Inequality in School Education: Are we Asking Right Questions

To begin with, I must say that the fact that we are discussing EWS and access in school etc., is a reflection of the way in which discourses get shaped and defined. It would seem politically incorrect in a liberal framework to reject such a provision on the grounds that it does not allow us to address the basic and fundamental conditions that give rise to first inequality in society and then inequality in education. But it tends to make us believe that inequality is normal and given and therefore the way to provide good education to poor children is through some kind of quota. Nobody denies it as a stop gap arrangement but then it must be repeated time and again that it is a temporary arrangement and become comfortable with it as a quota system to tackle inequality.

The situation in education in general and schooling in particular is alarming. It is not only about the content but also the access to it. We are concerned with the question of access here more than the content. However, at some point it would be impossible to delink the two. The idea that there are people who need a terminology for identification, which is Economically Weaker Section here, is in itself a statement about the larger social and economic condition that exists in society. It is this condition which paved way for demands for EWS quotas in private schools. It is difficult to outrightly reject or accept it because it is connected with much more larger questions of how reproduction happens in societies. The demand emerged because

  • it has been considered criminal that private institutions take resources from the state but never give it back to people and that there is an accountability of private capital towards people;
  • it is considered that the mass of population also have the right to be educated the same way as the rich of the society.

However, we do realise that this process does not work that smoothly as some of the reports have indicated. The way schooling system is designed there is a logic of reproduction already inbuilt into it – a logic which would ensure that inequality in education remains because this inequality has its own functions to play in society. This has been much brilliantly explained by likes of Marx, Althusser and Bourdieu.

If the right to hope and dream is not a part of our education system or if idea of alternative possibilities are not to remain an intrinsic part of the knowledge framework it is obvious that we are imagining a world of a particular type. Education is about imparting the diverse possibilities, ways of thinking and looking at the world, not hiding what causes certain things, not denying that there is inequality, hunger, poverty, deprivation and discrimination and there are profound reasons why these things are there.
Hence, it is relevant to think if providing a quota can resolve the problem of access and inequality?

  • Is it not a stop gap arrangement in a larger battle which should ideally about ensuring that each and every child gets education of the highest possible quality?
  • Does the EWS provision really take care of the fundamental causes and conditions that produce inequality in access to schooling?
  • Are we even aware that there is a larger battle which is about ensuring that education ceases to be of two types – an elite education (in all respects – access as well as content and infrastructure) and an education for the poor and marginalised?
  • Is there a realisation that in the fight to ensure that everyone gets best education the simultaneity of short-term gains such as EWS quota and the long-term goal must be maintained.

It is time that we ask these questions to ourselves if we are committed to ensuring that imparting education has to be a non-discriminatory project. EWS has a lot of problems inbuilt into it because it is an imposition on the private schools to become sensitive, caring and have a consciousness of the wide gap in access to education that exists. There might be exceptions among private schools that take it as a mission but that is not the way the real problem at hand will be resolved because problems of inequality historically have not been resolved this way. More thinking needs to go into what can be the way forward.

Note: This is brief text of talk delivered at a panel discussion on EWS at Gargi College, Delhi University in 2018