Dealing with deprivation


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THE recently released National Curriculum Framework for School Education (NCF) has once again reiterated the need to provide for ‘equal opportunity to all, not only in access but in the conditions of success’ (NCERT: 2000; earlier stated in NCERT, 1998:4). It specifically raises the concern of educational deprivation of communities such as the Scheduled Castes (dalits) and Scheduled Tribes (adivasis).

The curricular framework is of interest because the quality of schooling is an important factor in the educational backwardness of poor and marginalized groups. Both the large magnitude of discontinuation from school, particularly in the early years of schooling when poor children are usually too young to work, as well as the citing of ‘lack of interest in education’ as a significant reason for drop out from school has drawn attention to the curriculum and pedagogic practices that shape the educational experiences of children.

Curricular and pedagogic concerns in the NCF, however, fail to be adequately informed by an understanding of the specific context of educational deprivation, particularly where the economically and socially vulnerable communities such as dalits and adivasis are concerned. For instance, it is important to recognize that these communities were historically deprived of education because of the position of dalits as untouchables in the caste system and the isolation, exploitation and stereotypes of ‘cultural backwardness’ of adivasis. That these factors may continue to be relevant to the educational experiences of these communities today has largely been ignored.

Special constitutional provisions, policies and programmes in post-independence India were directed towards the economic and educational development of dalits and adivasis. However, the situation of these communities today is one of economic marginalisation, social vulnerability and educational backwardness. A significant proportion of the population belonging to these communities lives below the poverty line in rural India. Literacy levels in both communities are extremely low. Dalits continue to experience social discrimination because of their traditionally low position in the caste hierarchy and the adivasis are increasingly witnessing the breakdown of their traditional economic and social institutions as well as the marginalisation of their cultures. For these communities, poverty (and the phenomenon of children’s work) is still a major deterrent to enrolment of their children in schools. However, the fact that (in 1993-94) as many as 41% of dalit and 47% of adivasi children (5-14 years of age) in rural areas had ‘dropped out’ of school makes their learning experiences within schools a matter of immediate concern (NSSO, 1997).



This paper draws attention to the learning experiences of dalit and adivasi children in rural India. It focuses on the available (though extremely scanty) research on classroom processes and highlights the manner in which the educational experiences of dalit and adivasi children are influenced by the larger context of social marginalisation of these communities. It dwells briefly on the curriculum, language of educational transaction, and the hidden curriculum of teacher attitudes. It argues that the NCF pronouncements regarding equal opportunity in education disregard the concrete educational realities that children from these communities actually encounter in schools. On the other hand, the assumption by the NCF that non-formal and alternate structures of schooling will meet the educational needs of these children suggests that they are unlikely to be assured of ‘equality of access or conditions of success.’



What kind of learning conditions do dalit and adivasi children, often first generation learners, first encounter as they enter school? Schooling in the relatively backward villages and remote adivasi regions are generally characterized by poor physical infrastructure, lack of basic amenities, as well as less than the adequate number of teachers. Dilapidated buildings, leaking roofs and mud floors appear quite common in schools and provide a depressing atmosphere for children. Teaching aids, apart from the blackboard (or what usually passes for a blackboard), are relatively absent (Nambissan, forthcoming). The conditions of the schools can be quite appalling as seen in this description of a school for dalit girls: ‘...the environment of this institution was reported to be very dirty as the ground was swampy and there were cow-dung heaps and firewood stocked all over’ (GOI, 1988:303). Or Sainath’s reference to a school in an adivasi village in Orissa ‘now being used to stock tendu leaves and corn’ (1996:54).

Teacher absenteeism as well as non-functioning schools is also a feature of the more backward regions and in particular, the adivasi areas. A government report observes that, ‘...a number of schools, especially in the tribal areas, had remained closed for certain periods of time and in a number of cases these schools had not functioned since the beginning of the academic year’ (GOI, 1988).

Almost a decade later, Sainath finds a similar if not worse situation in the adivasi villages in Orissa. He says, ‘In Adro, deep in the hilly areas of Boarijor block, the school master... has not shown up for two years’ (1996: 54; italics mine). Anitha, in her research on classroom processes in schools in Tumkur district, Karnataka, found that the school day was significantly shorter in schools in the ‘SC/ST concentrated villages’ as compared to the other schools studied. This was mainly because, ‘A majority of these teachers do not stay in the village and belong to the dominant castes, displaying a distinctive negative attitude towards the education of children of lower castes’ (2000:195).



