Starting the Conversation: Inscribing Inequality?

mary-ann-chacko1Mary Ann Chacko is a doctoral student in the Department of Curriculum and Teaching at Teachers College, Columbia University. She completed her B.A. and M.A. in English Literature from India and an M.A. in Child Studies from Concordia University, Montreal, Canada. She trained as a teacher in India and worked as a school teacher and a teacher educator in India. Her dissertation examines the Student Police Cadet program implemented in government schools across Kerala, India with a focus on adolescent citizenship and school-community relations. She blogs at: uglymindnbody.wordpress.comHere she starts a conversation with Esteem readers about the partition between access and quality in India.

The partition between educational ‘access’ and educational ‘quality’ is currently the common sense in educational development discourse in India. Before I critique this partitioning, however, it is important to ask: What has discourse of ‘educational quality’ made possible? It has certainly drawn attention to much neglected aspects of educational planning in countries like India. For instance, the Indian educationist Krishna Kumar (1991) points out that during the Nehruvian era primary schools were established at a rapid pace but very little attention was paid to the material and pedagogical conditions in those schools. So the discourse of educational quality has expanded our understandings of what we call an ‘educational experience’ by encouraging us to ask – what is the kind of education we provide children once they are enrolled in schools? But even as I acknowledge these contributions I would like to examine some of the troubling effects of this partitioning.

That such a partition has not always been axiomatic is evident from UNESCO’s Education for All (EFA) Global Monitoring Report (2005) on Educational Quality. The report, which underscores the need to focus on educational quality, points out that international treatises on education, even as late as the year 2000, emphasized free and compulsory elementary education for all yet remained “silent” about the “quality of education” that was to be provided.  Here the use of the word silent makes the distinction between educational access and quality an a pirori one – a distinction that always already exists but was not spoken about – and de-emphasizes both the invention of that partition as well as its political nature. I hope to trouble the distinction between educational access and educational quality through an examination of the ways in which we attend to quality in the context of Indian education.

Defining Educational Access

According to the EFA Global Monitoring Report (2005), educational access focuses on the “quantitative aspects of educational policy” (p.28). For instance, Kingdon (2007) views access in terms of enrollment and school attendance rates. Viewed in these terms, India is regarded as having been able to achieve considerable success. For instance, according to Pratham’s (2012) Annual Status of Education Report (ASER), an annual household survey of children in rural India, 96% of children between the ages of 6-14 are enrolled in schools. That said, inequality of access, or gender, class, and caste disparity in access continues to exist, though with a good deal of inter-state variation. For instance, the percentage of girls between the ages of 11-14 who were not enrolled in schools in states like Odisha, formerly known as Orissa, Gujarat, and Jharkhand, dropped to less than 6.5 % in 2011, while in others like Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh the rate increased, from, in the case of Rajasthan, 8.9 to more than 11%, between the years 2011 and 2012 (Partham, 2012).

Defining Educational Quality

EFA Global Monitoring Report (2005) describes educational quality as being related to “teaching and learning” (p. 28), and as something that can have a determining influence on school enrollment, attendance, and achievement. Quality of teaching and learning has been elaborated in numerous ways.  For instance, the Dakar Framework for Action (2000) viewed quality of education in terms of the adoption of learner-centered curriculum and teaching; social, emotional, and cognitive development of the learner; the use of diverse, continuous, and responsive assessment strategies; teacher training and teaching monitoring; and educational management that supports mechanisms for continuity of reform. Kingdon (2007) examined quality of Indian schooling in terms of literacy rates, learning achievement in reading and arithmetic, school facilities, and teacher effort.

While India has been showing improvement in some aspects of educational quality, it has been lagging in others. Thus for instance, Pratham (2012) shows considerable improvement in school facilities such as teacher-student ratio, provision for mid-day meal, as well as availability of drinking water and usable toilets, including separate toilets for girls. However, it showed a decline in reading ability and arithmetic learning levels in most of rural India. Also, in terms of teacher effort, Kingdon’s (2005) review of research reveals government schools, especially in rural India, as being plagued by teacher absenteeism and negligence.

