Education is the most powerful weapon to produce desirable changes in our society, and in order to drive the nation towards greater accomplishments, it is important to furnish quality education to all of its citizens. The education system in India is one of the world’s largest sectors and after Independence, the country has passed through many reforms right from 10+2+3 common system (NPE, 1968) to Right to Education Act (RTE, 2009) and Non-Detention Policy (NDP, 2019). As of today, when the nation is in the grip of coronavirus, the BJP-lead Centre chose to scrap the syllabus and curriculum of all state boards and place a common syllabus for all school-going children aged between six and fourteenth years across the county in the spirit of Article 21A. The plea was filed by a Delhi-based BJP leader and advocate Ashwini Kumar Upadhyay seeking the Court’s direction into the practicability of creating one nation-one education system by merging the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE), the Indian Certificate of Secondary Education (ICSE), and other boards in India. To implement this new system, the Public Interest Litigation (PIL) also seeks the feasibility of forming a National Education Council on the line of the GST Council for the National Education Commission.

In the PIL, it was underscored that to ensure the greater socio-economic equality and justice, “it is necessary that syllabus and curriculum in all primary schools are similar whether it is run by management, local body, union or state government”. In the plea, the petitioner has also urged for the creation of standardized textbooks with chapters on fundamental rights, duties, directive principles, and the preamble of our Indian Constitution and makes it compulsory for all the school-going children across the country. Further, it underpinned that due to differences in syllabus and curriculum followed by different boards in different states, students do not get exposure to the CBSE syllabus, which is followed for all major entrance exams held in our country. It was believed that having a standard uniform curriculum and a basic uniform education system with the syllabus will reduce this disparity among students and make students equal.

However, on Friday, July 17, the Supreme Court has refused to entertain the plea seeking the one nation-one education board for school education across the country. A bench headed by Justice DY Chandrachud said the petitioner that “our children already have such heavy bags. Their backs are already breaking with this weight. Why do you want to put some extra weight on them?” By adding more books will increase the learning burden on young students.

Nevertheless, this is not the first time that the Supreme Court disqualified the plea seeking one nation-one board system but in 2017 the Court also did the same when a plea filled by Neeta Upadhaya, a primary school teacher who is also the wife of Ashwini Upadhaya (present petitioner). Then a bench of Chief Justice Dipak Misra and Justices AK Khanwilkar and DY Chandrachud said that the common system is not possible for school-going kids. In 2018, a bench of Justices AK Goel and UU Lalit was also reluctant to consider the PIL while raising doubt on the enforceability of its order in favor of one nation-one education board. The bench told the petitioner “it looks very rosy and attractive but it may not enforceable. We should not pass order which could not be implemented. You should better approach the government”.

Today’s Supreme Court’s dismissal of the petition is in contrast to a 2011 judgment by the Panchal Bench in Tamil Nadu state. In 2011, a three-judge bench of the Supreme Court, in an appeal filed by the Tamil Nadu government and others against a Madras High Court judgment that had held a common education system especially for children between 6 and 14 years, to achieve the “code of common culture”. The 2011 judgment had held that “right to education under Article 21-A of our Constitution be read in conformity with Articles 14 and 15 of the Constitution and there must be no discrimination in quality of education. Right of a child should not be restricted only to free and compulsory education but should be extended to have quality education without any discrimination on the ground of their economic, social, and cultural backgrounds”. The judges also said “uniform education system would achieve the code of common culture, removal of disparity, depletion of discriminatory values in human relations. It would enhance the virtues and improve the quality of human life, elevate the thoughts which advance our constitutional philosophy of equal society. In future, it may prove to be a basic preparation for uniform civil code as it may help in diminishing opportunities in those who foment fanatic and fissiparous tendencies.” In August 2011, Tamil Nadu becomes the first Indian state to have the ‘Uniform System of School Education’ with common syllabus, textbook, and examinations. Earlier the state had four boards such as the State Board, Matriculation Board, Oriental Board, and the Anglo Indian Board. ‘Samacheer Kalvi’ is the common curriculum board that established on the lines of the National Curriculum Framework (NCF, 2005). However, this did not include boards like CBSE and ICSE.

