Inclusion and equitable education
MUCH of the recent writing and policy discussion on learning seems to reflect a view that our public provisioning of education is dysfunctional and that teachers, particularly in public schools, despite receiving reasonable remuneration, do not teach satisfactorily. This has led to an enhanced focus on tracking every movement/shift in learning. The methods of measurement have become more sophisticated, and the resources and personnel involved have increased manifold in an effort to ensure better learning outcomes. This apparently is the emerging consensus about the way forward to ensure that all children learn what we think they should learn. It is, therefore, crucial that before this new orthodoxy is accepted as fait accompli, those involved with education re-examine the underlying beliefs and principles that have gone into this construction.
Over the past few decades we have witnessed many new schemes, initially in primary and elementary and, subsequently, secondary education. Additionally, new state run teacher training institutions have been set up to improve the quality of teacher education. Unfortunately, since these indifferently executed efforts have expectedly not resulted in any discernible improvement, the conclusion is to cut back on all this basic investment and instead focus on monitoring, tracking and measuring outcomes along with such interventions that could be rapidly implemented so as to ensure a better learning society.
Consequently we have new initiatives to come up with ‘materials’ that a child can use herself with the role of the teacher reduced to a facilitator, a far cry from the earlier belief about teachers as guides and exemplars. Some even propose that learning can be done through use of mobile/internet technology replacing a teacher and that we no longer need to fund schools to levels suggested. Others argue that the problem is primarily with public provisioned schools and that an increased reliance on the private sector, for instance through public-private partnerships, is the way forward.
Given the vast number of groups working at both the Union and state levels to improve the learning standards of our children, it is time to take a close look at their propositions. Four key aspects that we think need examination are: (a) What is to be learnt and why? (b) What does equitable opportunity mean? (c) What does it mean to be a teacher? and (d) Have we been governing and administering education well?
The current push is towards ensuring greater administrative control over the government teacher, accentuated by the belief that they are often absent, play truant and, when in school, do not teach well; that they do not know the subjects or how to teach them and despite all efforts are demotivated and hence become objects of ridicule and derision, ‘unworthy’ of being respected as teachers. The implication is that little purpose is served in trying to empower or motivate them. And with confidence it is claimed that the methods and materials suggested, if followed properly, would lead to improved learning in schools. Intriguingly, most groups that work in this space are convinced that the programmes and package they have developed or are developing would be the most appropriate. Ironically, most of these efforts fail to recognize that a desire to express ideas, think and analyse alternatives is the key to human agency and if the school system has to function well then teachers too need the space and the ability to think independently and make use of their own ideas.
This desire to promote ‘the package’ combines well with the desire of the administrator to control the day-to-day activity of the teacher. Current ‘educational administrators’ feel most satisfied when all teachers and schools under their control, irrespective of their specific context, do the same thing at any given time. This orientation meshes well with those constructing and advancing measurement and monitoring strategies and those who create packages of materials and methods for children and teachers to follow. The justification for this rests on the argument of inadequate resources available for expanding schooling, the lack of capable, well informed and motivated persons to teach, and the belief that while education involves a wider set of elements, the relevant attribute is the ability to read alphabets, to count and read numerals. There is also talk of ‘HOTS’ (the so-called) higher order thinking skills to be developed.
One common trait is the ‘mis’-use of terms (child centred, facilitation not teaching, activity and self-learning, developing skills and competencies etc.) by reinterpreting them and altering their original meaning unrecognizably. There is a need to examine closely these terms and spell out what constitutes learning, its purpose, how human beings learn and implications for the school and society. We must also unpack the marked impatience with any suggestion to include everyone, of democratizing learning and its opportunities and possibilities.
The urge is to ensure that the investment of resources does not continue to endlessly increase results in rapid shifts in strategies and programmes of action. The goals and purposes in the process are also narrowed. There is deep scepticism and cynicism about the ability of the poor, socially and culturally different children to learn. It appears that those charged with the responsibility of ensuring equal participation in education have little faith in the ability of disadvantaged children to learn and compete with their middle class compatriots.