The ‘Quality’ Debate

With a partition established between educational access and educational quality in the dominant discourse, the general perception in the field of educational policy in India today is that issues of educational access have been more or less successfully tackled as far as the primary part of elementary  education (grades I-IV) is concerned. It is hence widely suggested that it is time for India to focus on the educational quality of its schools. Moreover in the light of current scenario, where government or state-run schools across India are seeing an over representation of poor and marginalized communities such as dalit (85%), adivasi (83%), and Muslim (67%) students as compared to upper caste Hindu students (60%) (Nambissan, 2012), ensuring the quality of access is viewed as imperative for educational equality.  So like I discussed before in my answer to the question –what does the discourse of educational quality make possible?- one might argue that quality was introduced as a framework to monitor the provision of schooling because of the discrepancy in that provision with regard to disadvantaged groups. However, I suggest that the partitioning of access and quality, our reasonings about it, as well as the strategies, interventions, and planning geared towards addressing educational quality have served to inscribe and generate inequality in the name of pursuing equality.

Inscribing Inequality

Access and Quality: Different and Unequal

By creating a distinction between access and quality and by discursively establishing one as following the other in a temporal continuum—the veritable story of ‘progress’ access and quality are being viewed not only as different but also unequal. It is acknowledged that someone could have access to education, but that need not be quality education. In other words, we have, at the very outset, established “inequality [here the inequality between educational access and educational quality] as an assumption for thought and action” (Friedrich, Jaastad, & Popkewitz, 2010, p. 585). For Krishna Kumar (2005; 2010) and Kumar and Sarangapani (2004), one of the most troubling aspects of the dominant discourse about ‘quality’ in education is that, rather than viewing quality as a non-negotiable and essential characteristic of the educational process, educational quality is increasingly being viewed as an add-on and often determined by aspects that are not always integral to schooling.

Here I would like to bring in two short clips from a Malayalam movie titled ‘Vadhyar’ [school teacher] (2012) which portrays the struggle of a government school to survive amidst a corrupt bureaucracy, high-fee-seeking English medium private schools, and government-aided schools run by religious organizations. The film ends with the government school being re-instated to its past glory by a young, enterprising, English-speaking and computer savvy male teacher who himself undergoes a transformation from a negligent to a committed teacher in the course of the film. The first clip shows his initial days in the schools. It is, for me, illustrative of our understanding of educational access. There is a school, with basic infrastructure, teachers, and students – but no guarantees!

The second clip shows the transformation that is coming about in the school – progressing from ‘mere’ educational access to ensuring the ‘quality’ of that access.

The depiction of this qualitative change is extremely thought provoking—a newly painted school building, a newly planted garden (where the plants are bought and planted thereby escaping the hard labor of creating a garden from scratch), a well-equipped library, new posters and paintings in classrooms, rain water harvesting facility, better implements for mid-day meal, introduction of computers, and uniforms for the students. But nowhere in this transformative process do we get a glimpse of explicit teaching and learning, except in the computer class. The only other time we see teaching and learning happening is outside the classroom in what looks like an after-school set-up and even then it is the teacher sitting with the textbook in hand and the children obediently and quietly at work. This film provided me with an illustration of Krishna Kumar’s (2005; 2010) and Kumar & Sarangapani’s (2004) concern about the discourse of educational quality mentioned earlier – that quality is increasingly being viewed as an add-on and often determined by aspects that are not always integral to schooling.  But the film suggests that the school has become qualitatively different with these add-ons so much so that even middle-class parents are shown as enrolling their children in this Malayalam medium government school.

The ‘Dysfunctional’ Government School and the ‘Good’ Private School

Apart from establishing a hierarchical distinction between access and quality, the quality debate also takes for granted the inequality between schooling of the rich and the poor, or in other words, the inequality between government schools and private schools.  Irrespective of the dearth of research on the comparative merits of government and private schools on indicators of quality like infrastructure, teacher performance, and parental involvement (Kumar, 2005), scholars (Retnakumar & Arokiasamy, 2006; Nambissan, 2012, Pratham, 2012) have noted the increasing growth of private schools and the abandonment of government schools across rural and urban India.