The education system in India needs uniformity in terms of syllabus, schooling type, instructional materials, and teaching pedagogies to ensure quality learning. Different boards create unequal status among learners and also induce rural-urban and rich-poor dichotomies, and cause unequal learning contexts in schools. As each individual has an equal right to access learning opportunity so, providing an equal pattern of learning to its all kid citizens is imperative. One nation-one education has the potentiality to exterminate socio-economic inequality in education realms. According to Mr. Inder Iqbal Singh Atwal, national working president of the Forum of SC and ST Legislators and Parliamentarians pointed out that “if we really want to fight and root out discrimination, then it should start from schools. We have so many boards, why should we have so many boards in the first place. Let this country have a single board, which will monitor education from a very early stage”.

There are 154 recognized boards of Education in India. The Centre plans to create a single national education board by combining CBSE, ICSE, and other national boards in the country. However, now the question arises, should we have a one nation-one education board? What would be the educational objective of the proposed common board for school-going kids in India? What will be the year of schooling? What will be the general contents of developing a standard curriculum? How is the Centre going to deal with the number of languages to be learned during schooling? Collectively, all are big concerns for all of us. Further, how is the Centre going to protect local interests and cultural traits in the proposed education system is another trouble for policy-makers. People from different regions and communities have different terrestrial culture and history. They prefer these to be embedded in the syllabus for their school kids. Further, children across India have different career choices and study interests so, will people across the country trust a committee sitting in Delhi that will determine the fate of their children through a monopoly-styled one-way education board? In an interview, the former NCERT Director, Prof. J. Rajput said that suppose we have to develop a textbook on environmental studies for class-V how we can make it study for all children as they are from different parts of India and have different orientations for learning. What a Bengali child starts with the primary education cannot be the same for any in North East India and vice-versa for a Dravidian child and an Aryan child.

Further, it has been seen that there are differences in priority in curriculum constructions across different boards. Like in the case of Hindi language, the CBSE only focuses on most reputed writers’ works in its textbooks while Maharashtra, UP, Bihar, Chhattisgarh boards have embedded the works of writers belong to the respective regions. Again, suppose, regarding language, the students from north-east India, south India, and West Bengal want to opt Hindi as an optional subject then their concept learnings will not be the same as it is for those from main Hindi belt regions is another concern.

We will miss the diversity, the core tenets of the democratic education system, if a common syllabus is implemented throughout the country. Here, we should not mass up with the general school education of primary school with thereafter specialized orientation of education leading to college or higher education. In the formative stage, what we need for our kids is the general and diverse embodied knowledge about our immediate socio-cultural and environmental surroundings instead of future-directed specialization knowledge. Human psychologists also urged that each child has different qualities and should not place all learners under unit homogeneity contents. Further, learning happens from near to far, from immediate to remote and known to unknown so, how it would be justifiable to make children learn about the plants or cultures when they have not seen or live in is a big concern.

According to the All India Education Survey (AIES, 2002), the country has over 1.3 million recognized primary, upper primary, secondary, and higher secondary schools. So, what kind of regulatory body is the Centre going to establish? How is the Centre going to form a standing committee to regulate and supervise the curriculum design, school maintenance, quality assurance, and improved administration? The present attempt at Centre will fragment the federal system of education. It is opposite to the Gandhian concept of governance and will promote the Soviet-style mindset that quality can be controlled by central diktat and a maze of regulations. Further, it also goes against Article 246 of the Indian Constitution which enlisted education in the concurrent list and enshrined the collective obligations of both Centre and state government.

