Colonial Education (Sargent Plan for India) by E. Palmer-1944

We must not omit consideration of the political aspirations which have emerged in some parts of the Colonial Empire in vigorous form and are spreading over far wider areas. The force of those aspirations has been accentuated by the magnitude of the struggle in which we are now involved and also by the certainty that the issue of that struggle will decide the common destiny.


Recent statements – both official and unofficial – on British colonial policy express a recognition of the necessity for far-reaching improvements in the conditions of life of the colonial peoples. The tremendous contribution made by the colonial peoples during the war, the successful treatment of the problems of the peoples of the various republics of the Soviet Union, the growing demand of the colonial peoples that the principles of the Atlantic Charter should be applied to their territories are all factors tending to bring about a change in the official attitude.

For instance; a report on Labour Supervision in the Colonial Empire, 1937-1943, stresses that the Government is prepared to encourage the growth of trade unions in the colonies.

Again, in the report on the Colonial Development and Welfare Act, 1940 (although the amount of money spent in the various colonies under this Act is insignificant and in no way comparable to the amount of money normally extracted from the colonies) the mere establishment of the Colonial Development and Welfare Fund out of the British budget, is a recognition of British responsibility for conditions in colonial territories.

The document just issued by The Advisory Committee on Education the Colonies: Mass Education in African Society, is the most progressive so far of these statements. Why has it been thought necessary to produce such a document at this stage? The Advisory Committee itself gives an answer:-

We have seen everywhere in recent years an acceleration of the pace of social change….

The process of social adjustment required as a result of economic changes in a technological age, as is well-known, lags behind the much swifter pace of economic change. That lag is sometimes accompanied by real danger of social upheaval….

So marked is the change that a mass consciousness seems to have developed which actually exaggerates the responsibility of groups or individuals, especially those in authority, for these happenings, even going so far as to ascribe material calamities to such a source. Such a change of attitude is no doubt, related to changes in the distribution of social and political prestige and to changes in the conception of what power can do, particularly in recent times, by the application of scientific knowledge. The explosive temper which may result from such a change can only be controlled and guided by wisely directed mass education, with particular stress on the development of social and civic responsibility….

We must not omit consideration of the political aspirations which have emerged in some parts of the Colonial Empire in vigorous form and are spreading over far wider areas. The force of those aspirations has been accentuated by the magnitude of the struggle in which we are now involved and also by the certainty that the issue of that struggle will decide the common destiny.

Mass Education in African Society is concerned with a mass drive against illiteracy amongst adults as well as children. In the foreword to the report, it is stated that:

the goal which the British Government has set before itself is to secure the improvement of the health and living conditions of the people, the improvement of their well-being in the economic sphere, and the development of political institutions and political power until the people can become effectively self-governing. One of the most essential and urgent measures needed for the accomplishment of this task is the widespread, development of education.

The Report suggests that “Mass Education” should cover liquidation of illiteracy and development of social services, local industries and higher technical equipment to enable the greater use mechanical aids to industry and agriculture.

The proposal is to take a given area, and plan a mass education project relating to the needs of the people of that community. The given area will be chosen for a number of reasons, among others that there is a reasonable chance of success there, in tackling and overcoming certain outstanding obstacles to progress recognised as such both by the people themselves, and by the Government. Such problems might be soil erosion due to overstocking, or faulty cultivation, over of a single commercial crop, a heavy infantile mortality rate, chronic malnutrition …. and so on. Round one or more of these problems the mass education project will be built, combining the teaching of literacy and other techniques with practical measures to overcome these obstacles to progress.

Each project should set a target for the achievement of certain concrete results in a given time; for example, should aim in two to three years at getting all children into school, all illiterate adults below a fixed age into reading and writing classes, all the households working at certain health and agricultural improvements, and a general stimulation of local political interest and activity and increased recreational facilities of many kinds.

The Report emphasises that mass education must be a people’s movement and that the active support of the local community, must be enlisted by co-operation with local teachers’ associations, members of youth organisations, with the Trade Unions and co-operative societies (‘whose importance is likely to increase very much in the near future’), with missionaries, and with all progressive groups and individuals. The suggestion is made that certain employers might be willing to co-operate: “Shortage of labour in some African areas may dispose them to offer facilities for education, in addition to provisions for general welfare, as an inducement to workers to stay in one place and become more efficient.” It is stressed that:-

the content of the material used. in teaching reading and writing should be related to the people’s needs and interests, and it should assist in stimulating their desire to improve and control the conditions in which they live. Thus, for example, material used in teaching reading and writing might describe the organisation and functions of a trade union or a co-operative society, or the management and finances of a village school, or the layout of a well-equipped market.

The Report deals in fifty closely-written pages with details as to the necessary personnel required for such a scheme, makes interesting references throughout to the successes of educational work in Russia and China, and outlines the use which can be made of literature, libraries, the press, broadcasting, cinemas, posters and exhibitions, music, dancing, drama and painting. It contends that, as in the Russian ‘experiment,’ education should be in the vernacular language based on the traditions and customs of the community.

No one will deny the urgent importance of a rapid improvement in the standard of life and well-being of the peoples in the African: colonies; if this report is to be put into practice on the vast scale required, it will involve the employment, apart from voluntary workers, of a tremendous number of trained personnel, of whom the majority should be Africans.

This means heavy financial expenditure. On this the Report makes no recommendations except to say that it believes “the Colonies will, not appeal in win for assistance from Imperial Funds.”

Can we be so complacently sure that the colonies “will not appeal in vain”? Recently, we heard, that a scheme had been devised by Mr. John Sargent, Education Commissioner for India, to provide all Indian children with a basic education and enable those who show promise to pass on to universities and technical schools.[1]

Whether the Sargent Plan would be the best plan for India is another question. Congress Provincial Governments, during their short term of office from 1937-1939, and within, the limits of the financial resources available to them, initiated literacy campaigns which met with considerable success, and which, it has been suggested, were one of the main factors in increasing the All-India literacy figure from 7 percent. in the 1931 Census to 12 percent. in the 1941 Census.[2]

It would seem that a national government in India, truly representative of the Indian people, would be capable of working out its own Plans of education, suitable to the needs of the Indian people. The Sargent Plan proposes an educational system along the lines of the British educational system (at a time when that is receiving heated criticism and suggestions for improvement from all concerned with education in Britain) – and it seems to be based on an assumption that the political status of India will remain much as it is at present.

But whatever the merits or demerits of the plan produced by a Government official, the relevant point is that the Viceroy has stated that the Plan “Must wait for full realisation until India has increased its industrial and agricultural wealth to pay for it.” (News-Chronicle, January 25, 1944.)

It is a withering indictment of Britain’s past economic policy in India to suggest that a country with such vast potential resources for development cannot afford a scheme for universal education of her children. It is a clear indication that educational advance, along with other social reforms, has to be linked with political advance.

Those who feel a concern and interest in the future of the African peoples have a responsibility to see that the progressive principles embodied in the Report On Mass Education in African Society do not meet the same fate as the Sargent Plan for India, but are carried into effect with all possible speed.

SourceLabour Monthly, April 1944, p. 123-125, E. Palmer


1. Details of the plan are to be found in the Times Educational Supplement of November 6, 1943.

2. Figures from Inside the Empire, September 1943.