Observer Research Foundation Mumbai

Ideas and Action for a Better India

Improving School Education through Curriculum Reform – by Radha Viswanathan

With the the passage of the Right to Education Act (RTE) in 2009, universalisation of primary education has become a possibility, what education in India now needs is a quality revolution. The state now takes responsibility for providing access to all[1] the children in the 6-14 years age group and further attempts to extend the benefits of school education to disadvantaged children who have not had the opportunity for schooling or have dropped out of school[2]. Towards this the government has assessed its requirement for extra teachers, extra schools, training institutes for teachers etc. One of the first steps that must be undertaken is an authentic identification of the out-of school children that must be enrolled. A community level school mapping exercise will have to be undertaken to track every child that is out of school. This must be followed by the process of getting the students to enrol for school. With this 100% access to school education, the attention must turn to quality of learning outcomes.

In India, a decade after the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA) and an estimated Rs.1000, 000 crore[3] has been poured into the 1.2 million primary schools run by the government alone. Yet dubious standards, teacher absenteeism and poor learning outcomes are endemic to the system and are therefore compelling reasons to recommend urgent reforms to the school system. The idea that good schooling is about spending money is the one that has been hit hardest. With many of the 20 leading economic performers in the OECD doubling or tripling their education spending in real terms between 1970 and 1994 and yet faced with stagnating or poor outcomes[4].

RTE says “The 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 background.”

The state governments shall have to specify academic authorities that will lay down curriculum and  evaluation procedures at the state level. These could be SCERTs or other academic institutions of the state. The state curriculums must however be prepared according to certain common principles of content and process described in Section 29(2):

(i) Resonance of the values enshrined in the Constitution of India

 (ii) Sensitivity to gender, caste and class parity, peace, health and needs of children with disabilities

(iii) Infusion of environment related knowledge and work related attitude in all subjects and at all levels

(iv)Linkages between school knowledge in different subjects and children’s everyday experiences

(v) Appropriateness of topics and themes for relevant stages of children’s development and continuity from one level to the next

(vi)Inter-disciplinary and thematic linkages between topics listed for different school subjects, which fall under discrete disciplinary areas

(vii) Nurturing aesthetic sensibility and values by integrating the arts and India’s heritage of crafts in every aspect of the curriculum

Pitfalls of the present curriculum: Given the mandates of the RTE Act, curriculum reform becomes imperative. Today, the education system follows a disjointed approach to curriculum formulation, viewing its core components of syllabus formulation, textbook development, teacher training, learner assessment and classroom management as discrete and isolated interventions, rather than inter-related and integral. For example, groups designing Learning Enhancement Programme (LEP) material are not likely to have interacted with groups preparing textbooks or teacher training designs or learner assessment. Different groups may not have developed a common shared understanding of how children learn, leading to gaps, lack of cohesion and an addition to the burden of learning.

Recently, the Supreme Court said a common syllabus and common curriculum is required to achieve the objectives of the Right to Education (RTE) Act, to provide free and compulsory education to every child of 6 to 14 years. Dismissing a batch of appeals filed by the Tamil Nadu government and others against a Madras High Court judgment on implementation of the Uniform System of School Education, a Bench of Justices J.M. Panchal, Deepak Verma and B.S. Chauhan said “Article 21-A of the Constitution must be read in conformity with Articles 14 and 15 and there must be no discrimination in quality education[5].” In its broadest sense this must be interpreted as a need for uniformity in imparting age appropriate skills across the country. This is because a centralised curriculum development mechanism is not sufficient to cater to the diverse mandates of the RTE Act.

It is not possible for a few centralised bodies (at State or Central level) to fully grasp the diverse settings in which children learn. The education system has adopted a silo-ised approach to the organisation of curriculum. Consequently, subject areas tend to become water tight compartments with fragmented knowledge, rather than being inter-connected. This division is often so contrived that it prevents learners from acquiring a holistic understanding of issues. Also, areas which do not lend themselves to being organised in textbooks, for example visual and performing arts or work education are relegated to ‘extra’ or ‘co-curricular’ activities. This lends itself to rote learning, rather than ‘constructing knowledge’ from experience, which is the natural process for a child’s development and learning.

So what are the factors that really need to be looked at on a priority basis? Four important issues emerge: a focus on underachieving pupils, high standards for teachers, decentralisation, and a choice of different sorts of schools. Each of these areas can be influenced by and can influence curriculum reform.

Priorities in Curriculum Reform: Under Section 7(6a), the central government has to develop a framework of national curriculum with the help of academic authorities of state governments. This is significant since the present practice of the NCERT preparing the NCF was of an advisory nature; under the Act, it has become mandatory, and shall involve the state governments too[6].

Curriculum reform has to be undertaken with the aim of preserving unity amidst diversity, of nurturing pluralism while keeping a commonality of vision and purpose and of catering to every learner while maintaining quality across the system. To cater to these principles, the curriculum needs to ensure a uniform skill and competency base across the nation and at the same time be more flexible than ever before. Policy makers need to create an enabling framework that can achieve these diverse aims of school education.