The present move of the BJP-lead Centre is one step towards the objectification of the current teaching-learning process in the classroom. The plea claims that the common system will improve the value of education but actually in practice it will compel diverse cultural elements that are concretely embedded in the existing syllabus and curriculum of different state boards to obsolete forever. Besides, the proposed common system of education will also increase the burden on middle-level students that have strongly objected by the Yashpal Committee (1992-92) that underscored the necessity to improve the quality of learning for young students across different states of India. Further, directing the whole nation through a common education system will limit the learning opportunities for school-going kids. Side by side, it will promote similar kinds of human brains in the near future that will possibly havoc the human capital in the country.

No wonder, as there are many boards in India and each board has its distinct curriculum, syllabus, and instruction pedagogy, so, when an individual learner shifts from one board to another usually faces problems in terms of adjustment to the new syllabus and teaching methodology. Further, after the board examination, students have to write their entrance exams that are mostly based on CBSE and NCERT (National Council of Educational Research and Training) textbooks. Exams like the National Eligibility cum Entrance Test (NEET), Joint Entrance Examination (JEE), and Union Public Service Commission (UPSC) exam, etc. all follow the syllabus and curriculum devised by the central board of CBSE and apex body like NCERT. Besides, the timing and marking ranges (highest to the lower limit) are also some of the challenges before all of us in the existing system of education under different boards. However, this disparity and the learning gaps between students from Central versus state boards do not ideally give a call for the common system of education rather urge a great drive towards imparting quality education, felicitating diverse learning opportunities, improving school infrastructures, introspecting teachers quality, and administration in schools across the states.

School education plays an incredible role in children’s’ physical, intellectual, social, psychological, and moral development. It facilitates learning-experiences and develops life skills in children. It is the fountain of students’ human, social, cultural, and psychological capitals. Underpinning the importance of school education, aiming at 100 percent literacy, the Right to Education Act, 2009 propels states to ensure ‘free and compulsory education’ to all children aged between 6 and 14 years. However, the Census (2011) revealed that in the country, still there are more than 6.5 million children aged between five and fourteenth years who are out of school and working in agriculture and household industries. According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO, 2016), about 47 million youth in India are school dropouts by the 10th standard.  So, the Centre should reorient its approach towards ensuring schooling to these non-school-going children. Besides, the Centre should also prioritize its working plans in coordination with different states to ensure the ‘universalization of elementary education’ (UEE-NPE, 1986) under the flagship program of Sarva Siksha Abhiyan (SSA, 2001) across the country and make 100 percent retention of the enrolled kids in elementary schools.

The government schools in our country are seriously under-funded. The country like South Korea is spending 8 percent of its GDP on education while the Centre spends even less than 2 percent of its GDP. For the last few decades, government schools have been grappling with several such critical problems. As per the United District Information System for Education (UDISE, 2016-17), the country has over 92,275 single-teacher government schools at both elementary as well as secondary levels. The shortage of teachers has caused an extra burden on other teachers. They get less time in terms of both preparing instructional designs and thinking of pedagogies for effective classroom-transactions. Consequently, teachers’ active involvement in the classroom gets adversely affected. Again, due to the shortage of teachers, many schools have recruited less qualified incompetent teachers on ad-hoc or part-time. Also, there is another issue that many of the teachers, who have been permanently recruited in the rural government schools, due to failure in the school administration often stay at home and do other business by assigning their teaching duty to less competent sub-contract teachers.

According to the District Information System for Education data (DISE, 2016-17), over 18 percent of teachers in India do not have any professional training. Also, there is a concern over teachers’ professional commitment to government schools. A study on teachers by Jeevan and Townsend (2013) found that about 25 percent of teachers in India remain irregular to schools every day. This problem is greater in rural government schools. The cases of teacher absentee have been reported higher in different Indian states namely Jharkhand (41%), Bihar (37%), Punjab (34.4%), Assam (33.8%). Uttaranchal (32.8%), Chhattisgarh (30.6%), and Uttar Pradesh (26.3%) whereas, lowest in Maharashtra (14.6), Gujarat (17.0%), Madhya Pradesh (17.6%), and Kerala (21.2%). So, the common education system is not what the country needs immediately rather it requires school infrastructures, good governance, quality teachers, and teaching-learning supportive environments in schools.

