Since 1991, and submitting to increasing public and international pressure to ensure free and compulsory education for all, the Karnataka Department of Education (DoE) has promoted the reach of elementary education. As a result, the gross enrollment ratio (GER) for children in primary schools is 93 per cent, and most settlements have a school within a kilometre. But assessments of learning levels have a different story to tell. As the Annual Status of Education Report 2007 indicates, about 31 per cent of children in Standard V cannot identify the alphabets, and only 58 per cent can read a Standard II textbook.

Understanding what accounts for this poor record of delivering quality education requires an understanding of the education bureaucracy as a system, its interlinkages to the varied institutions and the agents who constitute it or who in turn are marked by it.

The bureaucracy

In seeking to deliver and institute mass elementary education, the DoE has grown in size and complexity to become one of the largest employers at the state level. Throughout India, such departments cater to 180-200 million children between the ages of 6-14 years. In Karnataka, nearly half of all government employees are in the education bureaucracy. This growth and presence of the DoE has naturally brought it closer to politics everywhere; as an institution that touches the lives of so many families, it is inevitably caught up in the politics of various regions, and the tussles of such politics have implications for the DoE's functioning, as well as its mandate of providing and ensuring equal and quality education for all.

The department itself functions within a highly differentiated education system, in which at least nine different types of schools (based on differences in management, board of exams and medium of instruction, and which range from the very basic Ashramshalas that cater to Adivasi children in remote areas to the upscale, five star 'international public' schools) cater to varied socio-economic classes. And within this differentiated educational system, the department is primarily focused on the delivery and management of 'government' schools, which currently constitute about 72 per cent of all the schools in India.

Like most bureaucratic structures, the basic structure of the education department in India is hierarchical. However, this hierarchy has become more complex with the advent of large scale programmes such as the District Primary Education Programme (DPEP) and Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA), which have introduced structures parallel to those already existing at various levels. The major consequence of such a move has been, for education officials, a blurring of reporting relationships and primary accountabilities across administrative tasks, programme monitoring, and academic responsibilities.

Subject to routinised training, teachers themselves have routinised teaching. The focus on physical provisioning, while commendable in terms of addressing huge requirements of a mass education system, has also had its own peculiar outcome: it has led to a proliferation of corruption at the lower-levels of the political and administrative machinery, and also the privileging of administrative works over qualitative dimensions of education policies.

As has been noted by other scholars, the officialdom of the Indian bureaucracy, in whatever form it may manifest today, is articulated through the social fabric within which such institutions were brought into being during colonial rule. Caste forms a strong associational symbol that is invoked and used in everyday work, especially at the mid and lower levels. What such strong symbolic associations allow are access to undue privileges and distortion of objective processes that are supposed to underlie the day-to-day functioning of the education department, be it in the form of avoiding punitive action in case of malpractices, or to effect a transfer/deputation from a rural posting to an urban one.

Similarly, gendered dimensions of work are apparent in the division of administrative and academic work; whereas the former remains the prerogative of male officials, the minority of female officers both opt for and are relegated to the so-called academic domains within the department's work and its many institutions.

In the last two decades or so the interface of the department with various other structures has increased substantially. This has ultimately led to work and its understanding being refracted in terms of these multiple spheres of influence. At one level are the elected local bodies that play a crucial role in channeling the large amount of funding through programmatic interventions, but have still not been able to engage substantively with qualitative aspects of elementary education.

At another level are corporate philanthropies, and non-government organisations which have displaced the unitary role of the state in provisioning of public elementary education. The presence of elected parent bodies at the school level (the SDMCs), teachers' associations, and direct and indirect influence of political representatives further complicates the terrain on which everyday work of the department is conducted.

With these above characteristics, the education bureaucracy is not a rationally driven and coherent apparatus of state policy. What we see instead is everyday work that is continuously and varyingly reshaped in the light of the various social, institutional, and policy related inflections within and through which the department operates. Outcomes, consequently, are such that relevant efficiency parameters often get compromised in the privileging of physical provisioning over pedagogic intent; rent-seeking behaviour is relativised and normalised in everyday work; accountability is diffused due to structural complexities or ritualised in their everyday manifestation; and, diverse pulls and pushes from a range of other institutions and spheres of influence dilute primary goals and objectives.

