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Educational Quality and Social Inequality: Reflecting on the Link


In this paper we seek to reflect on the nature of the relationship between the discourse on educational quality on the one hand and social inequality on the other. Our contribution to the discussion on this subject draws on a study that we undertook at Anveshi Research Centre for Women’s Studies, Hyderabad.[1] This study, which extended over a two-year period (2000-2002), involved an examination of the lives and experiences of 300 students of classes VI, VII and VIII from 10 different Government schools in and around Hyderabad in Andhra Pradesh. Our study was not directly aimed at investigating the quality of education that the children received. Instead, our awareness of their marginalized status within the society as well as the educational system compelled us to seek an understanding of how they related to school curriculum. We sought to obtain this understanding through interviews with a select group of teachers, parents and children; critical study of some school textbooks and observations of classroom interactions.  We draw on some of the insights gained from that study to comment on the present discussions on school education in India; discussions that are increasingly being shaped by simultaneous concerns about quality and inequality.


As terms that form a part of the discourse on education, “quality” and “inequality” have a longstanding history and have been of central interest to educational theorists and philosophers in particular.[2] In our paper, we derive from these writings but also refer to the use of the terms in public discussions, indexed for instance by debates in newspapers. It is worth noting that the inclusion of a conception of quality in relation to issues of school education in popular discussions is more recent when compared to the emphasis on educational inequality.


For a considerable period of time before and after Independence, debates on school education in India were animated by concerns about its relevance to the lives of the students and the society of which they were a part.[3] Gradually however, the notion of quality has replaced the notion of relevance. The introduction and consistent use of the term “quality” in the documents produced by the World Bank aided District Primary Education Programme (DPEP), in particular, ensured that where the term had thus far largely been used to gauge the standard of consumption goods it now entered the popular lexicon when discussing matters of school education as well.[4]


As regards the issue of inequality vis-à-vis educational matters, prior to the 1990s (marked in particular by the introduction of liberalization in the country), it was flagged mainly through figures which revealed that large numbers of children were never enrolled or had dropped out of the educational system even before passing the elementary stage. Educational “opportunity” and “access” were the keywords in the discussions during this phase. Through the decade of the 90s and beyond, the rapid growth of private schools and the progressive deterioration of government schools added yet another dimension to the discussion of inequality resulting, in fact, in bringing the discourse of quality closer to that of inequality. The aspect of inequality was obvious from the fact that all those who could afford it, sent their wards to private schools while the government schools were mainly populated by the poor. Additionally, the recognition of uneven access to schooling brought with it alertness to differences in schooling patterns including the medium of instruction, managements, standards, all of which came to be subsumed under the telegraphic invocation of the term “quality.” Various newspaper columns, reports and studies, highlighted the poor quality of government schooling.[5]


Despite their convergence at certain points and in certain moments, discussions about quality and inequality in India have been moving on distinct and parallel tracks for the most part. A thoroughgoing debate on the nature of the link between these two key issues is yet to take place, though signs of such a beginning are now available in some recent discussions around school education. The more recent deliberations in connection with the formulation of NCERT’s National Curriculum Framework (NCF) 2005 and the subsequent responses to the document have in fact provided a rich context that could facilitate the task of developing theories to link quality and inequality concerns. The many experiments and innovations tried out in different government schools, which have been anthologized in Kumar and Sarangapani (2005) too provide insights for connecting up quality questions with concerns about inequality.[6]  The debate around the Right to Education Bill too has tangentially touched upon the linkage between the two issues. More such discussions are however needed before the challenges involved in providing “quality” education to first generation learners can be met.


Admittedly, the question of educational quality raised in the context of social inequality is in itself a difficult one because the standard for good education, when it has been seriously and systematically discussed, has for thus long been in relation to a learner who does not lack in material terms.[7] In striking contrast, we are now confronted with the student of a government school who is characterized by a series of “lacks;” beginning with something as basic as lack of adequate food, reading material and ranging thereon to the lack of cultural capital.


As mentioned before, the Anveshi study too did not conclusively answer the question about how quality should be understood vis-à-vis the present generation of government school students. When we undertook the study, quality was only an embedded issue within our focus on curriculum transaction. However, the attempt at understanding the micro-details of the lives of children going to government schools forced our attention to aspects that were pertinent to the schooling of the children who took admission into government schools at that moment in time. We highlight these factors in order to make the further argument that the discursive invocations of the terms “quality” and “inequality” have an uneasy relationship with one another in this present phase and do not easily and completely accommodate each others concerns.


