quality education to its students, except perhaps provide for a comfortable teaching-learning atmosphere with possibilities for better curricular and pedagogic transactions, it is not difficult to imagine the kind of learning experiences that children studying in the former have and their long term ‘expected’ implications on mitigating their poverty or promoting social mobility. While there a few exceptional students who study in such schools and still do outstandingly well, breaking out of their circle of poverty, their over-glorification sends a wrong social message that, ‘if they can study and still perform well in adverse circumstances, why can’t the others?”

There certainly cannot and should not be any sidelining of the issue that all children deserve equal good quality education, irrespective of their social standing and economic position in life. There have been several efforts on the part of the government and non government organisations to get children into school. Special incentive schemes, like exemption of tuition fees, mid day meals (MDM), free textbooks, uniforms, cycles, scholarships and even provision of hostels have been introduced by the government. While these schemes have had some visible benefits, it would be difficult to call them substantial. while a few schemes despite their much debated and controversial status, like the MDMs have been reasonably successful in addressing hunger of poor children, helping them concentrate on their studies and attracting them to schools, a few others like free uniforms or waiver of tuition fees have been too basic to make any significant difference in the lives of poor people. This is because there are innumerable costs of schooling and unless all of them are addressed, it may be difficult to imagine one incentive scheme to make a huge difference to their lives. It may also be practically difficult for the government to take care of the entire costs of schooling of children of all the poor families but what may and should definitely be possible is to set up infrastructurally adequate and well-functioning schools for all children, especially the poor.

Incentives are merely sops and may address part of a need of the disadvantaged communities, but are in no way adequate in ensuring that children will learn in schools, leave alone sufficient in ‘attracting and retaining’ them in schools. Rather than assuming that these schemes will automatically lead to positive results, these schemes need to be systematically examined to see the impact that they have on children’s education. There is also a need to perhaps introduce more meaningful schemes for children which will actually ensure that schools are happy places where children learn, with possibilities of carving out a better future for themselves and which also ensure that government resources spent on these schemes are better utilised.

Coleman’s idea (1966) of 'equality of educational opportunity' is very much relevant in the Indian context, which means acknowledging that there are differential inputs which children receive at home and bring to school. While these inputs significantly impact children’s educational outputs, equality of educational opportunity would mean that schools must shoulder additional responsibility and give support to those who need it most, mitigating the differences among students’ home backgrounds, rather than holding the students’ deficit home backgrounds accountable for their poor performance. This means that rather than just providing basic schooling facilities to the disadvantaged children to bring them into the fold of education, one should ensure that these schools are far better equipped with proper infrastructure and competent teaching staff which is far more important in pulling children to school, motivating them to stay back and facilitating their learning.

Children inside School and Still Excluded

One would naturally assume that, issues of inclusion and equity perhaps do not effect children inside school as much as they affect those outside school. However, experiences of children inside school, attending classes and getting promoted in the educational ladder do not necessarily translate into equal participation in the education process on their part. This again can be seen at two levels- children in school and yet not learning like the Annual Status of Educational Research (ASER) reports have been indicating year after year that children are going to schools but are unable to read, write and do basic arithmetic suitable to the class that they are studying in and competencies that they are expected to acquire by then. Another meaning is the exclusion of knowledge, perspectives, worldviews and misrepresentation or sometimes even distortion of experiences of children and their families in the curriculum, syllabus and most importantly, textbooks prescribed and studied in schools. Depiction of a homogenised reality, most often in the form of an urban north Indian Hindu male character in the textbooks is well known girls are either absent from the discourse or presented as dumb characters relegated to performing insignificant roles, working class is often portrayed as lazy and inefficient, tribals as superstitious and people from minority religious denominations in stereotypical images/roles. These inadequate and often distorted projections have an insidious impact on children who read these books from childhood and start believing in such depictions and projections.

This is also to do with the fact that textbooks are prescribed in most schools and considered to be absolutely sacrosanct. They are to be received and absorbed in their exact form, more for the purpose of examinations which are based on them and test the ability of the student to reproduce what is printed in them. This also leads to a faulty understanding of learning where the ability to memorise facts without applying one’s mind gets promoted to the exclusion of higher order skills of comprehending, synthesising, inferring, integrating and eventually making sense of the information given to construct knowledge. These books often present a sanitised version of reality, which is far removed from conflicts and tensions which an ordinary child experiences in his everyday life. They create a schism between the spontaneous lived world of the child outside school and the artificial but domineering world of the classroom. While the world outside continues to be important, it has little legitimacy in school because what gets tested, assessed and certified is what is given in the textbooks and not what the child experiences in his day to day life.