The 'HM' effect

The imprint of these characteristics is directly observable in the nature and functioning of the schools. For one, although promoted on rules and regulations that are stipulated and based on the delivery of standardised text-books, curricula and rules of functioning, most schools are not total institutions which closely resemble each other. Rather, each school and its functioning and character are defined by the location in which it is situated and by the agency of the Headmaster/mistress (HM) who runs it. The inability of the education department to sustain rules and processes by which accountability measures would have ensured adequate functioning mean that the life and functioning of a school is largely determined by the 'HM effect'.

Rather than being rule-governed institutions, schools function by the efforts and interests of different types of HMs; interested, dedicated and sincere HMs develop and sustain good and effective schools despite the structural problems that beset many (problems of access, inadequate teachers, inadequate infrastructure, burden of administration etc). Yet, there are HMs who, by their lack of interest and commitment, ruin the very ethos of schools as places of learning. Inadequate teaching-learning hours, poor social environment, hostility and lack of empathy towards children mean that many schools become dysfunctional. The high drop-out or elimination rates - especially after Standard V - and the low learning levels recorded by various tests are results of this.

The 'HM effect' and the contradictory imprint of the education department also affects teachers. As our study in the district of Chamarajanagar, Karnataka, indicated, most teachers lose their interest, commitment and enthusiasm for teaching by the end of six years of employment. Much of this erosion of agency and abilities can be attributed to the functioning of the department. Its overall poor administrative measures, where negligent and abusive HMs can function without accountability, and dedicated teachers receive no recognition, the excessive but poorly designed teacher training courses which leave little room for developing independent teaching methods, the multiple programmes that teachers are expected to implement and show in the classes are all reasons for the growing disengagement of teachers from classes and students.

Piece-meal reforms

Subject to routinised training, teachers themselves have routinised teaching: 'joyful teaching' and 'activity-based learning' have become sing and dance sessions, without attention to conceptual clarity or learning; 'child centred learning' has become a classification of children which means that some children are ascribed with inherent inabilities to learn and are hence relegated to corners of the classroom; and development of new 'teaching learning aids' has become the decoration of classrooms with purchased charts! While the recognition and demand for elementary education is high and parents, many from the most deprived and disadvantageous communities, seek to have their children educated, the actual delivery of elementary education remains riddled with problems.

Reforms of the system have largely remained piece-meal and reactive, failing to have any significant impact. Depending on what is the current flavour of reform zeal, some part of the system is targeted for alteration; sometimes it is the curricula and text-books, mostly it is the teachers, and sometimes it is the children themselves who become subject to various tests and measurements. No significant effort has been directed to altering the very orientation and structures of the system/department itself and its interlinkages to the various institutions and its imprint on the multiple agents who constitute it.

Rather than being rule-governed institutions, schools function by the efforts and interests of different types of HMs.

The result of all this is that the elementary education system is caught in a social geometry of complex power structures. Situated within a political-economy in which patronage and patrimonalism play key roles and in which corruption (in all its various forms and shades) remains the key source of rent-racking, the system continues to get more layered and convoluted.

Its layered characteristics mean that the system has multiple and contradictory orientations within it. From its past cultural bases, it continues to carry the load and perception that education is a transfer of information within a hierarchical structure. Hence, administrators and teachers remain authoritarian, distant and largely disengaged from catering to the requirements of the people. The imprint of colonial structuring has meant that education is seen largely as a career, a job in which accountability is a negotiable process. Finally, the new thrust towards progressive education (which requires teaching and learning to be decentralised, subjective and sensitive) is only the most recent orientation, largely imposed from outside, and to which the system and its key agents remain impermeable and incapable of imbibing.

The key losers from all this are children, who remain the legitimising bases of the expanding system, but whose real interest are not borne and sustained by the system.