We seek to probe the reasons for this lack of fit between the two terms and the nature of the gap that exists between them. Before focusing on this dilemma we examine two other aspects that are related to the predominant thinking about quality and inequality: i) the normative notions of childhood that underwrite much of educational theory as also ii) the discourse of rights through which the argument of education for all is made. We contend that even as the notion of normative childhood underpins both the concerns about quality as well as about the right of every child to education, the dominant conceptions of quality education are more closely aligned with normative childhoods whereas the rights discourse is primarily animated by concerns of inequality.[8] And yet, a productive convergence between the discourse of quality and of rights has not yet been possible. Thus, while quality related discussions are rarely impacted by issues of inequality, the rights discourse in relation to education has paid insufficient attention to issues of quality.


The rest of the paper seeks to engage with these issues. We begin with a brief description of theAnveshi study and highlight some of our findings relevant to the topic of this paper. Our observations from the study are in themselves not unusual and have been repeatedly highlighted by various scholars and activists. What is different however is the frame in which we seek to present these issues. The subsequent section on childhood discussesthe notion ofnormative childhood and its influence on both the theory and practice of schooling. The discussion on rights examines the possibilities as well as the difficulties emerging from a focus on the language of rights within the field of education. The concluding section returns to some of the issues raised above and emphasizes the need for developing frameworks that would be able to simultaneously hold together concerns about inequality and quality.


Anveshi’s Study on school education


The Anveshi study was carried out between 2000 and 2002, having as its backdrop an increased and high profile intervention of the government of Andhra Pradesh through its various programmes in the field of education, especially in elementary education. The government envisaged its task primarily in terms of enrolling children in schools and retaining them for a minimum period of five years.[9] The challenges involved were understood mainly in terms of convincing parents to send their children to schools and in terms of providing adequate infrastructure. While the state government did make a distinction between the quantitative and qualitative dimension of the required inputs, on the whole it laid excessive stress on the former, i.e. the quantitative. Targets as well as achievements were fixed in terms of enumerable figures for infrastructure development, teacher recruitment and student enrolment. Quality issues were discussed at times in terms of basic literacy and numeracy but most often through reference to unelaborated notions of “joyful learning.” Within such a context, the main objective of our study was to understand the processes of ‘curriculum transaction’ by children belonging to working class families studying in government schools in A.P.[10]


We chose to focus on ten different schools in around Hyderabad selected randomly from the computer database maintained at the Department of School Education (DSE), A.P. For our study, we chose the upper primary classes (VI, VII and VIII) since it is widely acknowledged that the first level and largest drop out of students takes place before the end of primary school. In choosing students who had managed to pass out of the first critical stage and had entered the next level of schooling, we sought to understand how they were negotiating with the schooling process at this secondary level. Of the total population of 3240 children across these ten schools, we selected ten students from each class (VI, VII and VIII) thus making up a study sample of 300 children. In the population from which the sample was chosen, 37% belonged to the Other Backward Classes (OBC), 33% to Scheduled Castes (SC) and 7% to the Scheduled Tribes (ST), the remaining included children from other minority groups such as Christians and Muslims. It is obvious from these figures that our observations are based primarily on children from BC, SC, ST communities, constituting close to 75% of the total number of children we have studied. The data computerized by the State Government since 1995 (as mentioned by one of the officials at the DSE) reveals that this composition of students is more or less the same across different government schools.


We chose to focus on schools in and around Hyderabad for reasons of convenience and also to understand what kinds of issues would be thrown up by schools in, and closer to, the state capital. Our study assigned importance to multiple data sources and forms including narratives such as (1) descriptions of children’s homes, (2) daily routine of children as narrated by them, (3) interviews with parents / teachers (4) opinions of children on the lessons that were taught (5) lessons in a textbook (6) classroom observations. The quantitative data (examples: Numerical data – income levels.  Graded data – answer to question “How much do you like mathematics?” – “Very much”, “Average”, “Not at all”.  Coded data – father’s occupation, such as agricultural laborer, peasant farmer, blue-collar worker, etc.  Textual data – answer to the question “Describe your daily routine”) was collected by three research assistants who themselves studied in Government schools using the following questionnaires in Telugu:

Form A: Family background of the student

Form B: Student’s views

Form C: Parents’ perceptions

Form D: Teachers’ views

Form E: Principals’ responses

This information was supplemented with qualitative data based on home visits, classroom observations and analyses of select prefaces and lessons from textbooks.[11] It is outside the scope of this paper to present all the results in any meaningful fashion. However, we provide below a brief summary of our findings (without elaborating on any of them) but reproduce later in the paper some of our observations and excerpts from interviews conducted as part of the study in order to substantiate the line of argument being pursued here.