National agencies like the NCERT would have to play a major role in enhancing the capacity of State agencies to undertake this task. State Governments shall have to put into place institutional mechanisms whereby different agencies charged with the responsibility of curriculum development, syllabi, textbook writing, textbook production and teacher training work together in order to fulfill the mandatory requirements of the RTE Act in relation to content and process. It may also be desirable for the State Governments to review such agencies in order that they may be re-structured in the light of the tasks outlined by the RTE Act.

There are wide ranging differences in the situation of these groups across states, regions etc, apart from the child’s prior knowledge and learning experiences. These specificities have to be taken cognizance of when developing strategies, curriculum, to mainstream special children. RTE recommends Alternative and Innovative Education (AIE) centres for children in difficult circumstances, with no regular schooling experience or whose schooling has been disrupted (street children, children from migrant families. children with special needs, children who have never enrolled or dropped out of schooling). AIE centres prepare them to attend formal schools within a short period of 9 months to a year. These centres transact a specially tailored curriculum and pedagogic practices that seek to impart the required age/grade specific knowledge and skills, so that the child is ready to enrol in a regular school and continue her studies there[7]. “Bridge courses” are already a part of SSA and some NGOs have a good record of running these courses. The procedure indicated in the RTE Act is rather innovative and schools themselves can take responsibility for organization of “bridge courses” for lateral entry of older children in age appropriate classes. All the same, it would be necessary for local authority to organize and oversee special training through harnessing of resources and institutional capabilities.Nine months of special training as advocated under RTE may be inadequate to bridge the learning gap. The training might have to be continued till such time as the child becomes a consistent performer. The assessment of such children will have to be undertaken in a special manner by the teacher who will then prescribe a future course of action with respect to special training.

 The curriculum must be adapted to ensure relevant and contextualized content and pedagogy; with the focus of interventions not just on teaching of the 3Rs but on processes of building confidence, self-esteem, communication skills, etc. This aspect of confidence building is particularly important to enable children from disadvantaged groups to integrate within the system. Besides, excellent outcomes have occurred in cases of integrated learning modules that transcend traditional subject boundaries and look at issues holistically, with gender and other social issues being integrated with the modules; inclusion of creative expression – art, music, theatre, etc.

Diversity and pluralism of learning environments must be kept in mind while advocating learning resources and aids. Recognizing the scale and time-bound nature of the task, innovative and flexible delivery strategies and curriculum design will have to be designed to enable children to enter the class at an appropriate juncture based on a system of continuous evaluation.

Curriculum for marginalized groups: The dimensions of location (rural-urban), caste, class, religion, ethnicity, disabilities etc. intersect with gender to create a complex reality. Curriculum, textbooks, pedagogic practices, need to capture the entire web of social and economic relations that determine an individual’s location in the social reality and shapes his/her life experiences. Developing such an understanding is necessary if improving classroom practices, curriculum, training and strategies for reaching the remaining out-of-school children is to be achieved.

The biggest problem faced by tribal children is that of language. Analysis of the educational indicators shows that majority of tribal children who drop out of the primary school is due to the difference in the school and home language. Teaching materials and textbooks tend to be in a language the students do not understand; content of books and syllabi ignore the students’ own knowledge and experience and focus only on the dominant language and culture. Not understanding the standard school language and therefore the courses content, the children are unable to cope with their course and end up repeating grades and eventually dropping out. Nevertheless, consensus among informed circles is that mother tongue is the best medium of instruction and it is now amply demonstrated that inclusion of tribal children hinges crucially on the language issue. With the RTE adding a dimension or immediacy to their inclusion, it is time that this issue is taken on rather than ignored due to the complexities involved. In this context it is worthwhile looking at the Ekalavya Model Residential Schools providing mainstream education to talented tribal children in Gujarat.

Ekalavya Model Residential Schools (EMRS) (not connected to Ekalavya of Madhya Pradesh, which is referred to later in this essay) are schools for talented tribal children, run through public private partnerships by the Tribal Welfare Department of the state of Gujarat. There are 67 such schools in the state. There is a tough entrance exam to get into these schools and approximately 25000 students compete for 3500 seats. The schools, located in remote areas, cater to students from 6th-12th standards and no effort is spared to provide the best facilities to the children[8]. Mainstream CBSE curriculum is taught to the children.

Curriculum and continuous comprehensive evaluation process: In the public mind, quality of a school is associated with examination results and test scores of children. The challenge of ‘Comprehensive and Continuous Evaluation’ (CCE) demands a new approach to curriculum development. CCE has been included in RTE as a means of overcoming and going beyond the rigidities and harshness of the prevailing conventional examination and testing system in elementary classes. To be more precise ‘Continuous Evaluation’ means that the teacher’s work should be continuously guided by the child’s response and participation in classroom activities. The term CCE essentially means that evaluation should be treated as an integral part of teaching rather than as an event which follows the completion of teaching. A comprehensive evaluation strategy would imply that aspects such as the child’s health, personality, behaviour and attitude are also perceived in the context of development and growth. For guiding teachers to observe a child’s behaviour and attitudes, a new initiative will have to be taken for developing relevant material which can serve as a basis for training programmes. The RTE Act represents the legal approval of modern educational thinking when the Act prohibits stagnation and requires that a child can join the school at any point in the year. This vision is completely consistent with NCF which also recommends that there should be no Board examination at any point in elementary education.