Further, according to the Mandal Commission report (1990), about 52 percent of the country’s total population belongs to the disadvantaged groups including STs and SCs. The schools run by the government bodies attract students mostly from poor socio-economic status. It was noted that rural children especially those from the lower section of the society and tribal castes are coming to these schools. This is also the same in the case of municipal schools which having enrollments of children with poor family-backgrounds. These schools provide several incentives such as minimum school fees, tuition fees, uniforms, and other less expenditure. Students from these schools hardly have any access to modern education exposures like computer web-based skills training that completely left them behind students from private schools. So, in this situation, if the common syllabus is implemented then how will it be ensuring ‘quality education without discrimination’ among this section of the children? Besides, it is also a matter of academic discourse on how the uniform system is going to annihilate the existing institution based discrimination between the haves and have-nots objectifying in the forms of government versus private schools in the country.

Due to the poor academic support and lack of constructive teaching-learning climate in schools, kids are also doing underperformed. According to the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER, 2018), about 49.7 percent from class V and 27.2 percent from class VIII cannot read class II level textbooks. Also, about 72.2 percent from class V and 56 percent from class VIII cannot do a simple mathematical division that rays serious concern before us. So, instead of hoping that the common system will reduce quality gaps between state and central board students, the Centre must work to improve the learning standard of these children.

Further, the implementation of ICT in government schools remains a concern in today’s scenario. According to DISE data (2015-16), only 24.01 percent of schools have both computers and electricity. The states having schools with both computer and electricity less than 2 percent are Assam (0.27%), Bihar (1.52%), Jharkhand (1.49%), Madhya Pradesh (1.55%), Manipur (0.85%), and Odisha (1.63%). Also, the availed computers are used only for data recording, and hardly a few percent of schools that use computers for classroom teaching-learning purposes. Further in a few states, the government and private schools are having the same syllabus for school-going children. So, then what matters for the quality disparity between government and private schools are the quality teaching, availability of infrastructures, and enabling school environments.

Herewith it can be said that though the common system of education board is important but it is not justifiable. The case of 2011 judgment was a state matter and concern for a clustered Tamil people having an unprecedented shared culture, social values, and lifestyles. So, creating a common goal for the state education is somehow may be alright but its guaranteed progressive upshot is yet to be appraised in qualitative forms. It is yet to know whether the newly executed common education system in the state has ensured quality education for all and reduced the level of inequality and discrimination among students.

In closing, it can be said that everyone wants to make a good start with children at their formative stage which they carry in their later parts of academic lives. Hence, I feel that there is an urgent need for debates, discourses, and researches to examine the possible pearls and perils of having the common system of education for elementary children. It is important for both Centre and states to come together with academicians and policy-makers to pave the way-out for the betterment of the country’s future education. They must uphold the highest consciences about the country’s vast geographical area, different languages, clustered cultures, different history, ideological differences, differences in the vision of development, and different learning orientations before debating on the proposed uniform system of education. Some countries, of course, are following a common system of education like Finland, where all schools follow a national curriculum. Similarly, the USA has also a common system of exam that is Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT), the gateway to most colleges across the country. But having the same in our country needs to see its feasibility in cross-cultural settings. In India, the idea is still at an immature stage. Suppose, we have got the proposed common system of education, then what would be the system for secondary and senior secondary school education? Is the Centre going to develop a common syllabus and curriculum for college education too? There is a big devoid in the proposed common board of education.

Nawaz Sarif is a Ph.D. scholar and a UGC fellow at the School of Education, North-Eastern Hill University (NEHU), Shillong, India. He has completed his master’s degree at Banaras Hindu University (BHU), Varanasi, India. Presently, he works on ‘the development of psychological capital in the young population’. Along with the research, he writes short articles on contemporary issues. Email: nawazsarif@nehu.ac.in


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