More than 90% of the mothers in our study belonged to the categories of house-workers, unorganized blue collar workers (e.g. beedi makers), agricultural workers, servant maids and petty businesswomen (e.g. idli-cart owners) whereas 90% of the fathers’ occupations can be described as unorganized blue collar workers (e.g. construction work), agricultural workers, petty businessmen (e.g. pan shop or hair-cutting saloon) and organized blue collar workers (e.g. office peons). A striking, though not surprising, finding of our study was that a huge majority of the children interviewed participated in the adult world of work to supplement the family’s meager income or to ensure smooth functioning of the household. Neither the children nor the parents nor the teachers found this situation unusual to say the least.


The children covered in our study, we found, have negligible reading material, almost no access to libraries, minimal engagement with literate adults and little or no help with homework.  The absence of an environment conducive to schooling was striking.  An examination of the textbooks revealed that the content of almost all the lessons was derived from a context alien to theirs.  Our classroom observations led us to conclude that an educational context that called for a teacher-student relationship where encouragement and responsiveness would constitute a kernel around which teaching and learning could occur was largely missing.  Interviews with the children and parents provided us with the insight that children who received support and encouragement either from their school or tuition teachers or other educated persons who they had contact with, did well in schools. Others just dropped out of school. Yet others, and they formed the majority, did not actively engage with the curriculum. Going to school was a matter of routine that provided an opportunity for them to spend time with other children. In many different ways though, and as we shall elaborate upon further, the childhood of the children who comprised the universe of our study was different from our understanding of the concept and therefore forced us to look more closely and critically at the notions of childhood that were prevalent and predominant at the time we were carrying out the study.


Quality of Education and Normative Notions of Childhood


“I do the dishes, wash clothes, water plants, sweep the yard, get the children ready for school. I put their shoes on, put on the tie and uniforms and send them to school. After that I wash the bathrooms, sweep the hall, mop it, fold the bed sheets and change them once a week. I get the wheat ground in a nearby flour- mill. All this work is done between 7a.m and 12 noon. They give me tiffin and tea at 12 noon. I come home, change into my school dress and go to school. I return from school around 5 p.m. Between 5.30 and 7 p.m. I go for tuition. Tuition teacher is a friend of my sister. She doesn’t charge anything. Sometimes I stay back after the tuition and do my homework before coming home. Sometimes my mother asks me to run errands. My sister works in the Electricity department. Her husband died, so she got this job. In 1993 my father died. My brother is married and is working. My mother also goes for work, stone cutting. I earn Rs.200/- per month. I have a sister who is in III class. She also goes to tuition. My sister-in-law is a nice person. I wish I could become a doctor, but I doubt if they will let me complete 10th class”.


Thisis the responsewe receivedfrom a girl student (who is also a domestic worker) studying in VII standard in one of the government schools in Hyderabad whenwe asked her to describe her daily routine.  Such responses never enter or inform educational discourse, except perhaps as an aberration from the norm. The marginality of this figure in the theorization of education can be explained in terms of the fact that the life of this child doesn’t fit the normative notion of childhood and therefore often fails to get addressed by most education researchers, textbook writers or policy makers. Whether explicitly acknowledged or not, approaches to schooling and education draw upon, as well as feed into, the conceptions of childhood that one subscribes to.[12]


The norm in relation to childhood in the contemporary society is that children should be in school and not at work; additionally that they should be joyful, carefree and sheltered from the sordid facts of adult life. Other features that are regarded as being characteristic of childhood include “vulnerability, dependency, need for protection, lack of responsibility, ignorance, inability to produce or provide and only capable of consuming (Holland 1986: 46). The fact that this notion has widespread acceptance, irrespective of evidence to the contrary, is what makes it the normative definition of childhood. Even as diverse approaches to childhood are being proposed, the hegemonic proposition of an ideal childhood has remained.[13]


