Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The Sharpening Lines of Division

Let’s face it: there are no equal opportunities in this world order. (In fact, there’s something wrong with the phrase “equal opportunities’; it should have been “equal access to opportunities.” But changing the phrase doesn’t solve the problem because there is no equal access either.) This is especially true when it comes to education. Opportunities are defined mostly by the fortunes or misfortunes of one’s birth. In India, it means that a poor child gets to go to a municipal school (regional language medium) with a high probability of an early dropout whereas a richer child gets to join a premium international school and from there goes on to study in any of the top Indian professional colleges or universities abroad. The middle classes, depending on where they are in the middle, choose between a government-aided English-medium private school and a private CBSE or ICSE school.

In the last 15 to 20 years, these lines of division have only become sharper (with a steady increase in the number of private schools) and no governmental policy has had any impact on bridging the divide. (The current Right to Education Bill has included 25% reservation in private schools for children from low income households; the bill has not yet been implemented.) As a result, the richer schools have managed to make poverty invisible inside school campuses. This is not just about reinforcing the class divide; it has more to do with shutting out the physical presence of poverty and replacing it with the glorification of charity. (Writing cheques for charity is a way of avoiding living in the presence of the “objects of charity”.)

A decade ago, state-funded schools, despite their deficiencies, enabled different economic and social classes to mix and learn from each other. These schools also placed more or less equal privilege on regional language—the language of local people and literature—and English—the language of commerce in today’s world order. However, today it is exclusive education (a stiff fee, posh infrastructure, teachers trained in the UK or the US, and little stress on regional language literature) that appeals more to the middle class parents, who as children most probably attended state-funded schools. Naturally, mainstream films, TV and the press are so interested in playing up these middle class aspirations that constructive debates around the growing divide are looked down up on as old fashioned debates of the 1970s.

Even the so called alternative schools that pride themselves on innovative curriculum and teaching methods have priced themselves so high that they too ensure that the vast majority of children from low income households are kept out of their premises.

Basic education is a right and not a commodity to be purchased. It’s not about making education accessible to all—it’s about ensuring access to well-trained teachers (who are capable of not only transmitting knowledge but who can also enable students to question what they learn), sound educational curriculum and content (which includes technology-supported learning), a decent infrastructure (clean toilets, working libraries, well-maintained playgrounds, and easy access to the Internet among others), a sensible student-teacher ratio, and access to a social network (school mates) that cuts across different economic classes. I’m not advocating the nationalization of all schools—variety in curriculum and teaching methods can make the field of education richer. However, providing variety in educational experiences is not an excuse to strengthen class divisions (the fee structure of elite schools automatically excludes the poorer sections of society).

Implementing 25% reservation in private schools for economically disadvantaged children will be a good start. However, all schools—be they private or government funded—need to address the issue of bridging the class divide and ensure that the field of education remains a level playing field. I know this sounds naïve in the absence of workable alternatives, but I believe that alternatives can only emerge if we start seeing education as part of the collective, public space and not just as a means for individual success stories.


Blogger addled said...

This is a very well thought post Anil. It is sad but true. Even if these children were able to join schools and study at par with the rich class, the other children might always make them feel the divide. It's not just the schools that think that way...

9:00 AM  

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