The culture of government schools


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THE school, going to school, and ideas of mass elementary education have come of age. Years of developmental activism, international pressure, and the promulgation of the Right to Education (RtE) Act have championed the spread of elementary schools. Subsequently, schooling was ascribed with the objectives of eradicating illiteracy and child labour, creating citizenship, fostering democracy and facilitating economic growth. From television and radio jingles of school chale hum (let’s go to school) that present idealized images of going to school in even poor and remote regions, the frequent contestations over curricula and texts, to the current cooption of schools into the ledgers of corporate social responsibility and philanthropy, the school has found new presence and visibility in the imagination of the nation.

The government elementary school (henceforth GES) thus stands as an emblematic institution embodying the ideas of mass schooling and catering to about two hundred million schoolgoing children and accounting for about 74 per cent of elementary schools in the nation. For a majority of people, the school and schooling is a much desired experience, and for the marginalized – who have been denied access to education through generations – schooling is a resemblance that they seek.

As key sites, schools are part of the identity formation of young persons and feed into the political, social, cultural, economic and gendered negotiations of nationhood and citizenship. For those accessing it, especially the economically disadvantaged and marginalized, the GES is seen as an institution that can facilitate generational shifts from the world of poverty and disadvantage. Now, located within the framework of ‘welfare govern-mentality’, the GES bears the onus of acting as an ameliorative site that must address the multiple disadvantages (malnutrition, child labour, social exclusion, etc.) of a large proportion of the nation’s population and act as a medium for realizing the new ambitions of a globalizing nation state.

But far from being an institution or agency through which equality of educational opportunity or redress of generational deprivation of education can be offered, the GES is increasingly an institution which acts as a conduit and site for developmentalism. Schools, and thereby literacy, have become key criteria/parameters against which the state or level of development of a nation state is assessed. Yet, in terms of financial allocation and political attention, the GES garners little interest from the average middle class citizen or from the benches of state legislative assemblies and the parliament. Herein lies part of the contradictory position of the government school – upheld as the fount of making a new nation and yet neglected as it serves the masses and not the elite.

Even as the GES has become the site of the most intense provisioning of welfare schemes, it exhibits the contradictions and complexities of the socioeconomic structures in which it is embedded. Regional polity and to some extent regional culture and society, rather than regional economy, define and direct how schools function and whom they cater to. This largely explains why there are significant regional and state variations in the functioning of schools and in the delivery and achievement of literacy levels. Recent declarations of rights and a range of programmes to foster inclusiveness and access have led to the spread of GES in societies which are increasingly faced with conditions of disembedding rural economies and emerging complex semi-urban and urban economies with large proportions of poverty zones or slums. Schooling in such areas is not imagined or constructed in terms of provisioning relevant or appropriate forms and access to literacy but as a uniform, bureaucratized service that is riddled with contradictions. Unsurprisingly, the results of such deployment are manifested in a range of problems.


Enrolment data for several government schools now indicate that it is primarily the children of low ranked caste families who fill the rosters of GES. Ambedkar’s elaboration of the caste system as a form of ‘graded inequality’ is now being reinforced through the relegation of GES to the status of schools for the most disadvantaged and the lowest in caste ranking. Abandoned by the local economically advantaged and powerful, and hence by the upper caste and those with cultural capital and leverage, the GES cannot be considered a ‘common school’ catering to the needs of all children in a specific settlement.

In its identity, orientation and functioning, the average GES is buffeted between the stipulations of the state, the agency of the headmistress/master and the teachers, and the immediate socioeconomic conditions of the settlement in which the school is located. Although in terms of debates and ideas the GES is an embattled or contested site, in the area of administration and policy decisions it largely remains a benignly neglected institution. Periodic programmes are deployed to tweak its functioning, especially the performance of teachers, but the structure and orientation of the edifice as a whole is rarely reviewed or reworked. With its historically defined features dragged into contemporary functioning, the GES as an institution is layered, porous and unstable, and yet loaded with the onerous expectations of enabling the most disadvantaged children to become educated. These tensions between what is expected of the GES and what it delivers makes the GES all the more vulnerable as an institution.


From the assembly, in which children stand in rows with the headmaster/headmistress and the teacher/s facing them, to the singing of the national song, and drill exercises where commands are called out in Hindi (ek, dho, theen… even in the deep South! ), a regime of initiating order and discipline is sought to be implemented but never fully realized. For, far from being representative of a Foucauldian institution where discipline is instituted, such attempts at discipline are only superficial and have little impact on the overall culture within schools. Instead, emanating from the larger and persisting norms of indifference and lack of organization, what marks the overall culture of GES is the absence of order despite instances where severe disciplining (in terms of corporal punishment and frequent reprimands) is deployed. From a lack of attention to children and their individual needs and abilities to the typically unkempt environs of the school there is, in most cases, an absence of any rigid subscription to administrative stipulations on the school.