Drawing on the conception of an ideal or normative childhood can have different effects; one of which is that textbook authors typically construct an image of childhood as a period of life spent almost entirely in the contexts of family and school, where the emphasis is on care, play, learning and teaching. These assumptions in turn serve to produce a standard for learning andbases for discussion of educational quality. As an illustrative exercise, we would like to foreground the influence that the normative notion of childhood has in propositions about educational quality through the following example, which is a preface that appears in the English language textbook issued by the Government of Andhra Pradesh for use in Class VII.



From New English Reader 3, Class VII

Published by the Government of Andhra Pradesh




1. Your child is in the third year of learning English. In the class the teacher will help your child do the following:


(1) Listen to a few simple stories read out in class.

(2) Talk about things of interest with the teacher and the classmates

(3) Read a number of ‘stories’ in English

(4) Write a few simple sentences and paragraphs.

(5)  Read and enjoy a few simple poems.


2. It is important for you to remember a few things.


(1) There is a section labeled ‘For the use of the teacher’ at the beginning of each Unit. Do not make your child read, memorize or recite any part of it.

(2) In class, your child will listen to the stories when the teacher reads them out. Do not make him / her, read the story. Do not expect him / her to fully understand the story or know the meanings of all the words. The stories are for developing the ability to listen to and understand spoken English.

(3) Your child will be doing some writing at home, using the Reader and the Workbook. Do not offer to help when your child does his / her homework. The teacher would have made enough preparation in class for the task. Let your child make the effort at doing the homework by himself / herself. Help him / her only when it is absolutely necessary.

(4) Your child will need three prescribed books for learning English in this class – the Reader, the Workbook and the Supplementary Reader. It is important that your child possesses his / her own copy of all of them.






The stated objective of the lesson is contained in the line that the “stories are for developing the ability to listen to and understand spoken English.” Since “English” is popularly instated as the marker of quality education, developing familiarity with English would imply in this instance that the quality objective has been met. However, the promise of quality held out in this case is premised on certain critical aspects, which simultaneously draw upon as well as buttress the normative notions of childhood. First, implicit in the whole set of instructions is the assumption that the child is in a state of dependency and needs to be guided by adults. Building upon the first, the second assumption is that every child will necessarily have the support of a parent or a guardian who will be able to actively or passively guide her / him through the school system. The third assumption is that the parent or the guardian of the child will be in full agreement with the pedagogic mode suggested by the text. Finally, that the material requirements of the child will be taken care of by the guardian and that the child will unproblematically be provided with all the requisite textbooks. Not surprisingly, our study provided evidence to falsify each of these assumptions.


In contrast to what obtains in the framework of the normative notion of childhood, our study clearly revealed that far from being in a state of dependency, many children are exposed to adult responsibilities at different points in their lives. We noted that a vast majority of the government school children we studied participate in the adult world of work. Specifically, we noted that a mere 13% of the children reported that they do not do any work outside school hours. The school system assumes the norm of child-dependency irrespective of the fact that a fairly large number of children are autonomous outside the domain of the classrooms. In the particular case of having to learn English, the students might be dependent on the teachers / adults, but theapproachof the prefacewe have cited above draws on an educational discourse that underscores generalized dependency in all aspects of life as the excerpt from NCF 2000 seems to suggest:  “from a state of dependency and helplessness, the children gradually attain independence and become curious learners…”  (NCF 2000, p.41)


In relation to the second assumption about having able adults to guide them, our study revealed that the children find it very difficult to receive help in order to navigate through the curriculum, either at school or at home. 37% of the children in our study reported that they receive no help with their study while the rest manage with meager inputs from their friends, family, neighbours, employers etc. With regard to the assumption that there is a tacit agreement about the pedagogic mode suggested by the preface, many parents in our study believed that since they were not capable of helping the children with their study the responsibility of educating the children lay entirely with the school. While many teachers blamed the uneducated parents for the children’s poor learning, the parents themselves did not feel implicated in the process. The response from one of the parents we interviewed was typical in this respect: “She returns from school, washes dishes and does her homework. We don’t ask her about school and she doesn’t tell us anything. For some days she went to tuition. Since we are not educated we don’t know what to do with the textbooks.”


