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Judicial remedy – Frontline

The Madras High Court stays the AIADMK government’s decision to suspend the Uniform System of School Education.

[I]ndia has been especially disadvantaged in basic education, and this is one of our major challenges today. When the British left their Indian empire, only 12 per cent of the Indian population was literate. That was terrible enough, but our progress since Independence has also been quite slow. This contrasts with our rapid political development into the first developing country in the world to have a functioning democracy.

Amartya Sen

THE Nobel laureate’s observation is particularly relevant to Tamil Nadu, a State that has miles to go to strengthen school education. A major issue hindering progress in the education sector is the State’s competitive politics involving the two major Dravidian parties, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK). For the past four decades, every new regime’s first task has been to undo the schemes and programmes formulated by the previous regime.

This time around, in a hasty decision, the newly installed AIADMK government put on hold the Uniform System of School Education (USSE), which was already in force for classes I and VI, taking by surprise not only 120 lakh-odd schoolchildren and their parents but also academic and political circles.

On June 7, the government brought forward a Bill to amend the Tamil Nadu USSE Act, 2010, and passed it on the same day. The Bill sought to postpone the system indefinitely. The amendment was challenged by the State Platform for Common School System in the High Court on June 8.

On June 10, the Madras High Court stayed the amendment on the grounds that the decision of the new government would result in unsettling various issues besides jeopardising the interests of the schoolchildren. The First Bench of the High Court comprising Chief Justice M.Y. Eqbal and Justice T.S. Sivagnanam said the amendment shall remain stayed pending disposal of the writ petitions. No material had been produced to show that a review of the USSE Act had been done by an expert committee before passing the amendment, the court observed. It observed that the respondents had not denied that the first meeting of the Cabinet, held on May 22, had lasted only an hour, during which several issues including Samacheer Kalvi (equitable-standard education) was discussed. The following day, a notification was issued inviting tenders to print textbooks under the old syllabus, the court pointed out. The Bench observed in the pre-delivery order that prima facie this shows that the action of the government to switch back to the old syllabus is not based on the report of any expert committee.

However, the court made it clear that the stay would not come in the way of the government conducting a detailed study of the common syllabus and common textbooks introduced under the USSE Act. The government is also entitled to delete, add, modify, substitute or alter any portion of the textbooks which indeed included content that sought to propagate the achievement of a political party or an individual and issue appropriate instructions in this regard.

The government was so keen to suspend the USSE that at its first Cabinet meeting, Chief Minister Jayalalithaa announced the decision to revert to the old syllabus for the current academic year beginning June 15 claiming that the Samacheer Kalvi system introduced by the previous DMK government was not equipped to enhance the standard of education comprehensively. The government, however, clarified that it was not abandoning the system altogether but was only going in for a comprehensive review.

Reiterating the government’s stand, Jayalalithaa told mediapersons on May 24 that no deadline could be fixed for the implementation of Samacheer Kalvi. Significantly, on the same occasion, she made it clear that the government was not directly involved in the process of fixing the fee for private schools as the job had been entrusted to a statutory panel. She hastened to add that the government would intervene in the matter if the school managements wished it to.

Governor S.S. Barnala, in his address to the State Assembly on June 3, pointed out that it was not acceptable to bring down the standard of education and harm the future of schoolchildren in the name of the USSE. I would suggest that the new committee [to be appointed by the State government] is an empowered one that not only gives a philosophical review of the syllabus but is also administrative and executive in nature. It should draw up a plan of action, he said.

The Act was amended even as a batch of writ petitions were pending before the High Court and was posted for hearing on June 8. A public interest petition filed by K. Shyam Sundar, an advocate, on May 24 said the government’s decision to defer the implementation of the USSE was not in the public interest but was purely political.

Although the government has denied that the decision was politically motivated, one of the reasons for the move to withdraw the system was certain objectionable content in some of the textbooks. Shortly after visiting the Tamil Nadu Textbook Society on May 18, School Education Minister C.Ve. Shanmugam hinted at the removal of some content from the textbooks. The government did not deny reports that it was opposed to certain portions such as the Semmozhi Vaazthu (invocation to the classical Tamil language) penned by former Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi and certain other works of his that were included as additional/supplementary reading material in some of the high school textbooks.

As a result, around 6.5 crore textbooks printed at a total cost of around Rs.200 crore could not be moved out of godowns.

Taking issue with the government on May 27, Karunanidhi said, There is nothing wrong in utilising the same textbooks after deleting my name or the whole song on the Tamil classical language.

Claiming that a common syllabus for different streams of school education was sought to be projected as Samacheer Kalvi, Minister Shanmugam said only four of the 109 recommendations of the committee on the USSE headed by S. Muthukumaran, the former Vice-Chancellor of the Tiruchi-based Bharathidasan University, had been accepted by the previous regime. The State Common Board of School Education, constituted under the 2010 Act, had not been designated as the Academic Authority as per Section 29 of the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009, the government opined.

The government, through the amendment Bill, clarified that it had become impossible to implement the scheme in the current academic year as envisaged in Section 3 of the Act as various recommendations of the committee pertaining to the enactment of a comprehensive piece of legislation covering the qualification of teachers, infrastructure, examinations, code of conduct for teachers, and rules for students needed a thorough study.

The Bill was opposed by the DMK, the Congress and the Pattali Makkal Katchi at the introduction stage itself. Former School Education Minister and DMK leader Thangam Thennarasu said a common syllabus was the core concept of the USSE. He, however, admitted that there were several aspects to an equitable standard of education. Activists of the Students Federation of India (SFI), which had spearheaded the campaign for an equitable standard of education in the State, staged a protest in Chennai against the decision to put the scheme on hold.