The transaction of the conventional curriculum in rural schools is a far cry from one that ‘encourages exploration, problem-solving... participatory... interactive group learning...’ and so on (NCERT, 2000:11). A recent study by Bodh (DPEP, 1999) of schools in villages of Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan (a number of them predominantly inhabited by lower castes and adivasis) reveals that curriculum transaction continues to be primarily textbook based, directed by the teacher and dominated by rote learning. The boundaries between school and community knowledge are rigidly drawn with the textbook serving as the only source of ‘legitimate knowledge’. Teachers rarely relate to the knowledge base of children.

The authority of teacher is unquestioned and children usually ask no questions even to clarify their doubts. Children listen to the teacher, copy lessons, memorize them and answer questions (DPEP, 1999). In single and two teacher schools that predominate in the more backward regions, the situation is compounded as teachers are confronted with teaching children of many grades together, a situation that their training least prepares them for. They evolve their own coping strategies such as huddling children of two or more grades into one classroom, keeping pupils busy with writing work, and using punishment to maintain discipline. Learning becomes a casualty in the process (Nambissan, forthcoming).



The maintaining of discipline usually dominates classroom processes. Anitha found that in the SC/ST concentrated villages in her study, educational transaction was dominated by what she calls the ‘domesticating orientation’. This is where ‘the educational transaction is directed to keeping the children within the classroom without assigning any specific task.’ Teachers tended to emphasise discipline by instilling fear in children. According to Anitha, educational transaction was characterized by, ‘The absence of learning activity, accompanied by silence (defined by the teacher as "tolerable noise")...’ and was similar to ‘herding’ (192).

As members of dalit and adivasi communities, children often find that their languages and cultures are other than that which is officially the ‘standard’ or considered ‘mainstream’ in schools. This has important implications for the educational experiences of children from these communities. There is today a considerable body of research that shows that the exclusion of minority cultures from schools adversely affects the sense of self and identity of children, their motivation in school, as well as the very process of learning. In relation to language, special emphasis is placed on the importance of ‘home languages’ in primary education, not only as bridges between home and school but also in that they facilitate the development of conceptual and linguistic abilities of children, and hence the process of learning (Corson, 1993).

A number of Indian policy documents have emphasised the need for adivasi languages to be used as medium of instruction at least in the first few years of schooling. The NCF in fact states that in order to respond to the educational deprivation of dalits, adivasis and minorities, there is need to ‘integrate socio-cultural tribal perspectives and to show concern for their linguistic specificities and pedagogic requirements’ (NCERT, 2000:8). However, despite policy pronouncements to the contrary, schools in the predominantly adivasi areas mainly use the regional language as medium of instruction in schools, with the exception of adivasi pockets in the north-east of the country. It is hence not surprising that non comprehension is seen as an important reason for the poor performance of adivasi children in schools.



In addition are derogatory attitudes to the languages of adivasis that stem from prevailing stereotypes of these communities as ‘backward’ and ‘uncultured’. Saxena and Mahendroo, describing their experience of schools in Madhya Pradesh observe, ‘In schools, there is no dearth of episodes where children are punished for failing to talk in the standard language or continuously lapsing back in the mother tongue’ (1993:2446). Nambissan suggests that the exclusion of tribal languages from school as well as negative teacher attitudes to what are usually referred to as ‘tribal dialects’ could be partly responsible for lack of interest of children in their studies, poor performance and ultimately drop-out from schools (1994).

The pedagogic implication of distances within the regional language, between the standardised form of the language and that which is spoken by the lower castes, has also received some attention in recent years. For instance Aruna points to what she calls ‘linguistic disciplining’ by the school when lower caste children bring their ‘dialects’ to the classroom. Teachers take it upon themselves to correct children’s speech so as to ensure that they follow what is regarded as the ‘pure’ form of the language (1999:1012).



Like Saxena and Mahendroo, Sreedhar also comments that dalit children are often ‘punished or ridiculed in the classroom for using the code acquired at home.’ This also disrupts the normal process of the use of language in knowledge construction. Sreedhar cautions that the teacher who ‘rejects the linguistic code of the dalit child, rejects not only the child but all those who speak the same code including the child’s peer group, friends, and parents...’ The child is often forced to make choices between her own world and that of the school ‘...and in the process gets totally alienated from the school, leading to drop-outs’ (1999:14).