The preface cited above emphasizes the importance of owning textbooks. However, not a single child in our study owned a complete set of the prescribed textbooks. In fact, the only textbook that a VII class girl we interviewed possessed was from her previous class. (She spoke animatedly and unselfconsciously about the lesson on Madame Curie from that VI class textbook.) Far from being the prerequisite which guarantees quality education and which is a given within the frame of the normative childhood, the matter of textbooks is often and in various ways a traumatic one for most children in government schools.[14] Unfortunately, the arrangement made by the government to provide free textbooks for the children does not seem to have mitigated the problem as one of our classroom observation sessions demonstrated:


The teacher who teaches social studies came into class VI and said “haven’t I completed 9th lesson?” All the children answered in unison “yes sir, you did”. Some of the children began opening their textbooks. One student said that he lost his textbook. The teacher responded: “If you had purchased the book out of your money, you would not have lost it. Because it is a free book supplied by the government, you have lost it. I believe in the next Janmabhumi programme, the CM is going to sanction clothes. Go and lose those clothes also.


Repeatedly therefore the children seemed to demonstrate their distance from what the norm of childhood holds, frustrating the efforts of the teachers in the process. Furthermore, since the teachers too conform to the unstated but all pervasive equation made between the normative notions of childhood on the one hand and quality in education on the other, our classroom observations revealed that they often treat the students as “unteachables.” Some of them told the students directly so in the classes while others implied as much in their conversations with the researchers through their comments on illiterate parents, clothes the children wore, their caste etc. We were particularly struck by the fact that some of the students too had internalized some parts of these assessments. One of the girls in Class VII told us, “My school is good, my teachers are also very good, they teach very well. The problem is with me. I just can’t learn anything. I can’t understand the lessons and I can’t remember them even though my teachers explain the meanings so many times.”[15]



Inequality and the Discourse of Rights


There is a great deal of debate about the rights discourse; about its effectiveness as also about its limitations.[16] Those who use the language of rights regard it as effective precisely because it appeals to a universal norm. Some misgivings notwithstanding, the proponents of this approach find it useful to lobby with the state because it allows them to emphasise entitlements while protesting against discriminations. In the name of rights a series of demands are also often named and defined. While the importance of the strategic use of the rights discourse cannot be denied, it is necessary to also recognize that this same discourse could short circuit different possibilities that may be even more enabling in the long term for those same constituencies.[17]


The conception of a normative childhood enables, among other things, a discourse of child rights. As emphasized in the previous section, the concept of an ideal childhood is one in which the child is assumed to be secure and free from cares of all kinds while she / he is being prepared for a later stage of adulthood. In the face of overwhelming evidence that demonstrates that the lives of a majority of the children are nowhere close to such a normative conception, the discourse of child rights seeks to create conditions that will bridge the gap between the actual situation of the child and the normative one. The attempt at ensuring child rights thus implies efforts towards making every child’s childhood experience a joyful, playful and safe one in which they are also preparing to be adults who can fully participate in their society.


One of the most emphatic and articulate position linking child rights with school education is provided by the Mamidipudi Venkatarangaiya Foundation, more popularly known by its acronym MVF. Though MVF began its work in Andhra Pradesh, its influence on the issue of child rights has extended beyond regional boundaries and has shaped thinking on the subject at the national as well as international levels. The extent to which MVF draws on the conception of normative childhood is evident in its definition of a set of five non-negotiables that have to be adhered to by the organization as well as the movement for child rights that it has energized. The non-negotiables (or the Charter of Basic Principles for Emancipation of Child Labour) that MVF affirms are:


1.      All children must attend full-time formal day schools

2.      Any child out of school is a child labourer

3.      All work / labour is hazardous and harms the overall growth and development of the child

4.      There must be total abolition of child labour

5.      Any justification for the perpetuation of child labour must be condemned


MVF’s emphasis on the right to education derives from its commitment to abolish child labour.[18] As such, right to education within this framework is often understood as the child’s right to access schools through admission into them and continuing there. In this approach, education is understood as primarily sequential with the first step of entering into the school being regarded as the most important one. While there is definitely cause to prioritize in this manner, especially given that stepping into school premises is unusual for a number of communities, the issue of educational quality gets consistently relegated to a secondary position.


