While education can be the best equaliser of inequities, the way our system works, it only perpetuates existing socioeconomic differences.
“On your marks, get set…” Even before the academic race begins, many Indian children are on the back foot. From jostling for entry into ‘premium' playschools to coaching classes for toddler interviews to finding the right ‘contacts', parents run from pillar to post to admit their child into a ‘ good' school. Following a High Court directive in 2007, schools in Delhi have done away with gruelling admission interviews and instead rely on a points system based on residential proximity, siblings in school, parent's alumni status, education and achievement, with leeway for schools to include their own criteria. Even though Delhi has banned unnerving interviews, the admissions process is still harrowing because the root causes of this skewed demand and supply have not been tackled. The dearth of high quality schools continues to confront the capital with parents queuing up in the wee hours to get admission forms from dozens of schools. Demand for the best schools continues to skyrocket; applications received by these institutions are around 10 times the number of available seats. In contrast, a few of the lesser known ones do not even fill their seats.
The fact that our country sports gross inequalities is all too evident in the domain of education. Ironically, education, which is one of the best equalisers, serves to perpetuate stark socioeconomic differences that plague our nation. Even before a child can compete, she is left behind by a system that favours the privileged few who can make it to the better schools. The consequences of receiving substandard education in the primary classes are indeed damaging and long-lasting as a weak academic foundation leads to a downward spiral. A study in the U.S. examined outcomes on two average eight-year-olds who were given teachers who differ greatly in quality. The child with an excellent teacher is almost 50 percentile points ahead of the child with the poor teacher after three years.
The Delhi example highlights the fact that there are no quick fixes to tackle this educational conundrum. As Sunil Khilnani says, nothing short of an “educational revolution: revolutionary in methods, scope, speed- above all, in will” will suffice. Only by increasing the number of primary schools, attracting a talented workforce, providing excellent teacher training, improving the infrastructure of existing institutions and upgrading our curricula to meet 21st century requirements, can we avoid a farcical school admissions process. According to Tony Wagner, “Teaching all students to think and to be curious is much more than a technical problem for which educators, alone, are accountable.” Thus, the government and civic society must work collaboratively to set up sterling schools. Further, existing schools, both government and private, need qualified, competent and sensitive teachers who are able to engage, extend and empathise with students.
Neglecting the foundation
Recently, the Union Minister of Human Resources announced that India should have Navratna universities on par with the Ivy Leagues. While this may be a laudable aim, we cannot neglect the foundational stones on which these halls of learning must rest. Producing a few students who are internationally competitive does not make our educational system world-class. As Krishna Kumar, the former Director of NCERT, writes, “No country can hope to build an industrial human resource by merely harnessing the cutting edge. It is the excellence of the average person that gives an industrial economy its edge.” Thus, unless and until we provide creative and considerate education for all our children, India will not be able to harness its demographic dividend.
Getting a child with a learning difficulty admitted into a regular school can be a herculean task. Many schools close their doors just because a child is differently-abled, even if the child is able to cope in the mainstream after receiving intervention. Even schools that profess to practise inclusion skirt around the issue saying they are not equipped to deal with a particular child. Rare indeed is the school that wants and tries to gear itself up to the challenge. A school that is inclusive in letter and spirit embraces a recalcitrant child, provides supplementary services, models tolerance, exhibits flexibility by making necessary accommodations and, as a result, grows richer.
Schools may understandably bemoan that they do not have the resources - both material and personnel - to meet the special needs of these students, but change, alas, does not come about without a will. A willingness to accept that all children are worthy of being educated. As Jerome Bruner puts it, “We may take as perhaps the most general objective of education that it cultivates excellence; but it should be clear in what sense this phrase is used. It here refers not only to schooling the better student but also to helping each student achieve his optimum intellectual development.”