As mentioned above, the NCF as well as other policy documents emphasise the need to incorporate the culture of the adivasis into school curriculum, primarily to integrate adivasi children into the school and reduce their alienation from the content of education. However, schools in predominantly adivasi areas continue to follow the centrally prescribed curriculum that reflects ‘mainstream culture’. Official curriculum barely acknowledges the existence of dalit and adivasi communities, despite the fact that they form a significant proportion of the population especially at the district and local level in many states in the country (Kumar, 1989).

On the other hand, these communities, when represented in the textbook, are portrayed largely in subservient roles in accordance with what is perceived as their traditionally low position in the social hierarchy (ibid; Nambissan, 1996 and 2000). Recent writings of dalit intellectuals have also emphasised that the content of school knowledge excludes the culture and experiences of lower castes and dalits and hence is alien to them. Referring to the richness and diversity of languages and experiences among producing communities by virtue of their being structured and rooted in the production process, Ilaiah observes that the linguistic skills or knowledge of the lower castes have no place in the education system (1996:56).



Little acknowledged by school actors and indeed by researchers is the experience of social discrimination experienced by dalit and adivasi children within the portals of the school. Classroom culture in the context of the hidden curriculum of social discrimination as reflected in teacher attitudes, classroom interaction and peer culture, and so on is little documented. Some studies do say that discrimination within schools appears relatively absent (Shah, 1998 cited in Thorat, 1999). However, this is largely in terms of overt acts of discrimination such as segregation in seating arrangements, not allowing dalit children to drink from the common pitcher of water and so on. Scattered references in a number of studies suggest that classroom processes in schools are pervaded by discriminatory practices that relate to larger societal attitudes regarding the ‘inferior’ caste status of dalits and the ‘backwardness’ of adivasi cultures (Nambissan, 1996; Velaskar, 1998).

Ilaiah (1966) refers to his own teachers (of higher caste) in school thus, ‘If he was a Brahmin he hated us and told us to our faces that it was because of the evil time – because of kaliyuga, that he was being forced to teach "Sudras" like us’ (1966:12). Velaskar (1998) says that, ‘new stigmatizing’ identities based on secular criteria of lack of merit are being imposed on dalits in place of their ‘old, traditional, impure identity.’ They are labelled as ‘undeserving, stupid, indolent...’ and so on (1998:227). Anitha reports that some teachers quite openly stated that, ‘formal education is not useful for the children of the lower castes.’ According to her, ‘These teachers support their argument by citing instances among children of those communities who have discontinued schooling and working as agricultural labourers in the same village’ (ibid: 191).

Dalit and adivasi children perform poorly in schools. A study of children’s achievement in tests of language and mathematics found that only around 39% of answers were correct for dalit and adivasi students (Shukla et al., 1994 cited in World Bank, 1997:133). Anitha, in her earlier mentioned study, notes that students from schools that were located in dalit/adivasi concentrated villages were found to perform poorly in mathematics and environmental science when compared to students from other types of villages (2000:183).



Teachers and school heads tend to relate the poor performance of dalit and adivasi children to their social backgrounds: caste status, apathetic attitudes of parents, the fact that parents prefer to make children work, as well as their lack of ability and basic intelligence. Anitha’s discussions with the head master and teachers in a SC/ST concentrated village reveal stereotypes of lack of ability that underlie teacher attitudes to the education of these children. Some teachers referred to children as ‘good for nothings’, that ‘whatever benefits are provided, these people will not improve’; ‘even stones would respond but not these kids’ (Anitha, 2000:89).

On the other hand, her observations also point to the domination of classroom transaction by disciplining of students, resulting in the drastic reduction of time devoted to the actual process of teaching and learning. It is significant that there is little acknowledgement by teachers or school heads that the poor quality of education offered by schools is a critical reason as to why dalit and adivasi children perform badly in their studies. While there is the realization that these children are usually first generation learners and are often engaged in work as well, there is no understanding of the need for the school to provide positive academic support which children are unlikely to receive at home. On the other hand, teachers frequently use corporal punishment in the classroom.