Democratisation of curriculum development: All of the above calls for democratisation of curriculum development and text book writing. The Ekalavya ( Madhya Pradesh) Experiment is relevant in this regard.  Curriculum development is most successful when educators collaborate with parents, community members, and students. The participation of the community in the classroom and the school at the primary school level requires that a part of the curriculum be formulated at the level of the school or at the level of a group of schools in the area of operation. In this process functionaries of Cluster Resource Centres, Block Resource Centres and District Institutes of Education and Training need to be involved and indeed they must spend sufficient time in the schools as well with primary school children and over a sustained duration work with the teachers to evolve materials and ideas[9].

In fact, all stakeholders need to share their expertise in creating a curriculum based on high standards for student learning. Some civil society organizations, like Ekalavya in Madhya Pradesh, have developed expertise after years of innovation, experimentation and validation at the ground level, in several core areas outlined in the Act. Involvement of groups and organisations with such experience should be facilitated to provide inputs in the following areas: (i) Curriculum development, particularly of bridge courses, which would be important in implementing the provision of age appropriate enrolment, (ii) Development of teacher training strategies, (iii) Design of evaluation mechanisms (CCE) (iv)Research.

What began as a pilot project to rejuvenate science teaching in village schools with the Hoshangabad Science Teaching Program (HSTP) in 1972 flowered into a movement to revolutionize education in India with the establishment of Ekalavya in 1986[10]. The NGO assessed that text book becomes the “de facto-curriculum” and developed text books that tied up concepts with locally relevant issues.

The classroom experience of teachers and learners too has been assiduously documented by the Ekalavya team. One of Ekalavya’s findings, was that written evaluation as the only means of assessing student learning outcomes, puts a large number of children at a disadvantage, and this led the team to look at a variety of testing methods. There was a greater degree of success when students were required to verbally discuss complex issues, than when they were asked to present it in the written mode. The fact that text books were critically appraised by academicians from leading educational institutions and colleges across the country added credence to the NGO’s effort. The references and resource materials provided by the university resource persons contributed directly towards the shaping of textual materials. These were some of the strategies that proved useful in identifying key areas that served as principles for designing text books in each subject.

The field trials conducted by Ekalavya helped design activities to concretize the learning experience, keeping in mind the infrastructure of the schools – making clay models, recreating a scene from the text book using whatever material was available in school, using real life situations as case studies, etc. The Ekalavya team sat with the children and followed class proceedings. They took note of issues or sentences that were difficult for children to understand or comprehension issues faced by children. Based on these observations they edited the text books and included activities that would help children with different learning abilities. Evaluation revealed difficulties on the part of students to understand some abstractions; these were further simplified.

Arguably, politicization of academic and educational issues is responsible for the lack of mainstreaming of such innovative initiatives in education. It cannot be denied that the lack of focus on equipping students with skills for absorbing and applying knowledge has a snowballing effect on the subsequent intellectual development of students. Developing rationality, critical awareness and democratic thinking are matters of high priority for the creation of a curriculum. Thinking skills of students must improve – looking for information, analyzing, comparing, and expressing their own understanding of issues and on their own sourcing information from other books. Such types of sustained initiatives are needed to establish dynamic learner centred environments, encourage written work without teachers dictating from the text, an unhurried approach to the course coverage, experiential learning emphasizing the connection between the world outside and classroom learning – in short to bring about a quality revolution!


[1] Latest figures needed

[2] Chapter II, Section IV, of the Right to Education Act 2009: “Where a child above 6 years of age has not been admitted in any school or though admitted could not complete his or her Elementary Education, then, he or she shall be admitted in a class appropriate to his or her age” and “Provided that where a child is directly admitted in a class appropriate to his or her age, then, he or she shall, in order to be at par with others, have a right to receive special training, in such manner and within such time limits as may be prescribed”, and  “Provided further that a child so admitted to Elementary Education shall be entitled to free education till completion of Elementary Education even after fourteen years”


[8]  ( In July 2011, Radha Viswanathan, ORF Mumbai visited, EMRS schools at Vejalpur run by Navrachna Trust and at Tilakwada run by Global Indian Foundation, both of which have infrastructure for studies, sports, music, arts which compare with  central schools run in urban areas.


[10] “Social Science Learning in Schools : Challenges and Perspectives”, edited by Poonam Batra, Sage Publications 2010


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This entry was posted on 19/10/2011 by in Education, Radha Viswanathan.
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