The exodus of students from government to private schools is taking place in a discursive context wherein government schools where teaching and learning happens in the regional languages are declared “dysfunctional,” while private, fee-demanding, English-medium schools are associated with “quality” (Kumar, 1996; 2005; Nambissan, 2012). But, as suggested by Pratham (2012), while the difference in performance between government and private schools is obvious, “private school education is not great, and socio-economic-educational background of children’s families, parental aspirations, and additional support for learning contribute majorly to this better performance” (p. 2). Nevertheless the ‘poor quality’ of government schooling has become an unstated fact throughout India. In the light of their Kerala-based study, Retnakumar & Arokiasamy (2006) state that the only factor that continues to draw students to government and government-aided schools is the socio-economic conditions of the parents. That is, affluent children attend private unaided schools while children of the poor attend government funded schools. Moreoever, the over-representation of marginalized communities in government schools entails that the parents of children attending these schools do not often have the socio-cultural capital to influence the school’s functioning. These schools have also been witnessing a decline in upkeep and standards of state funding and a corresponding demoralization in the teaching staff and principals. As Kumar (1996) reminds us:

In its worst form, the cynicism of the state school teachers is directed towards children of the most deprived sections of society…[who] get caught in the vicious cycle of the self-fulfilling prophecies…[adding to] the reproductive nature of our divided school system (p. 62).

Privatization as a Solution

Once this inequality between government and private schooling is assumed, the next step is to suggest solutions to improve the quality of education of the poorest segment of Indian society. Many solutions are being proposed to address this inequality.

Ensuring quality, or “scaling up” (Bajpai, Dholakia, & Sachs, 2008) educational services, is viewed as requiring a high public investment to be accompanied by systemic educational reforms. While monetary investment in education is imperative, the access-quality debate seems to have made it an overwhelming concern. And one reason for this could be that quality, as we saw in the film clip, has been operationalized in terms of products/things/measurable entities rather than processes and interactions.  For instance, in case studies from Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka titled “Scaling up Primary Education Services in Rural India,” by Bajpai, Dholakia, & Sachs (2008), apart from a brief mention of “preparation of School Academic Plans for improvement of learning levels,” “one hour of extra teaching by teachers after/before class,” “improved teacher training,” and “making classroom activities more experimental and enjoyable for children” (p. 3), scaling up is primarily viewed in terms of improvement of physical infrastructure, quality and quantity of mid-day meals, curriculum and instructional resources, and introduction of para teachers to meet teacher demand.

Once quality is established as an investment-heavy endeavor for state governments, suggestions for privatization of schooling cannot be far behind. But, of course, since we began the conversation on quality on the backs of the poor, they cannot be forgotten.

Thus Bajpai, Dholakia, & Sachs (2008), opine that apart from employing para-teachers or contract teachers who incur a much lesser expense for states in comparison to regular teachers, “another powerful solution to the problem of resources is to encourage private participation in the building and running of schools. The weaker sections of society can be given coupons and thereby a choice of choosing the school for their kids” (p. 4). These scholars suggest privatization not only because it will reduce the financial burden of the government but also because, they argue, private schools have already surpassed public schools on quality indicators like teacher-student ratio, classrooms per school, students per classroom, and teachers per school. Here, maintaining state-funded public schooling is viewed as detrimental both for the state as well as for the families who are provided free but poor quality education by these state schools. I wonder how we have reached such a place in our quest for educational equality – a place where we can argue unambiguously that privatization of schooling is imperative for educational equality!