Some of the electoral allies of the ruling party, including the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the Communist Party of India, have demanded that the implementation of the USSE must continue. Shortly after the Cabinet decision to postpone the implementation of the scheme, the CPI(M) and the SFI asked the government not to abandon it. They suggested that the scheme could be enriched by removing all the shortcomings during the course of its implementation.

EDUCATIONISTS FOR USSE

Educationists recalled the observation made by K. Devarajan, the Director of Matriculation Schools, on May 7 that the standard of the syllabus prescribed under the USSE was far better than the earlier matriculation textbooks and was almost on a par with the Central Board of Secondary Education syllabus. Educationists, human rights activists and parents urged the government to implement the scheme for all classes up to class X in the current academic year itself. They pleaded that the academic interest of students should not become a casualty of competitive politics. The State Platform for Common School System, an umbrella organisation of educationists, students, parents and individuals who have been working for the realisation of the constitutional vision for free and compulsory education, has been in the forefront of the demand for the implementation of the USSE.

Educationists welcomed many of the key recommendations of the Muthukumaran Committee, including the one relating to the setting up of an integrated Tamil Nadu School Education Board by dividing the State into six zones, imparting school education in the mother tongue, stressing the government’s responsibility for kindergarten/nursery education, granting functional autonomy to schools, and strengthening the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (education for all) scheme.

On the other hand, the managements of private schools, particularly those belonging to the Matriculation stream, welcomed the government’s decision. They had lost a legal battle in the Madras High Court and the Supreme Court on the issue of the USSE. The general secretary of the Federation of Matriculation Schools Associations, N. Vijayan, said parents preferred to admit their children to matriculation schools in view of the quality of education offered by them. D. Christdass, general secretary of the Tamil Nadu Nursery, Primary, Matriculation and Higher Secondary Schools Managements Association, in his petition, claimed that the new government’s decision was within its domain and it could not be questioned in any court of law.

RECOMMENDATIONS

The committee, which submitted its report on July 4, 2007, recommended that 11 different councils guide the integrated board in subjects such as Tamil, English, oriental and other languages, fine arts, sports and physical education. Expressing satisfaction over the 10-month-long work of the panel, Muthukumaran said that although the final report was binding on all members, a representative of the matriculation school managements had sent a dissent note to the government. The note was published along with the committee’s report.

Instead of appointing a new committee to go into the various aspects of Samacheer Kalvi, the government should consult the statutorily established State Common Board of School Education, invite the views of experts, and reconstitute the board, he said. He called for time-bound action in implementing the recommendations.

As an equitable standard of education was not confined to syllabi and textbooks, the committee gave its recommendations on a wide range of related points such as improving the facilities in schools and appointing adequate numbers of qualified teachers. Although the academic syllabus was the focal point, the committee dealt with ethics, physical training, art and music, among other things, in its comprehensive report, he pointed out. On complaints regarding the standard of the syllabus, he said the job had been entrusted to some of the competent members of the panel and experts belonging to the Directorate of Teacher Education Research and Training.

The committee had asked the government to place the syllabus before the integrated board for a thorough perusal before implementing it. You can see that many comments have been made on the textbooks rather than on the syllabi. A similar situation arose in 1996, he said, underscoring the need for apolitical authors who gathered inputs purely on educational and pedagogical bases.

Every time we have elections, the new government tries to remove some portions from the previous year’s textbooks. That is not good for the education system, he said. He emphasised the need for autonomous bodies to frame the syllabus and supervise schools run by the government. He is for the bifurcation of the responsibilities of administration and inspection of school education even at the district level.

If the present government wants to prove that it is doing much more than what was done by the earlier government, it should take the move for equitable standard in education forward and not backward, said V. Vasanthi Devi, educationist and former Vice-Chancellor of Manonmaniam Sundaranar University. The DMK government had implemented a common syllabus and not an equitable standard in education as the boards were not amalgamated. The State Board, Matriculation, Anglo-Indian and Oriental streams were allowed to maintain their identity, she pointed out. If the entire report of the committee is accepted, a substantial part of the requirements of the Right to Education Act will be met, she said.

On the common syllabus, she said, nobody is claiming that the syllabus that has been introduced is a perfect one. You keep improving it by seeking the opinion of experts and see that it conforms as much as possible to the NCERT [National Council of Educational Research and Training] national curriculum framework. This is a continuing process.

However, she cautioned against the claim of the matriculation schools that they should be allowed to retain their syllabus as it was a superior one. Their claim that they have a superior syllabus is a complete myth. It is something that has been propagated assiduously in a very competitive environment where, among other things, these schools also try to use their separate syllabus to draw children to their commercialised education system. This is based on a complete misunderstanding of what education is and what quality is. So, teaching a child of eight years what a 10-year-old child should learn is not quality education. In fact, it goes completely against the very concept of age-appropriate education. So the government should not fall for this kind of argument that the standard of education is coming down because of a common school syllabus. She also stressed the need to improve infrastructure and appoint qualified teachers.

S.S. Rajagopalan, a veteran educationist and a member of the Muthukumaran panel, stressed the need to depoliticise decision-making in the education sector. He urged the government to tabulate all the recommendations of the committee and clearly state which ones were acceptable, which were rejected, and on what grounds this was done.

Rajagopalan and Muthukumaran stressed the need to implement the scheme in a phased manner. Stating that the report could not be brushed aside, Rajagopalan said there was no political interference when the experts began evolving the syllabus. The textbooks prepared under the USSE were made student-friendly. He insisted that top priority should be accorded to appointing qualified teachers.

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