The current drive towards stricter and narrower processes of measuring the so-called expected levels achieved, the content of learning and the thrust towards monitoring of teachers without granting them the agency needs to be examined through this lens. The patience to engage in a dialogue on these concerns is wearing thin. What is important to be taught and learnt and how it must be learnt is increasingly being defined and controlled by those who have no direct experience of working with teachers or children and often lack a sound theoretical understanding. The entire effort seems to be driven, therefore, by catch phrases and misconceived principles. It is almost as if everyone other than the teacher knows better than the teacher. The dominant attitude among administrators is, at best, benevolently disdainful of teachers, the children and their parents. They are not seen as individuals but numbers to be slotted into categories.
The system has forsaken education as a transformative process requiring dialogue, scaffolding and empathy with those involved in the teaching-learning enterprise. Believing that the highest ranked bureaucrat is the most responsible, most committed, most knowledgeable and the wisest and, therefore, will present the best strategy, the system faces the crisis of advancing something that many of those actually involved do not believe in or understand. The irony is the ‘wise’ administrator is the wisest only till the next wise administrator replaces him/her and declares that all that was being done till then needs to be modified and altered. Rapid change of plans and strategies leave people in the system, particularly the teachers, bewildered and cynical. Even before the system is in a position to respond and the teachers begin to understand the proposed ideas, they are presented with a new direction that they need to follow.
The quest to universalize education is relatively recent. Notwithstanding the Constituent Assembly discussions, the promise of equitable opportunity was virtually forgotten. True, some policy documents and commission reports stressed the need for increased budgetary allocations, alongside ensuring greater respect, autonomy, time and opportunity for personal growth and development of all teachers but none of that ever happened. The proposed common school system, for instance, was given a quiet burial before birth.
The 1986 policy, while repeating several ideas from the 1968 policy document also signalled some subtle and some fairly obvious shifts. The entire enterprise of education, the role of the state, the definition of the teacher, the nature and purpose of education and the construction of a citizen underwent significant changes. The individual citizen, for instance, became a human resource, and from a constitutive element of the nation became someone to be shaped as a resource for the nation, a shift aptly captured in the renaming of the Ministry of Education as Ministry of Human Resource Development. The teachers could now be paid differential salaries and subjected to closer monitoring; science was reduced to technology, detracting from its role as a source of reason and rationality. The ‘programme of action’ not only discarded the common school system, it legitimized a differential school system, including in the public sector. It also enhanced the space and role for private provisioning. The logic was that a poor country just cannot afford continually enhanced allocations on public schooling. A combination of centrally sponsored schemes and soft loans from the World Bank and other grants were seen as insufficient.
The gap between intent and provision has been apparent in the limited budgetary allocations. Operation Black Board and subsequent similar initiatives promoted a minimum rather than essential school infrastructure. Non-Formal Centres (NFEs) were proposed for the masses alongside the well endowed schools (Kendriya Vidyalaya, Navodaya Vidyalaya) for the bright and middle class children. These schools, however, also soon lost out to better endowed private schools as ‘elite’ children shifted out in large numbers. The policy thus speaks in two voices – equitable education and the need for nurturing talent. We continued to pay lip service to the idea of universal primary education but encouraged and promoted non-formal education centres, shiksha karmi schools and so on. This leaves one wondering if there was ever a commitment towards equitable education.
On the one hand this has led to a rubbishing of the public education system as wasteful and inefficient; on the other there are complaints about the arbitrariness of private schools in matters of fees and admissions, resulting in a call for regularization. The vocal rich, middle classes and government employees are focused on their own interests – namely regulating fees and ensuring the superior performance of their children. The top-down attempt of the government to set up parent-teacher associations or school management committees remains half-hearted and futile. So, while there is the rhetoric of everyone needs to be educated and that the government is committed to educate everyone, this is not followed up. Unsurprisingly, the conviction to take this forward is lacking, despite the Right to Education Act 2009, National Curriculum Framework 2005 or many other commission reports.