What is practiced and manifested as discipline is only a simulacrum of standardized and derived norms of disciplining received via instructions from the department but implemented with little or no rigour. School administrators and teachers permit and encourage a laxity that permeates the entire functioning of the school. From a compromise on cleanliness, to the ways in which classes and the rooms are organized and managed, or the treatment of children, what the GES exhibits is not direct implementation of regimented rules of the state. Instead, the manner and strategies by which teachers negotiate such rules become the norm and account for the wide variations in school standards and functioning.


Drawing intensively from the culture in which it is located and more specifically from a broader Hindu and caste culture, the GES reproduces and manifests a dense non-secular culture. While everyday interactions are marked by hierarchy of age, gender and caste relations, the culture of special occasions or ‘function days’ (as they are called) is fused with the specific cultures of local society. Independence and Republic days, as also Gandhi Jayanti and Children’s Day are celebrated, not so much for their social and political significance but as days of reverence for historical leaders represented as deities or as opportunities to imitate the now extant film culture. During the celebration of Independence and Republic days there is often an ambience of festivity, and it is puja that is conducted to the portraits of historical figures rather than a dissemination of the ideas that they stood for.

Although decentralization in its political manifesto is often presented as the most legitimate form of democracy, the pillars on which it is promoted for government elementary schools rest on the notions of fostering ‘ownership of schools’, making teachers accountable to local people, and improving the efficiency of the schooling system. Drawn from idealized images of composite, integrated, rural societies, Gandhian notions of local governance, and on the expectation that all people can engage with democratic processes, the decentralized administration of government schools is seen as a panacea for unaccountable bureaucratic administration.

The continuing hold of such ideas is visible in the conceptualization of the Village Education Committee (VEC) and other similar structures such as the education committees (shiksha samitis) in which all parents who send their children to the GES are members irrespective of their caste, class and gender and expected to play significant and engaged roles. But, in the untidy world of a largely hierarchical social structure, an inegalitarian culture and competitive politics, the processes and realization of such a democratic structure in the context of elementary education institution building has not been easy. In reality, a successful implementation of the policy of facilitating democratic decentralization in government schools hinges on the community’s social and cultural capital, political abilities, access to information, and in the facilitation of such processes by the agencies of the state.


The fact that the GES is situated within a configuration of thin democracy makes its functioning problematic. While decentralized democratization or administration seeks to integrate the role and contribution of parents, and make teachers accountable to elected members, the due process of such imagined and expected democracy is thin at best and distorted at worst. Rare is the forum or opportunity for parents to voice their complaints and rarer still is the integration of their inputs or recognition as meaningful repositories of knowledge.

GES are also marked by instability. Periodic local festivals and celebrations, calamities, riots, tensions, political events (especially elections), census drives, health camps, transfer of teachers, deputations and the failure to fill posts, leave the classes and schools in conditions that stretch the abilities of those teachers who are present. Overall, various periodic reviews of the GES across the nation have indicated the inadequate functioning of schools in terms of number of working hours, low quality of teaching-learning transactions, and a plethora of problems associated with teaching-learning processes and transactions. And it is the recruitment, constitution, and the working life of teachers that marks the most significant aspect of the functioning and impact of the GES.


Although the number of government school teachers has increased over the years and currently there are about nine lakh of them employed across the country, their presence and role in the education department or in the functioning of the GES, and thereby their impact on the GES, remains contradictory and ambiguous. A combination of anti-agrarianism, growing aspiration for middle class and urban lifestyles, increasing demands to contribute to the family income, and so on, make the position of the government school teacher a favourite career option. Yet, such aspiration is not attendant with any aptitude for teaching or associated with the moral value of becoming teachers.

A large number of teachers indicate that their choice to teach was out of either lack of options or based on an idea that it was more accessible than others, and hence few consider it a vocation. Their inadequate education and training compounds the problem of orientation in which teachers play out their responsibilities and roles. Among the middle classes, teaching is also seen as a safe option for women and large numbers of girls are encouraged to choose this as their education and career option. Such social pressures largely account for the increasing feminization of the teaching workforce and the distortions that it creates within the family and in the education bureaucracy. Within the families, girls are often permitted to opt for teaching as a career while denying them the option of other career choices. In the education bureaucracy, women teachers are encouraged to remain in teaching positions and their aspirations to engage in administrative posts are often thwarted.

