Inequality in education


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PERHAPS it is time we acknowledge that as a society we are no longer troubled by an unequal education system. We have become so immune to the gross inequalities in the education sector such that it rarely even merits any mention in policy documents of the state or in the numerous reports prepared by NGOs and international agencies about what ails our education system. In other words, inequality in education is no longer a policy issue at the highest levels, and has ceased to be an issue of importance in the development agenda. Concerns about ‘quality’ and ‘choice’ have come to substitute the constitutional commitment to the right to an equal education.

There is no better exemplar of this new ‘policyscape’ we inhabit than the Right to Education Act of 2009, the long overdue legal promise of the fundamental right to education for every school age citizen. The RTE Act legislates that every person of age 6-14 must receive school education; however, it leaves wide open the question of responsibility for the provision of education. Schools run by government or the private sector, or belonging to a ‘special type of authority’ (i.e. faith based schools) are all regarded on par with one another for the provision of ‘free and compulsory education’ for all children.

From 2000 onward, we have witnessed the rise of an incredible array of private education providers that range from ‘five star’ schools that boast of Olympic size swimming pools and air-conditioned campuses to ‘low fee schools’ in a single room in a slum, and a whole range in between. Rather than the expansion of schools in the middle range, what is most striking and points to the intensification of educational inequalities is the rapid increase of schools at either end of the spectrum. The ‘five star’ schools speak about fostering students as ‘active learners who have a love of learning, are self-directing and engaged at all levels with their education’, of creating ‘leaders of tomorrow’ who are able to ‘think critically, solve problems and take decisions’, who are ‘compassionate and open’ – goals that represent the fundamental purpose of education in all civilized societies.


In India, however, there is a steep price tag to access such an education that nurtures young minds and prepares them for success in the global economy. Save for a statistically small class of affluent families, this kind of education is out of reach for most Indians. Meanwhile international institutions, the government and NGOs, focus on the schools of the poor. Each year reports like ASER (Annual Status of Education Report), in mind-numbing, repetitive fashion publicize the numbers of government schools that have usable toilets, how many of these have drinking water facilities, and how they score on ‘minimum levels of learning.’ The reports, without exception, are silent about the parallel systems of schooling that are so different that they may well inhabit separate planets. Like a horse with blinders, the reports plod on about the dismal quality of government schools and the herculean task of improving them, even as the chasm between schools for the privileged and well-to-do and those for the majority grows ever wider and beyond breach.

The varied types of schools that range from elite international schools, generic private schools and reputed aided schools for the middle classes, to low cost private schools for the low income and poor and government schools for the very poor are segregated not only along class lines but also by caste. Thus, forward caste students are concentrated in international and other private schools, while Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribe students comprising the majority are enrolled in government run schools. The RTE Act ignores these specificities and in so doing has backed a ‘separate and unequal’ education for our young generation that violates the spirit of the Constitution.

As far back as 1966, the National Education Commission (otherwise known as the Kothari Commission) had stated the obvious in clear and uncompromising terms: ‘Good education instead of being available to all children… from every stratum of society, is available only to a minority which is usually selected not on the basis of talent but on the basis of its capacity to pay fees. The identification and development of the total national pool of ability is greatly hampered. The position is thus undemocratic and inconsistent with the idea of an egalitarian society.’ In effect, the RTE Act has foreclosed the debate on what constitutes an egalitarian and democratic education and has set a very low bar on maintaining minimal norms in schools, and not on eradicating inequality that characterises the system as a whole.


The act encourages varied types of providers to enter the ‘education marketplace’ – from big business houses establishing networks of international schools to individual entrepreneurs managing ‘budget’ schools, each providing school choice for a different income (and caste) bracket. The provision of ‘choice’ in the education marketplace is interpreted as democracy. School choice, in other words, has resulted in an intensely segregated school system. The 25% reservation for low income students in private schools is a half-hearted attempt to address the segregation that is deeply entrenched in our schools, that avoids the real task of reversing policies that lead to exclusion and discrimination. Even this measure is strongly opposed by private schools, thereby exposing just how hollow their claims to developing ‘global leaders’ and ‘caring and compassionate citizens’ are. Rather than design the school system to bridge existing societal inequalities, schools in general have come to mirror the extreme inequalities of our society, and it appears we want to keep it that way.


