ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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In Defence of Public Education

Voices from Bengal

Drawing on the research on basic education in West Bengal, this essay argues the case for a much criticised public education system, which needs to be reconsidered as regards its potential as a provider of quality education, even while addressing its many failings. The essay follows an approach, both critical and constructive, that underlines the collective onus of the public in realising the value of the public education system, instead of giving up on it.

We are most grateful to Amartya Sen for his intellectual stewardship that inspires Pratichi’s work. We also acknowledge the able academic and research support of the entire Pratichi research team, especially of Sangram Mukherjee, Muklesur Rahman Gain, Subhra Das, Pranabesh Maiti, Priyanka Nandy and Toa Bagchi. We are grateful to Choten Lama and Vikram Sen, and the department of school education and Paschim Banga Sarva Shiksha Mission for all their cooperation and generous help. We record our appreciation of the sustained support and encouragement from Antara Dev Sen that has made Pratichi research possible. Any remaining errors remain our sole responsibility.

This essay, in the defence of public education, comes at a time when many are losing their faith in public education and are aggressively looking for “private solutions to public deficiencies”. Drawing on available research and empirical evidence on basic education primarily in West Bengal but also in other parts of eastern India, we set out to argue that public education needs to be both, valued for its equity enhancing potentials and improved to address and ameliorate its many failings. Our focus here is on the government-run elementary school system, although we readily acknowledge that public engagement and action in the area of education may certainly go beyond governmental action to include public-spirited educational activities of different civic groups active both in West Bengal and the country at large. Our approach is both critical and constructive; we underline our collective onus to solve public educational shortcomings through the mainstay of public vision, understanding and action, instead of giving up on the public school system in favour of individualised, privatised and exclusionary alternatives.

The Distinction and the Burden of Public Education

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