That teaching in government schools has become a dominant choice of employment for the middle classes, and a source of political legitimacy for the state and political parties, is evident from the demand for increasing recruitment. That teachers in Uttar Pradesh often resort to suicides and mass mobilization to demand such employment in government schools indicates the economic and political significance that such employment has gained.


Despite the growth of the education bureaucracy over the years, the GES teacher lies at the bottom of the pyramid and is often the key target of administrative reform, teacher training programmes, and the structures and processes of democratic decentralization. Each of these deploys against the GES teacher a range of regulation and surveillance mechanisms which, in turn, are either subverted or negotiated by the teachers. The vertically arranged hierarchy locates the teacher at the bottom of the education administrative system and the GES teacher is now accountable to the ever expanding system of education administration and officials. In the erosion of the agency of the teacher lies also the loss of any quality in the elementary education system. Routinized teaching-learning practices, teachers’ distance from children, the overall dysfunctional character of most schools, and the rendering of most teaching posts as government employment opportunities, make for the low academic standards of most government elementary schools.


Concerns such as these have led to the deployment of a range of educational performativity tools towards the GES and there is increasing discussion on whether the GES is in its death throes or must finally be put to rest. Such assessments of the GES in the context of the new ambitions of globalizing the nation’s economy have led to the entry of new players who seek to look beyond the nationalist, democratic, and developmentalist goals assigned to and associated with elementary education.

In an attempt to enable greater numbers to enter the global economy, the new educational players include a range of corporate, philanthropic, and civil society groups who seek to either generate a makeover of the GES or supplant it with new varieties of schools. The result is that the GES is now also a site of the remaking of India into a global workforce and workplace, and ideas of corporate management and governance (e.g., total quality management, etc.), issues of quality and orientation, functioning and performance, delivery and impact are now being directed at it. Given this range of structuration by the larger system, the complex conditions in which the GES is situated, and the role and impact of the key agencies, the question arises as to how the GES impacts the average child and teacher who enters its portals.

As recent studies have elaborated, many private schools are not free from the numerous challenges that the GES face and the quality of education that they deliver is far from problem free as the advocates of private schooling make it out to be. Issues of poor infrastructure, inadequately trained teachers, low learning levels, and exorbitant fees plague the private school system. In addition, as the recent contestations over the Right to Education Act and the policy prescriptions of enabling children of poor economic groups entering the portals of private schools indicate, the private school sector conceptualizes education as an economic enterprise and the goals of facilitating equal and quality education for all are far from its objectives. Under such conditions, where a proliferation of different types of schools for different socioeconomic segments has taken root in the nation, the key challenge is not only to the continuity of the government school but to the very idea of a ‘common school’ system.


As data indicate there are now nine different types of schooling systems in the nation, with the poorly funded ashramshala (for adivasis or tribals) and the government school at one end of the spectrum to the new, plush international schools at the other end. These schools then form new bounded entities with each catering to either the limitations (of the poor and disadvantaged) or to the aspirations (of the elite with global ambitions) of different classes.

In these trends, in addition to both, the denial of equal and quality education, there is the more significant denial of the possibility of education acting as the source of levelling and generating forms of social transformation. In this structure of a highly differentiated schooling system, the government elementary system stands as a site of mixed possibilities; it enables some amount of transformation (in as much as it endows literacy) but is also a site of reproduction (since the content and orientation reproduces significant aspects of a hierarchical culture) and thus acts as a site of disjunction. That large numbers of school dropouts and educated unemployed form a significant body of youth who are now distanced from their worlds of agriculture and rural life, or from the possibilities of being productively engaged, is testimony to what a problematic education system has done to them.


In its contemporary moment, the GES stands in a matrix of complex contradictions: it has the potential and promise of being an inclusive institution but in its content and functioning it deploys forms of exclusion. It lacks autonomy from the larger bureaucratic apparatus that controls it and yet its key agents are largely unaccountable. It combines the goals and functions of welfare governmentality but fails to provide quality education for the most marginalized and disadvantaged. It plays a key pastoral role through its current signature programmes, that of the mid-day meal, free books, uniforms, cycles, etc., and yet it is also the site of much physical and emotional abuse. It promises children entry into a world of literacy and knowledge but erodes the varied and local knowledge forms and identities. Overall, it combines in its final impact both the possibility of social transformation and that of social reproduction, but remains largely disjunctive in its impact. In this amalgam of ideologies and practices, the GES remains both an institution faced with multiple challenges and one that holds much promise.