There have been several appeals for a common school system as the only resolution to the problem of unequal schooling in India. The All India Forum for the Right to Education (AIFRTE), a national network of school teachers, principals and educator-activists, has rejected the RTE Act for sanctioning the commercialization and privatization of education and proposed the Kothari Commission’s recommendation for a ‘common school system’ as the only realistic measure to safeguard equal rights to education. The idea of common schools is to create a structurally coherent school system that would enable children from different socio-economic backgrounds, who are also differentiated by caste and language abilities, to have an opportunity to study together.

The common school model is found in most developed countries of the West and has its early history in the United States where a common school system was established by the end of the 19th century, giving the new, primarily European, immigrants an opportunity to study with already resident white students. However, the U.S. school system remained racially segregated until the mid-1950s when new laws were promulgated to desegregate the racially segregated schools in America. This resulted in stiff opposition that in many cases led to rioting and violence with the National Guard having to be called in to ensure that black students could attend predominantly white schools.


In the U.S. it took both a civil rights movement and the executive and the judicial branches of the state acting together with one mind (more or less) to turn the tide against segregated schooling. Sixty years later, we have to ask what it will take for us to desegregate our school system? The desegregation movement in the U.S. was driven by a realization that the ‘separate but equal’ motto for racially segregated schools is nothing but a mirage; that to endorse a system of separate schools by race, class or gender is to endorse an unequal education. There was also a growing recognition among educators and policy makers that it would be in the best interest of the nation for children of different ethnicities and races to go to school together, to befriend and learn from one another. Intellectuals and researchers also influenced the thinking at the time and made a compelling case for mixed and diverse schools as a prerequisite for social and economic progress and peace and stability. Research and data supported by public funds were used to inform public opinion on the subject and forge a broad consensus on the merits of desegregated schooling.

It is instructive to follow not only the success but also the unravelling of the common school system in the U.S. that concerns our situation as well. While the movement to desegregate education was largely effective, the struggles to desegregate housing and equalize access to infrastructural projects such as roads, highways and transportation services were not similarly impactful. There was no similar movement to counteract the racism in urban planning and real estate and this was reflected in the way housing, infrastructure and transportation remains largely segregated in the U.S. today. Blacks and whites, the industrial and service classes, and the professional classes are likely to own and rent property in different neighbourhoods and have very different mobility choices. The former rely mainly upon public transportation that over time has been greatly diminished and the latter benefit from a state supported automobile industry. Increasing segregation in housing and other public amenities has thus undercut the success of school desegregation in the United States. Indian cities and towns too are undergoing a similar transformation in infrastructure and transportation choices that makes it evident that any effort to equalize educational opportunity must be matched by more equitable and democratic urban planning and infrastructural investments.


The U.S. case shows that inequalities in the school system are symptomatic of a sedimented history of racism that needs to be determinedly opposed to enable a more fair and equal system of education to emerge. In the Indian context, the fault line is caste and casteism that persists both in its violent and genteel forms and pervades all societal institutions – from family to the media, from political parties to the bureaucracy. The education system is, of course, part of the same social structures and can hardly be impervious to ideologies of caste and casteism that have been documented in everyday practices of schooling, and are more subtly present in policy and research.

Caste (and class) prejudice justifies an inferior education for certain groups of children in the belief that different groups of children need to be prepared for different roles in society. A casteist view is likely to concur with the notion that certain social class and caste groups just do not possess the capacity to excel academically and that providing all students a rich and challenging educational environment on par with schooling for the affluent would be a waste of societal resources.

Not only are such beliefs ethically reprehensible and have no place in modern democracies but equally, hard data and evidence contradicts such beliefs and demonstrates precisely the opposite. The best example of a country that has an effective common school model and high rates of educational attainment is Cuba. Every few years the front pages of The New York Times carry perplexing reports about what might possibly explain students in Cuba outperforming students in developed countries and coming out on top in english, math and science international tests.

Further, how does one explain the below average performance of U.S. students on similar tests despite having resource rich schools? While it is well known that Cuba invests ten percent of its national budget on education, a proportion higher than most developed countries and certainly more than any low income country, the ways in which the entire school system is oriented to deliver quality education provides valuable lessons on how equality and quality of education are synergistically linked.