Since a critical objective of MVF is to make government schooling available for all children, it has consistently sought to modify or bring in policies that help such a process. In fact the policy changes that have come about as a result of MVF’s interventions have far reaching implications. They are clearly weighted in favour of the child from socio-economically marginalized groups. Significant among the policy changes introduced as a result of MVF’s intervention are three government orders: 1) government schools have to admit children at any time during the academic year 2) children cannot be detained at any level of schooling where evaluation is done internally and 3) the responsibility of collecting transfer certificates of children when they move from one school to another rests with the school administration and not the student; in other words no student can be denied admission for not having transfer certificates. These policy changes shift the onus of the child’s education from the parents to the schooling system / the state.


When thinking through the question of inequality and quality together, we realize that the interventions of MVF in the first and second instance, i.e. admitting children any time of the academic year and the introduction of non-detention policy, definitely help the children access schools. However, the question of quality is one that is not directly addressed in this move. For its part, MVF has successfully organized bridge courses that have enabled children to acquaint themselves with the process of schooling and learning such that they are able to then pass out of schools.  However, issues related to the quality question, such as the framing of alternative structures that would help evaluate or map learning processes within the government schools have not been addressed. It would seem that even the best case in relation to the articulation of the rights discourse is limited by its focus on the issue of inequality and access; it has not made a sustained bid to reconceptualise mainstream notions of quality.

The intense focus on the subject of access is evident even in the debate around the Right to Education Bill framed by the Government of India. The emphasis on issues of inclusiveness emerges from the effort to redress the fact of widespread social inequality, which translates into educational inequality. The repeated concern in relation to the bill is the fact that it grants the fundamental right to education to children in the age group of 6 – 14 years, leaving out a large number of children in the age group of 0 – 5 years outside its ambit. Criticism is also directed at the fact that the private schools are exempted from adhering to some of the main requirements of the bill thereby promoting the existing inequality in the educational system. It is interesting that the emphases on inequality in these discussions hint at quality issues but refrain from elaborating on them. For instance even the most trenchant among the critics of the Bill, Anil Sadgopal, implicitly concedes that while the quality question is an extremely important one, other issues are even more pressing: “Why has the Bill not thought of changing the elitist character of these schools that violate the educational principles enunciated by Phule, Tagore and Gandhi? Clearly, the Bill lacks the vision of what constitutes quality in relation to India’s needs. That, however, is another debate” (emphasis ours).

Ironically enough, even the embedded suggestion linking inequality with quality in the comment cited above can get totally diluted when certain approaches initiated by the state choose to focus on the issue of inequality. In such approaches, the interlinkage between different rights is erased through a move that compartmentalizes them. Right to education, for instance, is elaborated independently of the right to food, shelter, work or dignity. A narrow conception of the rights discourse thus makes it possible for a government body to issue remarks such as the following. The guideline for curriculum and syllabus revision prepared by Andhra Pradesh’s State Council for Educational Research and Training (SCERT) following the National Curriculum Framework (2000) refers to the Strategy Paper on Education prepared by the Department of School Education which maintains: “The basic premise of the State Policy on Education need special mention -- parents are willing to send their children to school; which implies that we need not wait for the elimination of poverty; economic support to parents are of secondary importance as compared to motivation and provision of adequate infrastructure” (emphasis added). This statement moreover is signaled as being the basic premise of Andhra Pradesh’s policy in relation to schooling. Poverty and education are thus not only extracted from their context but are held up as separate problems for the state to deal with.

Interestingly, this statement issued by the SCERT seems to coincide with Ambedkar’s emphasis on education and the manner in which he prioritisededucation over poverty. Obviously though there are important differences between the two statements. Emphasising the need for education Ambedkar states

Coming as I do from the lowest order of the Hindu society, I know what is the value of education. The problem of raising the lower order is deemed to be economic. This is a great mistake…. The problem of the lower order in India is to remove from them that inferiority complex which has stunted their growth and made them slaves to others, to create in them the consciousness of the significance of their lives for themselves and for the country, of which they have been cruelly robbed by the existing social order. Nothing can achieve this except the spread of higher education. This in my opinion is the panacea of our social troubles.  (cited in Velaskar, 1998)

In contrast with SCERT which foregrounds education in terms of “adequate infrastructure,” Ambedkar seems to emphasise that the content and quality of education would in fact aid in addressing issues of inequality.