Meanings of Quality

Quality, as Kumar (2010) points out, has two meanings, “the first meaning refers to the essential attribute with which something may be identified, and the second meaning refers to the rank or superiority of one thing over another” (p. 8). With globalization and liberalization of economy and the concomitant privatization of social services such as education, the latter meaning of quality is increasingly gaining currency with a distinction made between “education of a certain quality from one which signifies no more than token access to a service provided by the state or non-government agency” (Kumar, 2005, pp. 6-7). Moreover, this dichotomy between access and quality exposes yet another tension—between “equality” and “quality.” It suggests that while universalization of educational access might seek equality by countering the ancient and medieval status of education as an elite privilege, “equality can only nurture quantity, while quality would require regulation of equality” (Kumar, 2010, p. 11). In Kumar’s assessment, globalization and the ascendancy of neoliberal policies and practices, as well as the influence of international aid agencies on the discourse of educational quality in the developing world, has exacerbated these tensions.


I have attempted to highlight some of the ways in which a perception of quality as an add-on rather than an integral aspect of education has served to re-inscribe inequality in different ways. I wonder what might happen if we would cease to partition access and quality and rather view them as non-negotiable and essential characteristics of the educational process. Educational quality today has become synonymous with the quantifiable successes of schooling—these many days of teacher training, toilets, benches, computers etc. I suggest that we often emphasize quantity because it comforts us and guide us to “the action to be taken in order to guarantee the democratic fulfillment (Friedrich, Jaastad, & Popkewitz, 2010, p. 581) while permitting us to overlook the fundamental wrongs of schooling. Taking inspiration from Krishna Kumar, I suggest that we seek out educational quality in our schools’ hallways and inside classrooms and in what is served as curriculum rather than merely “modernizing” our schools or measuring learning and teacher quality in terms of learning “outcomes.”


Bajpai, N., Dholakia, R.H. & Sachs, J.D. (2008). Scaling up primary education services in rural India: Public investment requirements and policy reform. Center on Globalization and Sustainable Development, Working Paper, 34. Retrieved from…/ScalingUpPrimaryEducationServicesNo_34_ Jan2008.pdf

Education for All Global Monitoring Report. (2005). Education for all – The quality imperative. Retrieved from

Friedrich, D., Jaastad, B., & Popkewitz, T. S. (2010). Democratic education: An (Im)possibility that yet remains to come. Educational Philosophy and Theory42(5-6), 571-587.

Kingdon, G.G. (2007). The progress of school education in India. Oxford Review of Economic Policy, 23(2), 168-195.

Kumar, K. (1991). Political agenda of education: A study of colonialist and nationalist ideas. New Delhi: Sage Publications.

Kumar, K. (1996). Learning from conflict. New Delhi: Orient Longman.

Kumar, K. & Sarangapani, P.M. (2004). History of the quality debate. Contemporary Education Dialogue, 2(1), 30-52.

Kumar, K. (2005). Quality of education at the beginning of the 21st century: Lessons from India. Indian Educational Review, 40(1), 3-28.

Kumar, K. (2010). Quality in education: Competing concepts. Contemporary Education Dialogue, 7(1), 7-18.

Nambissan, G.B. (2012). Private schools for the poor: Business as usual? Economic & Political Weekly, XLVII (41), 51-58.

Pratham (2012). Annual Status Educational Report (Rural) 2012. New Delhi: Pratham Resource Center.

Retnakumar, J. N. & Arokiasamy, P. (2006). Explaining school enrollment trends in Kerala, India. Journal of South Asian Development, 1(2), 231-248.doi: 10.1177/097317410600100204

The Dakar Framework for Action. (2000). Education for all: Meeting our collective commitments. Retrieved from


Paper originally presented at the Development in South Asia (DISHA) Conference (2013), Education in South Asia: Looking Beyond 2015, held at Teachers College, Columbia University.

3 thoughts on “Starting the Conversation: Inscribing Inequality?

  1. This is a very simple, yet thought-provoking article on the quality of education, and its position in our current educational scenario.. Definitely a must-read! The point that the perceived difference in quality between students in Government schools and private schools is largely attributable to the difference in socio-economic backgrounds of the respective families needs to be highlighted and widely disseminated.. IF WE WISH TO SEE A DEVELOPED INDIA, DISCUSSIONS ABOUT QUALITY OF SCHOOL EDUCATION MUST TAKE CENTRE STAGE…!

  2. Pingback: Educational Access and Educational Quality Debate | Cafe Dissensus Blog

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