Friday, July 3, 2009

Will they ever overhaul the school system?

eThere are noises being made, yet again, about how the Indian education system, especially at school levels, needs an overhaul. Congratulations, to the powers that be, for seeing and recognizing this fact (and no bragging about how every average, common, Indian on the street has known about this for at least a decade now). Some of the ideas are good, some not so good, and the reactions to them, from all and sundry, is not only extremely interesting but supremely illuminating.

Most countries have a single national board or education authority that maintains a uniform standard of education, regulates the national level tests and exams, and oversees the entire schooling system. Not here though. What we have in this wonderful land is a complete mess. Not only do we have some boards that are called “national” such as CBSE or ICSE, we also have State Boards, an added complication. Each state in India has a local board that a majority of the schools in that state are affiliated to. What this essentially means is all round confusion for everyone, at all levels.

First, the parents. With the thought of providing the best possible education to your child, it becomes a huge chore, and a major decision, to choose the right board for your child to study under. Do you choose one that gives him/her an all round education and development? Or do you opt for something that fetches her high marks instead? While I personally would choose better all round education, with an eye to the long term future and evolution (as a human being) of my daughter, others might be more interested in high scores so that the child has access to “better” colleges, an engineering or medical degree, and a chance at worldly success.

There is a lot of brainstorming, juggling, and research involved in such a basic decision as the child’s first school! Having studied under something like six different boards all over India, I am in a better position to judge, from my own experiences and those of the people I have met and interacted with all my life. Others might just blindly choose whichever board they studied under, or one they see as “scoring”. A number of parents even change their kids’ schools at the penultimate stage of the 8th or 9th standard from a “less scoring” to a “high scoring” board, in order to give them a better chance at an impressive mark sheet in the all important BOARD exams… 10th and 12th.

Given this divergence in scores and standards, it is no wonder that the college admission and higher education scene is a total and complete mess. Each university has its own, seemingly arbitrary, way of trying to neutralize this standard gap. Not unnaturally, most universities give a huge amount of preference to the local boards rather than CBSE or ICSE, an added incentive for the “score” seeking parents to transfer wards to state boards at the 11th hour. Apart from reserving seats, universities implement measures like adding extra marks to the scores of their “state board” students (at graduation level), or asking only the students from “other” boards or universities to sit an entrance exam (at post graduate level).

As a result, exam time and admission time is a time of stress and frustration all around. Why, one wonders, do we have all these complications? Why not one national board, and one qualifying exam for all mainstream higher education, like the A-levels in the states? Wouldn’t that make everything much simpler and a lot less stressful for everyone? Amazing that someone hasn’t thought of it already!! Well, now someone has, officially. Some of the recommendations are a single board, no 10th standard board exams, one single national test after 12th standard. Sounds good to me! One of the biggest problems, obstacles, is the fact that the idea is to follow the CBSE system and the NCERT books as the national standard.

This has got a huge number of people up in arms (specially the mug and vomit and get good scores brigade I am sure). Personally, I have studied in a number of school affiliated to half a dozen different boards in my schooling career. From personal experience of ICSE, CBSE and a few state boards I can vehemently state that CBSE is the most fair and student friendly system. If you have a basic level of intelligence and comprehension, and in my experience most students do (before it is drilled out of them by our system), you would find it close to impossible to fail.

Does that mean…as some relatives and friends of mine (with kids in other boards obviously) claim, that CBSE standards are abysmally low? Not in my experience. I don’t agree that flunking a large number of students or making them learn by rote is a sign of a very high standard. While it is truly difficult to flunk out in CBSE, it is also extremely difficult to get good marks without really knowing your subject. You cannot mug and vomit and get away with it. And that’s the real threat being felt by the detractors of the idea. We like the idea of mugging….at least most of us do. It’s the people like me …who cannot mug even if they try who hate the system. For most others, its comfortable. Learn nothing, retain nothing, expend no grey cells, don’t think….just learn by rote, vomit on paper and forget instantly.

As for the NCERT, a lot of people have been telling me “well it’s a government run research facility yaar. What do you think they achieve anyway?” well, as far as I am concerned, any research is better than no research. Most other textbooks seem to be arbitrarily thrown together without a single thought to presentation, or any attempt at making it more accessible or interesting for the student. On the other hand, government or not, someone at NCERT at least tries to keep the end user, the student, in mind while designing the books and their content.

Another hurdle on the way of integration is the fact that each little board is a little fiefdom. It has its own set of lords and masters, decision makers, powers that be. And none of these little lords and masters would be too happy at the thought of having to give up all that lovely power (not to mention a lot of under the table money sometimes) in order to be INTEGRATED. So all they have agreed to, and with alacrity, is scrapping the 10th standard boards. Which, of course, shows the world they are oh-so-serious about educational reform while changing the power equations not at all. Good old Indian runaround all over again!

As far as I can see, nothing major is going to change in a hurry. So, for me the answer was to put my little monkey in a CBSE school, as I have done, and enjoying the little circus that goes on in the name of overhauling the education system, and looks like going on for a long, long time.

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