Punishing a student in school is not the same as chastising a child at home

India's first-generation learners have transformed student demographics but stand threatened by the proverbial stick. A September 2011 UNICEF report attributes 74% of all school dropouts to the fear of physical, mental or verbal abuse in a classroom. For 65% of students in India, corporal punishment is part and parcel of their education experience and the death of Rouvanjit Rawla of La Martinere School in Kolkata challenged the claim of elite private schools that it is an issue confined to government schools.

Section 17 of the Right to Education Act denies a teacher the right of ‘physical punishment or mental harassment,' no exceptions, no exemptions. Teachers contest the proviso as they often go by the time-honoured saying ‘spare the rod and spoil the child.' Invoking the principle of in loco parentis — a person or institution that assumes parental duties for a minor — they replicate practices parents use, which may themselves be controversial, couching them as expressions of love and concern, to discipline students and to establish a quiet, orderly and respectful atmosphere conducive to learning. The clincher is that since parents have willingly ceded authority to teachers, why should the government interfere?

The Committee on Corporal Punishment was categorical that teachers should not consider themselves in loco parentis, especially in handing corporal punishment. Culturally, hegemonic relations crystallised from the guru-sishya parampara when teachers were the only adults in the life of students reinforced their authoritarian status, allowing them to arrogate to themselves parental rights. However, today's set-up of large schools and individual subject teachers leaves little scope or time for deeper relations between the student and the teacher. Rather, students have intermittent associations with a number of adults over periods of time, an affiliation that can hardly be equated with the constant and deep bond usually shared by the parent and the child.

Increasingly, teachers and students also do not share the same life experiences, making empathy more difficult. The disengagement of local community from neighbourhood schools has meant that teachers and students do not occupy the same geographical space. In government schools, with the latest pay revisions moving teachers into the middle class category and with only 17% of teachers from the SCs and STs, Dalit students are often socially and economically distanced from their teachers, invalidating the teachers' eligibility to be in loco parentis.

Further, unlike in the past, the focus in schools is almost exclusively on academics. Teachers' role as the sole purveyor of knowledge remains primary in the present scheme of education, even though parents may dispute the quality of teaching. Parents take responsibility for children's social and emotional well-being with teachers take their cue about norms of student behaviour from values instilled at home.

Pedagogically, it is well established that fear of corporal punishment may make students compliant but does not ensure learning. In fact, when the anxiety level is raised by fear, it inhibits learning and is a deterrent to creativity and critical thinking. If, as the National Curriculum Framework states, the purpose of learning is to help students become independent learners and experience joyful learning, a culture of fear has no place in the classroom.

Administering punishment to a student in school is not the same as chastising a child in a family setting. A school is a public space and cannot afford the privacy and containment of shame that a home may. Punishment by a teacher is invariably meted out in the presence of the peer group and even when administered in private, the knowledge of such an act cannot be kept secret, assailing the self-esteem of the errant student.

Acknowledging that students are emotionally and intellectually capable of participating in their own learning and that by virtue of passing through the school gates they do not lose their reasoning faculties, dignity or human rights requires a fundamental shift in teachers' perceptions of students. Teacher education programmes should be more responsive to these changes by engendering a greater understanding and appreciation of the needs of students, especially first-generation learners, and enabling teachers to create a classroom free from fear, humiliation and pain. For instance, teachers could be educated to address discipline issues, helping students analyse the sources and consequences of their actions, reflect on the values that prompt their behaviour and, when necessary, consciously seek to change it.

The first-generation learners, for whom schools are a new cultural and life experience, are more vulnerable than any other section of the student community to the effects of corporal punishment, and consequently more likely to feel alienated from the educational system. Stopping the haemorrhage of dropouts and increasing retention in schools will be possible only if teachers make students welcome, and construct inclusive and participatory educational experiences.

(Hema Ramanathan (hramanat@gmail.com)is a Fulbright-Nehru Senior Research Scholar and an Associate Professor at the University of West Georgia, and Parvathy (parvathy_pb@hotmail.com) is a freelance journalist)

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