A recent study, ‘Cuba’s Academic Advantage: Why Students from Cuba Do Better in Schools’, provides an empirically rich account of schools in Cuba comparing them to Brazil and Chile, two upper income countries that perform much more poorly on learning outcomes than Cuba. The data driven research arrives at certain conclusions about the necessary conditions that produce a high quality school system.

Let me briefly list a few salient points about Cuba’s school system from the study: (i) a social context is created that is highly supportive of academic achievement; (ii) a conceptually complex curriculum, a robust teacher training programme and strong mentoring relations for new and junior teachers so that teachers are far more competent and confident in their pedagogy; (iii) the teaching profession is made attractive in terms of respectability, pay and affirming working conditions such that it draws academically strong graduates; and (iv) small classes and teachers teach the same cohort for several years which builds relations of trust and caring between students and teachers.

Over and above these organizational features of Cuba’s school system, the authors highlight the importance of ‘state social capital’, that is a context in which ‘children’s health and learning are fully supported, where the state ensures that low income children are well fed and do not have to work, and where employment for adults is guaranteed.’ While Cuba is a low growth economy, what seems to matter in terms of quality of education and strong learning outcomes is that income distribution is relatively equal in contrast to the high levels of income inequality in Chile and Brazil (as in the United States).


While India is in a league of its own in terms of sheer size and linguistic and regional diversity, the findings from such dense empirical studies (e.g. Finland and China also) have implications for our education system. Income inequality in India has worsened in the last decade and a half, a trend that shows no signs of reversing. This militates against the prospects of an egalitarian education system; rather, what we are likely to see is a more unequal education system that undermines the basic precepts of a democratic and socially cohesive society.

Second, evidence shows that political will and genuine commitment on the part of the state and broader intellectual forces play a critical role in this endeavour; investing more in terms of GDP and stand alone schemes such as midday meals proves inadequate if these schemes are not integrated into a comprehensive programme to improve education that includes revamping teacher training, class size, infrastructure, pedagogical approaches, and curricula, and most of all claiming quality education as a fundamental human right. Countless NGO and World Bank reports highlight India’s losing battle with quality education despite different kinds of infusions in the government school sector.


In the present conjuncture, the political commitment to equalize educational opportunity appears a distant prospect, not least for two main reasons. One, the priority of the state is capital accumulation and global economic integration by any means necessary, even if it means the destruction of secure livelihoods for the majority. The developmentalist state has transformed into a ‘competition state’ where the profitability of the corporate sector and political elites are given precedence over the economic and social rights of ordinary citizens and working people. We are looking toward a future of increasing wealth inequality and precarious existence for the many. Given this, education policy will be further subordinated to the requirements of the economy and oriented toward producing necessary labour for the global economy, labour that is increasingly low wage, low skills and contractual.

In this economic model, education for global leadership, higher order problem solving and critical thinking will be regarded as appropriate for a select minority alone. In other words, a fractured, highly stratified and segmented education system makes perfect sense for the economic path we are on. Within the current model, equality of educational opportunity would be viewed as socially inefficient and economically unproductive. There are already concerns that we are graduating students from college at a rate higher than can be absorbed by the labour market. What is notable here is that countries that have achieved universal school education of a high quality have done so through a publicly financed common school system, primarily on the principle of human rights and civilizational progress and not as subservient to the needs of the economy.

A second barrier to realizing equality of educational opportunity that is peculiar to the Indian context is the unchecked prevalence of casteism and caste prejudice at the broadest levels of society. To have an education system that is egalitarian, diverse and democratic, at least far more than what exists at present, and which delivers high quality education, requires conviction in the capacity of children – no matter what their lineage, family occupation and social history – to excel if they are provided the appropriate context for learning.


Caste prejudice and belief in the superiority of certain castes and their inherent right to dominate over other castes is a formidable obstacle to equalizing education. Unless we take this issue head on, the casteist attitudes and mindsets of education bureaucrats, leaders and teachers will interfere with and continually undermine the best efforts to deliver quality education for all. Therefore, all those who are committed to improving the quality of schooling in India need to also confront the inequalities fomented by a ‘competition state’ and by our investment in the caste structure. Without this the national goal of universal quality education will remain forever out of reach.