The Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE), is, without any doubt, one of the most powerful institutions of the country, with tremendous influence over the lives of over 10 million children. With more than 18,000 affiliated schools, the CBSE has authority over more human beings than many governments of the world. However, if the CBSE were really a country, it would have made for a very poor democracy.
In line with global politics, the CBSE has embraced a very populist and destructive vision of education. We are circling back to a rigidly centralised conformity-based system.
A slew of circulars issued by the CBSE over the last three months has drastically altered India's largest schooling system without much public notice. Taking many steps backwards, the CBSE has successfully inverted many decades of attempts to move towards a progressive schooling system. It has, in fact, in line with global politics, embraced a very populist and destructive vision of education. We are circling back to a rigidly centralised conformity-based system.
Back to the Boards
It began with the removal of the Continuous and Comprehensive Evaluation system. Adopted in 2009, the CCE, not without its flaws, was a bold experiment challenging the year-end examination regime. For the first time, there was a public acknowledgment that a verdict about children's learning could not be based on five tests taken under stressful exam conditions. The details could have been evolved over time, but CCE was a much-awaited and improved philosophy of learning.
Clearly, though, children and educators alike were not used to a rigorous assessment system. The idea of acing by simply cramming for five ultimate papers is more appealing than enduring learning assessments throughout the year. It made for more work on projects and activities for children, and more recording and observation for educators.
Also, CCE and its philosophy did not succeed in convincing children of the Board's novel ideas because on the whole, the system remained much the same. While children could have started believing in the value of yearlong education till standard 10th, the upper classes which provide the passport to college admissions were still focused on marks. The idea of CCE was never fully put to test—it was only piloted under restricted conditions, contrary to the claims of those who argue that CCE failed.
The CBSE is certainly progressive... in the sense that it is promoting a progressively stupider assessment system.
The CCE system may have been "continuous", but it was not as radical as it was projected. The majority of what the report card displayed was still based on pen and paper tests. In this, CCE increased the traditional academic burden rather than lessening it. The CBSE, instead of daring to improve CCE and trying to increase its acceptability to further it to higher classes, chose to surrender to the natural public disapproval of change. The CBSE's circular to restore Boards for class 10 is the undoing of a revolutionary change. Children will now be given 80% marks for their year-end exam with the full syllabus, with another 5% being kept for "notebook maintenance."
It is a severe setback for schooling reform in India. This withdrawal will ensure that new ideas to make schooling more organic will be looked at with suspicion and pessimism. The failures weren't as big as the new HRD minister and CBSE made it to seem, and of course, we did not dare to recognise its merits.
A blow to innovation
Then, soon after the re-introduction of class 10th Boards, the CBSE came out with another circular asserting standardisation and uniformity in lower classes. The little autonomy that the schools enjoyed to innovate with assessment and learning in secondary standards was also snatched. It mandated all schools to adopt its prescribed format for exams and report cards.
Creating slaves to the system
The CBSE is certainly progressive... in the sense that it is promoting a progressively stupider assessment system. For the annual exam in class VI, students will be assessed on 10% of the syllabus of the first term and the entire syllabus of the second. Similarly, the annual exam for Class VII will include 20% syllabus from the first term, and 30% in the case of class VIII.
According to CBSE chairman RK Chaturvedi, the new format was introduced "to make students more confident about facing the Class 10 board examinations when they join the upper-primary stage in Class 6. We have decided to implement a uniform system of assessment, examination pattern and report cards..."
[The CBSE chairman] made it obvious that he does not understand that children are not made for the system, the system is made for children.
Mr Chaturvedi made it obvious that he does not understand that children are not made for the system, the system is made for children. The folly of restoring Boards has been complemented by an even more lunatic decision of putting in place another comprehensive system of "preparing" children to become slaves of the system. Not just class 10th and 12th, the CBSE has swiftly, without any scrutiny, made the whole curriculum exam-centric for millions of diverse children.
As the world experiments with more autonomy and decentralisation, with alternative assessments and more choice, India has accepted the insanity of bureaucrats with little passion for education. They use terms like "quality" in education, quantifying it with obsolete tools. For them, "standards" in education are equivalent to the reproduction of textbook content in three-hour exams. Of course, language and math are important, but they are not the beginning and end of the long and fascinating process of education.
It is time that we abandoned our egoistic assumptions about education and asked our children for their expectations of schooling. Our children shouldn't be in a pipeline regulated by uninterested civil servants, designed to serve our consumerist economic system. No education board or institution should have so much authority to decree the learning process of our children. We will make dull human beings and a dead world if we force our children to conform to the requirements of a uniform process. Let our communities rise up to the challenge of building vibrant and meaningful learning spaces suited to local requirements and designed to the needs of children rather than nation-states.