The RTE, for instance, defines the school, quality, teacher and everything else that is embedded in the educational enterprise, but fails to specify how its proposal could be contextualized or how high standards could be achieved. It makes everyone answerable to the appropriate government and local authority without specifying the role of the community, social and academic institutions. The essential criteria spelt out are limited to infrastructure and a few observable parameters, leaving the definition and interpretation of educational terms to the courts. In one stroke the act has made all initiatives aimed at educating excluded groups ‘inappropriate’ and illegal, leaving no space for alternative models and approaches.
Another much talked about aspect of RTE is age appropriate education. The act (chapter V, section 29), says that curriculum and evaluation will be in conformity with constitutional values and directed towards all-round development to enable children to realize their potential and talent. It emphasizes learning without fear, trauma and stress. Words like child-friendly, child-centred and learning through activity, discovery and exploration abound in the policy. The act also did away with examinations in the elementary stages and introduced CCE – continuous comprehensive evaluation. The government also proclaimed that no child would be denied admission and all children would be placed in age appropriate classes. However, nowhere did the act or subsequent policies spell out how a child would be able to reach the ‘appropriate level’. The teacher was expected to somehow find extra time and perform this miracle without any learning support. Hardly any funds were provided for this.
The gap between the rhetoric and the intent is stark! The norms and standards suggested for a school are grossly inadequate when compared to even ordinary private schools. The different norms for government run Kendriya Vidyalayas and Navodaya Vidyalayas also demonstrate the low conviction in equitable educational opportunities.
Section 12(1)(c) of the act says that a private school shall admit at least 25% of children from economically and socially weak backgrounds in class I and that the government would reimburse expenditure up to per child cost incurred by the state in its schools. If the intent was to move towards equity and inclusion, then the effort should have been to make schools admit more than 25% children and in other classes too. The regulations do neither. The stipulation ‘at least’ actually reads as ‘at most’; and children already in school or children needing to join age-appropriate classes are excluded. Finally, the mistrust and corruption within the system makes release of funds for these children an arduous task. For the high end private schools, the funds offered are in any case too meagre in comparison with their stated expenditure. The real inclusion of these children in the school and meeting the difference in the cost calculated by the school remain a major challenge. Both these constitute a headache for schools already disinclined to admit such students into their classrooms and indeed into their premises.
The question then is why more comprehensive possibilities like common schools or larger reimbursements to match the expenditure of a particular school cannot be considered. It is essential for the child to not be a forced obligation and receive equal treatment.
The overall pattern is revealed in a reluctance to invest in the general education of poor children. Schools for them are expected to make do with low resources and function at low cost. The disinclination is reflected in views like: (a) Since payment to teachers is a serious burden on the exchequer, one must have more private schools. (b) Why hire regular teachers when para/contract teachers can suffice? (c) Since funds from international agencies as grant or loan cannot be used for salaries at any level, the allocation in the state budgets for schoolteacher salaries is reduced as state governments are expected to share costs incurred on schemes/programme of the central government. Consequently, even as the educational outlays of the central government have not increased in any substantial manner, the expenditures in areas other than staffing have gone up, for example, on infrastructure, materials, ICT and consultants.
The failure to educate, motivate or enthuse the school system has been attributed to disinterest of teachers. The convenient conclusion is that neither are the teachers capable, nor can they be made so and hence the need to invest in teacher-proof materials and methods. Intriguingly, teacher-independent techniques are defended on principles like learner centrality, self-learning, problem solving approach, learning not teaching, facilitation, constructivist learning and so on. The enthusiastic entrepreneurs ‘supporting’ public education are convinced that since the government is in no position to spend additional money on education, the school should focus on teaching the basic alphabets and numbers.
The new focus on tracking each individual child on specified parameters suggests that education is seen like an industrial process – a belief that since all children are similar, if put through identical processes, the end product too would be similar. The outcomes, therefore, can be tracked, recorded and measured. This proposition rests on the belief that data for diverse children, collated month after month, can be meaningfully studied and analysed and the analysis could initiate change in teachers and the entire school system. Unfortunately, this data analysis, while useful for ranking schools or regions, does not help individual teachers improve. The data can be meaningfully used at the school level only if the teacher is both allowed and expected to formulate her own strategy, follow her own instinct, set her own exam paper and judge the responses for herself.
