Monday, February 11, 2008

Education reform proposals invite strong opposition

WITH a state-appointed committee proposing certain changes in the Kerala Education Rules, the stage has been set for a confrontation between the Left Democratic Front (LDF) government and the powerful institutions that control the bulk of the private schools.

There are more than 13,200 schools in Kerala. A little over half of them are lower primary schools, with Classes I to IV. Upper primary (Classes V to VII), secondary (Classes VIII to X) and higher secondary (Classes XI and XII) schools account for 22 per cent, 19 per cent and 7 per cent respectively.

The private sector dominates throughout. But its dominance is most pronounced at the lower levels. At the primary level, 64 per cent of the schools are privately owned and only 36 per cent are under the government.

At the secondary level, the private sector's share is 62 per cent and the government's 38 per cent. A majority of the private schools are under the control of powerful religious and caste organizations.

For more than a century Christian missions have been active in the educational field, and they constitute the largest single element. Muslims, who entered the field comparatively late, come next.

As religious minorities, both Christians and Muslims have a constitutional right to administer educational institutions of their own. On several occasions, courts have struck down governmental efforts to regulate the affairs of schools and colleges run by them/ From the time the LDF took office in 2006, there were reports that the government proposed to take steps to rein in private managements.

Even as the committee, appointed by it under the chairmanship of CP Nair, a retired Chief Secretary to the Government, was proceeding with its work, there was intense speculation on its recommendations. Some steps, which were reportedly under consideration, like a change in the school hours, are not in the report.

Apparently the committee dropped the proposal for a change in school timings in view of the strong opposition voiced by Muslim organizations, which feared it would interfere with the working of the community's madrasas.

The Christian churches have come down heavily against two proposals of the committee. One envisages the creation of a school service commission, on the lines of the Public Service Commission (PSC), to draw up list of persons eligible for appointment as teachers. The other seeks to extend the system of reservation to cover the posts of teachers.

The Inter-Church Council for Education (ICCE), an umbrella organisation of Christian school managements, has accused the government of attempting to "politicise and appropriate" the education sector. It rejects the official claim that the changes are meant to improve the standards of education. The PSC selects teachers for government schools.

The committee had before it a proposal that since the government pays the salaries of private school teachers the PSC must be entrusted with their selection too.

It mooted the idea of a separate agency with a view to mollifying the private managements who are against giving the PSC any role in the selection process.
It is widely believed that many private managements, including the Christian missions, appoint teachers after collecting money from the candidates. Public opinion, therefore, favours placing some restrictions on them.

According to the ICCE, there is no need to interfere with the managements' right to appoint teachers since they are already under an obligation to pick only those who possess such qualifications as are prescribed by the government. It points out that even if the managements are required to choose candidates from a list prepared by an external agency, there will be room for corruption.

The stage for confrontation having been set, the million dollars question is whether the government will actually go in for a showdown or merely use the committee's recommendations as bargaining chips.

The Communist Party of India-Marxist, which heads the ruling coalition, had used its last State conference, held in the Muslim stronghold of Malappuram three years ago, as an opportunity to improve its support base among that religious group.

Ways to widen the party's base among the Christians is uppermost in the minds of its leadership as it holds its conference in their bastion of Kottayam this week. It is well aware that any confrontation with the minorities will upset its calculations.

Besides, if there is a showdown, the Christian managements can count on the support of the Nair Service Society, a powerful Hindu organisation, besides the Congress and the other constituents of the opposition United Democratic Front. –Gulf Today, Sharjah, February 11, 2008

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