National Curriculum Framework 2005         

The NCF tries to bridge the gap between these two worlds as experienced by the child and make the world of school more relevant and more representative of the life, concerns and views of the child. To address the ills with the prevailing system of education which confuses information with knowledge and over burdens the child with ‘joyless learning’ and bane of ‘incomprehensibility- where a lot is taught but little is learnt or understood’ (Yashpal Committe Report 1993), the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) formulated the NCF in 2005. Moving away from the controversies which NCF 2000 was mired with, the NCF 2005 tried to make a fresh beginning in terms of recognising the need to move away from the tendency to rote memorise the textbooks and the need to acknowledge and legitimise the agency of the child and to allow him to construct knowledge by giving him suitable opportunities in school. Drawing inspiration from the Yashpal Committee Report, it seeks to make learning more meaningful and enjoyable by relating formal education to the lived world of the children.

Accordingly NCERT revised its textbooks, which sought to do away with the restricted imagination of learning and sterile and information- heavy textbooks and infuse them with some flesh and blood. Books in Social and Political Life, Environmental Studies and History were particularly successful in making a significant breakthrough in resisting the temptation of giving chunks of huge information to be learnt by students for exams. These books also do away with common stereotypes surrounding several religious and ethnic communities, region and gender etc. They deal with contentious issues as experienced by many children in their daily lives and help them make sense of them. It is possible that they raise many more questions than they provide answers to but that is the idea with which these books have been written that they arouse curiosity in the child and egg him on to look for answers beyond the textbooks. Though controversies also surrounded these textbooks especially the one in Political Science, and they have not been accepted without criticism, there is no doubt about the immense pedagogic contribution that they have made and continue to make in the world of school-going children, the fresh lease of life that they have given to the meaning of teaching-learning and understanding. What remains to be ensured however is, that teachers are suitably trained in the philosophy and principles underlying the new framework and textbooks so that justice is done to this approach to learning and knowledge.

Low Cost Private Schools for the Poor

Of late there have been a spate of studies promoting privatization of school education. Though private schools have always existed in India and contributed to giving good quality education to children, what is new in the neo-liberal regime is that there is now a strong position which believes and actively proposes that since the government school system has failed to deliver and unable to fulfill its commitment to universalise elementary education, low-cost private schools must be entrusted with the responsibility of providing good quality education to children of poor families. Several studies are cited to show that children of such schools perform better than those studying in government schools. While several other studies and educational researchers have challenged the simplistic relationship which these studies draw between ‘low-cost private schools’ and ‘performance of children from these schools being better than government school children, these low cost schools also have a rider attached to them. These schools are low cost because the teachers employed in such schools are paid 30-40 percent less than those employed by the government. Most of them openly flout all norms especially related to basic infrastructural requirements and employ under-qualified and under-paid teachers with minimal training. Where the need of the hour is to strengthen teaching profession, ensure that teachers are properly qualified and sufficiently trained, this model legitimises under-trained and under-paid teachers. It sees teaching as a task to be delivered by people who receive a series of short trainings which then regards them fit for the ‘non-specialised’ job of teaching small children.

These private schools do not aim at strengthening the hands of government but compete with them, in an effort to prove that they are better. Moreover, most of these schools operate for profit motive and are under no compulsion to provide equitable education to their children, unlike the State schools, which are also constantly under the scanner and expected to provide equitable education to children. The private schools are unlikely to have any such social audit and will continue to rope in poor children with the promise of better quality education in English medium. The actual differentiating factor for variation in performance of children from different schools is perhaps the social backgrounds of these children and the possession of the cultural and social capital on the part of some of them which puts them at an advantage enabling them to perform better than those who lack this capital and not better quality education as projected to be given by such schools.


Linkages between education and empowerment/social change/upward social mobility are not as simplistic as one may like to believe. For education to be truly inclusive and equitable, a strong political will and greater efforts are required on the part of the government to ensure that all children are not just in school but receiving an education which they can relate to, which represents their experiences and enables them to make sense of their lives and things around them. The recently enacted Right to Education needs to be supported and the initiative by private sector only needs to be lauded if it strengthens the hands of the government and collaborates meaningfully with it. Cheaper and sub standard solutions for poor children may give some basic education to children of poor families but will not significantly impact their lives in any meaningful way. Inclusion and equity in a true sense mean good quality education for every single child of this country. These terms also mean that education makes sense to all the children and enables them to participate meaningfully and equally in the process of knowledge construction.

By : Disha Nawani ; The author is Associate Professor, School of Education, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. Besides teaching in education programmes, also works with NGOs, evaluates their programmes, supports textbook development and analysis, conduct research and contribute articles for books and Journals on issues related to school education


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