The school when conceived of as a plural secular space can greatly impact the children and their childhood. Leaving aside for a moment the misconstrued, one-dimensional pressure some parents place on their children, the school offers the child a place to express and celebrate her childhood. She has no chores to complete, learns to socialize with other children and, for a brief while, is freed of the responsibility invariably assigned to her when at home. We have never asked children, particularly girls, about what they see in the school and why they go there. What is it that they learn there and how can the place become more welcoming?
We also rarely ask whether the most important element of preparing a citizenry is knowledge of alphabets and numerals? Nor whether children from different backgrounds and circumstances acquire skills in the same manner and at the same pace? Do we even care to consider (like nai talim did) the distinction between being literate and being educated? We rarely ponder over the importance of language and experience of children, the value of using local specific materials and (most importantly) the critical role of teachers (and other adults). Clearly, despite the advice of academics and educators and even recent NCERT curricular statements (NCF 2005), the division between ‘scholastic’ (largely cognitive) and ‘co-scholastic’ (identified as ‘affective’) has become sharper. The mainstream push is on acquiring communicative skills (besides familiarity with alphabets and numbers) to create a pliable consumer and market employable worker, contrary to the spirit conveyed in various policy documents.
These processes also alter the meaning of the school as a secular inclusive space to help build a sense of respect for reason, plurality of views and behaviour, and for cooperation. If this is indeed our goal, we need fully engaged children participating in all processes, and teachers who respond positively and constructively to all situations in their school. Equally, the school needs to respect children who attend in spite of all the difficulties. Instead, we now consider children who come to school for the mid-day meal as freeloaders. The teacher ideally should be concerned and encourage them to stay on longer, even if only to play and be with other children, glance at books and get a feel of childhood. Teachers engaging with children inclusively, in a creative and open-ended manner, would keep them at school.
The idea of CCE with the teacher at its centre requires her to deal, as far as possible, with the learning of each child individually, even though the activities are collective. She needs to track the learning of each child and praise and encourage her – instead of constantly pointing out her distance from the an ‘artificially’ constructed age norm. The manner in which the no-detention policy and CCE have been implemented demonstrates a marked lack of sensitivity for children struggling to stay on in schools. The CCE should encourage teachers to shed the attitude of completing the syllabus and textbook and not load all children with homework requiring time at home, often with parental/adult support. CCE requires teachers to create tasks for each child, but instead standard periodic tests are given to all. This conceptualization and implementation of CCE is hostile to its principles.
The urge for centralized control, disrespect for and lack of faith in teachers and disdain for the entire decentralized machinery, has forced CCE into becoming just another excuse for centralized testing. The teachers, already stressed by their inability to deal with diverse children, have failed to grasp the essence of CCE. Moreover, the RTE 2009 itself misrepresented CCE by not entirely dissolving grades and classes and discarding words like detention and promotion. Making an external body like the SCERT (or other academic authority) responsible for defining and monitoring indicates a widely held suspicion of the teacher.
The real issue is the absence of patience and a disinclination for sustained investment for equitable inclusive education. Financing universal education of the poor is seen as a drag on the economy, even as investment on middle class and rich children, subsidized through tax rebates on children’s education, is not considered as either excessive or undesirable. Clearly, it is only in the context of education of poor children that we worry about the salary of teachers.
The much-lauded increased expenditure on primary and elementary education in the ’90s and early 2000s was focused at infrastructure. There was no money available for teachers and the pitiful allocation for training was structured in a way that it became meaningless. In-service teacher training was so shabby that it alienated teachers by making them feel ignorant and incompetent. As a result, teachers were demotivated and many of them turned cynical. Even this increased outlay has now been rolled back and replaced by a lack of conviction that the system can function. However, the current clamour for testing, measurement and monitoring is misplaced since we do not want to ensure what is actually needed – expenditure on universal quality access with equity. While occasional testing and measurement at all levels may be of use if designed with the participation of those involved in schooling, the current administratively directed centralized assessment and ‘knee-jerk’ measures are a sure recipe for further disaster.