The major thrust of our paper was to point to the fact that the quality and inequality discourses function at different levels and do not necessarily address concerns raised by each other. There is, however, an occasional convergence of concerns of quality and inequality. We mentioned the recent exercise in relation to developing NCF 2005. We need to build further on these insights, especially in a context where inequality is growing and the pressure to articulate the parameters of quality are increasing.


While guidelines for quality as far as infrastructure is concerned can be easily stipulated, quality dimension for the many other aspects of education, especially curriculum, teacher training and pedagogy, will have to be differently reviewed within a framework that considers the present standing of the community to which the child belongs, the predominant epistemology of that community, the aims of modern education, the type of school and the evaluation methods used (see Dhankar 2003; Talib 2003; Krishna Kumar and Sarangapani 2004, Nita Kumar 2007 for a consideration of some of these aspects). Towards this end we also need to be attentive to a range of questions such as how is the child’s self addressed in the context of schooling and education? Does education help the children build and consolidate upon the many epistemologies they are exposed to or are they being trivialized in the process of reaching out for a standardized notion of quality?


In our discussion of quality and inequality another issue too needs to be taken into consideration, which is that both these notions are presently and predominantly understood in economic terms. Inequality is thought to be a function of economic deprivation. Our study however shows that there are other dimensions of inequality as well. While economic inequality does exist among the different constituencies of the school going population, educational inequality does not directly follow from the fact of economic inequality. As the findings from our study demonstrate, it is the lack of cultural capital, supportive mediating facilities and insufficient understanding about modernity and its related epistemologies that are among the major causes for the children remaining educationally backward. Efforts to provide quality education therefore need to take these factors on board. Ironically though, quality education too is largely understood as that which will provide effective participation in the market. The deeper conceptual factors influencing quality of education such as the nature of school knowledge and its relationship to the learner are completely sidestepped (see Kumar 2004 for an elaboration of this point).


We need to recognize that the question of quality in educational programmes is linked to cultural specific images and ideas about childhood and cannot be universalized. We suggest therefore that a more nuanced understanding of the notion of quality could be developed by challenging universalized ideas about childhood, by listening to the perspectives of the hitherto excluded communities on how education fits (or does not fit) into their social, economic and cultural lives.





An earlier version of this paper was presented at the Seminar on “Education and Inequality in A.P. and West Bengal”held at CESS, Hyderabad during Sept. 21-22, 2006. Discussions at the conference as well as Jos Mooij’s extensive feedback on the paper helped us develop our arguments further. We are also grateful to Padma Sarangapani for her comments on an earlier draft of this paper, which has helped us clarify several aspects of our thinking.




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[1] See for the report containing the details of the study.

[2] For a very useful history of the notion of quality within education, see Kumar and Sarangapani (2004). The points made about quality in this paper draw upon the history outlined by them and seeks to build on it in order emphasize the present moment in India.

[3] The emphasis on relevance was especially sharp in relation to education of girls.  The debates about indigenous education versus western education too revolved around the question of relevance.  G.M.Chiplunkar’s work, Scientific Basis of Women’s Education (1930) is a classic example that engages with the different levels of concerns that animated discussions in relation to what was relevant in the field of education during this period. The conference held at Wardha in 1937 is also a landmark event in terms of focusing discussions on the approaches to education that were most relevant for India.

[4] As a consequence of the overdetermining influence of this recent context in which the term has become widespread, several critical reflections and studies on the question of quality have engaged with the frameworks established by DPEP either to problematise it or to develop parameters that are different from it. For instance Dhankar (2003) provides a detailed discussion and critique of quality as understood within the DPEP discourse even as he proposes an alternative frame within which quality could be conceptualized. Anitha (2005) suggests parameters through which quality issues could be evaluated in the context of rural schools. The report by Save the Children (2007) specifically assesses schools in Andhra Pradesh in order to demand minimum standards of education.

[5] The study by the PROBE team (1999) in fact managed to bridge different levels of discussion; impacting not just academic interest in matters of schooling but policy level and popular-public discussions as well

[6] In fact several debates in relation to the NCF 2005 document draw on some of these experiments to validate their point. See for instance the articles by Paliwal and Subramaniam (2006), Saxena (2006) and Batra (2006)

[7] The design of the B.Ed courses for instance testifies to the standardization of a certain conception of quality, which derives from the worldview of the middle class. 

