By Rahul V Kumar*
Among State of Kerala’s many achievements, education at the school level has been emphasised as a major one. This in turn was reflected as having contributed much to the literacy rate as well as related achievements in the social indicators of the state. The institutional requirements for the same has been constantly nurtured by the state especially by providing financial supportfor a long period of time. The results have also been hailed. However, towards the pinnacle of the period in which the ‘Kerala Model of Development’ became a dominant conceptual framework to justify state intervention in social development, several researchers and activists pointed towards issues faced by the sector. Since the advent of the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA) Kerala hence started focusing not on universalisation but on second generation problems faced by the educational sector. This involved addressing issues faced by minority communities, girl students or differently abled students. It also included several attempts to modify methods of teaching, introducing new tools and concepts and so on. These thoughts and ideas to modify the sector itself has been indicators that the state of Kerala is well ahead of others in understanding requirements beyond the established norms. Things seem all normal until this point. However, not all is fine.
As a fine example of the problems faced by the school students two representative districts can be considered. Palakkad and Wayanad districts of Kerala found mention is a recent survey highlighting a very high dropout rates among students belonging to the Scheduled Tribes. I and my colleagues at the Centre for Public Policy Research (CPPR) made several visits to these districts during the last few months. Observations and interactions at the school level revealed some bitter truth. Kerala is not a happy-go-lucky place as far as students in the primary, lower primary and secondary levels are concerned. Issues are abundant especially amongst financially and socially vulnerable groups in the society. In our enquiry spread across several schools we found that maladies facing the sector was more a fall out of the maladies that plagued the society. Students addicted to tobacco and alcohol, numerous instances of child labour and child marriages confronted us as stark realities. Many of the affected students found it way too taxing to spend time in formal education. So even while their names figured in the roll lists their physical presence was not there. However, these problems are always debated at the level of the student or the community he or she hails from. Teachers skulk from owning responsibility. A curious explanation that was provided by one of the several teachers we met was that the parents and grandparents were not aware of the importance of education and hence would not compel their children to go to school. The very idea of institutionalizing education is questioned given such explanations. Why then do we spend so much on training and qualifying staff and teachers for this job?
Amidst all these issues, it was seen that there was indeed a great demand for education in these districts. Unrecognized and single teacher schools survived because of this demand. Many of this insights on the educational sector might paint a picture of contradictions. For example how come demand for education can coexists with high dropouts? However the key issue is that these contradictions spring from a growing bureaucratic control over the sector and the several experiments conducted on it and not from several innovations by the people (like the unrecognized and single teacher schools) which has tried to meet this demand. The problem with education is that it is impossible to standardize practices and courses. This is because heterogeneity is a fact. The only response should be to unbridle and allow for new practices to evolve. What we observed from our visits was that students who don’t come to school are not a problem as it has been highlighted. They are exhibiting a clear choice. And that choice comes from many conditions that are spewed around them. Clearly social causes are not easily remedied and the more the state interferes in correcting them the more disruptive its tendencies would be. There are no ends that can predicted in education and knowledge. There are also no perfect routes. The very idea of predetermining social goals as an end result of education restricts its frontiers.
Kerala can achieve more from its initial success. The conditions are in place and needs a thrust which has to be evolutionary. As a priority policies in education should aim at limiting controls in the sector. At present these controls are strong. Teachers unions, political parties, bureaucrats and the entire state policy making apparatus actively participate in controlling the sector. The core of education should be creativity, and creativity cannot occur in bridles. The orientation of education should be to inject the idea of liberty. This liberty should be reflected in choosing professions and leading a life defined by each student’s level of comfort and interest.In return the respect for varied professions can emerge only when students are allowed to make free choices in the learning process. These choices should be made as the incentive for students to attend classes.
* The author is the Director (Research) of CPPR. Views are personal