The Bodh study mentions that corporal punishment was common when children failed to give the correct answer to the teacher’s questions. Teachers often felt that fear was necessary for children to learn (DPEP, 1999). Where communities such as the dalits and adivasis are concerned, stereotypical notions of social inferiority underlie the use of corporal punishment as a pedagogic tool as well. A teacher in Anitha’s earlier mentioned study called the dalit students kadu-jana (forest people) and believed that ‘they would not learn without beating’ (2000: 88). Schools thus not only fail to reach out and address the context of educational deprivation of these communities but often tend to compound it.

To what extent do classroom processes that denigrate the child’s identity, deny her the right to learn with dignity and fail to provide her the necessary academic inputs and affect her motivation to learn? There are only a few scattered recollections by dalit and adivasi adults of their experiences in schools. However, the fact that though articulated in adulthood, these are vividly remembered childhood experiences of schooling, suggests that dalit and adivasi children are likely to be deeply affected by discriminatory and thereby exclusionary school practices. For instance, Ilaiah, looking back, reflects on the exclusion experienced in school ‘...our childhoods were mutilated by constant abuse and by silence and a stunning silence at that’ (Ilaiah, 1996:14).



It is a matter of concern that policy documents, and indeed the present NCF, while loud on rhetoric, fail to address the quality of education that children of poor and marginalized groups experience. On the other hand, the NCF reiterates the need for non-formal education (NFE) for children who are unable to access formal schools. However, it is well known that other than for a few innovative programmes by NGOs, NFE has failed to offer education worth the name to those hitherto deprived of it.

Equally significant are references to alternate schools and other ‘flexi systems’ for children (NCERT, 2000:14). These no doubt include recent state initiatives such as the ‘cost-effective para teacher schools’ that seek to provide greater access to education to rural habitations that were hitherto deprived of primary schools. The most well known of these is the Education Guarantee Scheme (EGS) of Madhya Pradesh that is now being used as a model for the rapid achievement of universalisation of elementary education. What is characteristic of schemes such as the EGS is that they are based on community demand for schools and employ poorly qualified and minimally trained local youth as teachers. These teachers are also paid lower salaries than regular teachers.

Programmes such as the EGS have met with a tremendous response in terms of enrolment of children in these schools. In that sense they have undeniably established the strong desire for regular education among communities that were hitherto without even physical access to primary schools. The quality of education in such schools should, however, be a matter of concern, particularly as poorly qualified and trained teachers are expected to meet the diverse learning needs of first generation learners. The Bodh (DPEP, 1999) study of para teacher schools (including four EGS schools) reveals a number of positive aspects, such as the fact that these schools have increased the access of poor and marginalized groups to education, local teachers have good community linkages, and schools function relatively regularly.

However, the quality of classroom transactions has been found to be poor. Para teachers are seen to lack the necessary professional development as well as ongoing academic support. In addition, para teacher schools lacked ‘appropriate physical infrastructure and a satisfactory school environment for carrying out effective and efficient teaching learning’ (DPEP, 1999: ix-xiv). In the larger context of equity in education, it is important to ensure that ‘alternate’, ‘flexible’ and ‘participative’ schools (which are now keywords in policy) do not become inferior systems of education for the poor and marginalized.



The foregoing discussion suggests that for dalit and adivasi children, classroom processes are likely to be pervaded by discriminatory attitudes and practices that stem from the position of these communities in the larger social structure. We have tried to show how these processes deeply affect the educational experiences of children and deny them access to education of quality and learning with dignity. The exclusion of children’s language and culture from the medium and content of school knowledge, as well as messages of inferiority that are conveyed to them through the hidden curriculum, are critical factors that are likely to adversely affect children’s motivation to learn and their interest in their studies.



Also highlighted is the lack of sensitivity of schools to the economic and social realities that children experience in their daily lives. The fact that schools have failed to provide adequate academic support to dalit and adivasi children, a majority of whom come from non-literate and poorly educated homes, is also a factor that is usually ignored. On the other hand, the rapid expansion of ‘para teacher schools’, points to the possible institutionalization of inferior systems of education within the formal school system. By ignoring classroom processes experienced by children who have been hitherto deprived of education, and recommending that they be provided alternative schooling systems (preferably managed by local communities or NGOs), documents such as the NCF suggest that the state is well on its way to abdicating its responsibility of ensuring every child the right to education without discrimination.



* This paper draws upon my article, ‘Social Exclusion, Children’s Work and Education’ to be published in N.Kabeer et al. (eds), Needs Versus Rights? Child Labour and the Right to Education in South Asia (forthcoming).


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