[8] Given the common ground from which both discourses emerge the disjuncture between them is striking. While this aspect needs to be examined and explained in some detail it is outside the scope of this paper, which only seeks to draw attention to the gap between the two discourses.

[9] See Rekha Pappu (2005) for details of the policy approach of the State in the field of education.

[10] When ‘curriculum transaction’ is viewed, as it often is, as translating educational objectives (set by experts who are often not school teachers) into practice propositions (by the teachers), the underlying assumption is that every child in the classroom is the same; that the concept ‘childhood’ has a fixed meaning across socio-economic classes and communities and that if a given child or a group of children are not doing well in a particular subject, the reason must be incapacity on the part of the child or ignorance on the part of parents about matters of education.  However, by viewing curriculum transaction as a series of micro-operations involving contributions of pupils, parents, teachers and school administrators, our study sought to gather empirical evidence about what was involved in the process of the children’s negotiation of the school curriculum.

[11]  Much of this information recordedin Telugu by the research assistants was translated into English and a computerized data-base was developed using specially designed software. This data-base is available at Anveshi for further research.

[12] In a position paper on changing perspectives on early childhood and their implications to research and policy Woodhead (2006) has identified four different perspectives or paradigms about childhood  and acknowledged possible interactions and interdependencies among them. The four perspectives are: (1) developmental (2) economic / political (3) social / cultural and (4) human rights. Woodhead suggests that the relationship between theory and research on the one hand, and policy and practice on the other differs depending on which one of these perspectives guides the research. According to him, the ubiquitous perspective that seems to underpin most educational policies in the globalized world is the developmental approach.  A major goal of this approach which draws on the theoretical works of Piaget, Kohlberg, and Erikson among others is to identify universal features of growth and change, through detailed accounts of stages of physical, mental, social and moral development in children.

[13] See Susan Bissel (2003) and Vasanta (2004) for an elaboration of these points.

[14] One part of this potentially harrowing experience is brilliantly captured in Kadeer Babu’s story, “Three Fourth, Half Price, Bajji Bajj,j”which is a  part of the Different Tales series of children’s storybooks that Anveshi brought out recently. The story, which is remarkable for masking the latent poignancy of the situation with a witty rendering of it, begins with the announcement of the availability of textbooks for sale followed by the narrator’s declaration “I say the issue of textbooks does not concern us because the mother and father who gave me birth hardly ever bothered to buy me a new set of textbooks, either in the Sixth or in the Seventh Class. I always had to make do with secondhand textbooks. Even now, since there was no guarantee that they would buy a new set of textbooks I thought – why don’t I look out for someone who has books that will be of use to me?”

[15] Mohammad Talib too draws attention to a similar situation he encountered in his study of children of construction workers in a school in Delhi,: “During the course of a casual conversation with a worker’s child named Lalu, I sought to motivate him to acquire school education at least up to Class VIII – the minimum qualification for cerain state-sponsored programmes. The child, a student of Class V, responded by pronouncing that he was deficient in the proper aptitude (ruchi) necessary for acquiring education of any kind. On further probing as to who confirmed the lack of the requisite aptitude for education in him, the child politely replied, ‘My teachers have always told me so.” He further clarified, ‘They told me that my head does not contain brain but bhoosa (chaff).’ They said so because I did not understand the lessons in the class.’ Convinced of his lack of aptitude, Lalu dropped out of Class V.” (p.200)

[16] Child Labour and the Right to Education in South Asia: Needs versus Rights Ed. Naila Kabeer, Geetha B. Nambissan and Ramya Subrahmanian (2003) provides a timely and useful collection of articles that engage with the subject of child rights in general and the right to  education in particular from different standpoints. See also Judith Butler, Ernesto Laclau and Slavoz Zizek (2000) for a nuanced consideration of the pros and cons of the rights discourse.

[17] An extensive engagement with the rights framework is outside the scope of this paper and we highlight here mainly the tendency of the rights discourse to focus on issues of inequality while bracketing off questions of quality.

[18] Obviously then, with reference to the example of the girl cited in the previous section, unlike mainstream educational theorists MVF would definitely engage with her educational experience but, importantly, it would be preceded by an effort to first to change her situation such that the work part of her life experience is abolished leaving only the part in which she attends school.