There is a constitutional commitment. There are central and state policies. There are schools, teachers and welfare schemes. But even today, six decades post-Independence, meaningful education remains an elusive dream for several children in the country.
School Education, Pluralism and Marginality probes certain challenge areas that hamper equal access to education, by examining exclusion from two angles – one by denial of access and another, by curricula which, some contributors note, often speak to the normative Indian student — a Hindu upper caste, middle-class, urban male.
The editors of the book, at the very outset, emphasise the enabling role of education in the empowerment of historically marginalised groups that have been systematically excluded. In addition to serving as means to better economic conditions, education, as is said in this book, often inspires people to organise, put forth collective demands and importantly, resist oppression. And that is why education will always continue to be that crucial instrument that societies will firmly hold on to.
The access to and nature of education, therefore, become particularly important — not only in the discourse on education as a means to empowerment, but also in the pursuit of the larger, overarching goal of social equity that societies world over are chasing tirelessly.
India has certainly taken significant steps towards its goal of achieving universal elementary education. The Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA) and the more recent Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act are important interventions. However, the very fact that India needed an Act to ensure provision of something as fundamental as elementary education is, in some ways, indicative of the failure of the country’s public education system in addressing educational needs of several groups, particularly the marginalised.
It is in this context that R. Govinda and Madhumita Bandyopadhyay’s nuanced reading of gross enrolment ratios is pertinent. Despite the prevalent claim of India having achieved near-universal enrolment, the gaps in gender parity in enrolment are hard to miss. The Gross Enrolment Ratio (GER) of students among Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, even as recent as 2003-04, is well below 90 per cent, they illustrate. This, along with worrisome drop-out rates, is reason enough to reflect on certain curricular aspects and the larger framework of schooling itself.
Also, access is only a starting point. The editors note that for children of marginalised communities, the struggle to be recognised and acknowledged as intellectually competent and as individuals belonging to rich cultures and traditions is an ongoing one. But, surely, it is the struggle for a curriculum that represents different groups, including their own, that warrants more attention.
The book puts the spotlight on some well-entrenched practices in school that perpetuate inequalities of the past — and battling against them is no ordinary task for students from excluded groups, especially in the absence of an education system that addresses issues of the marginalised.
Speaking of Dalit students’ experience inside the classroom, M. Murali Krishna says that even today a Dalit student raising a question that challenges dominant views runs the risk of being punished. Instances of discrimination against Dalit students in school are far from extinct, going by media reports. Making a case for connecting education with larger realities that people live in — drawing upon the critical pedagogy movement — he argues that that even efforts such as the National Curriculum Framework 2005 are silent on issues such as caste inequality. Teachers and students do not talk caste, either.
Angela W. Little's essay — excerpt from her book — on the plight of Indian Tamil Minority in Sri Lanka examines educational progress of a community in a rather complex setting of conflict, migration and oppression. This and some other perspectives on migrant groups highlight an entirely different set of challenges that curricular processes ought to look at.
Students in tribal belts have very specific educational needs — something that policy makers in India are yet to address adequately. Subhash Sharma’s essay on Tharu tribals in West Champaran (Bihar) is highly relevant to understanding challenges of students among the large tribal population in the country. It points to problems such as frequent teacher absenteeism and lack of connectivity that cut off students physically, socially and pedagogically.
The book also raises certain other concerns — such as Imtiaz Ahmad’s about the absence of reliable data on education of Muslims, which is crucial to understanding the community's progress. Some international experiences, such as the establishment of a girl-child education unit in Ghana and experiences of addressing the question of pluralism, or the issue of segregation of the Roma groups in Europe, or attempts to address diversity in New Zealand that Russell Bishop looks at, offer useful insights to how similar challenges are being addressed in other countries, and how some challenges can be starkly different for different marginalised groups — such as the language issue raised by Dhir Jhingran.
In including an essay on alternative schooling, the book seeks to hint at possible solutions. While alternative schools have tried to fill some gaps in education, the answers, perhaps, lie in the hands of those drafting curricula and teachers that transact them to address many of the issues raised by the different contributors to this interesting volume.
Though the central argument of the book is that curricula must be evolved keeping in mind the marginalised, each of the essays looks at a finer detail, a different nuance. Consequently, the collection is unable to engage with possible solutions in adequate depth, even though it shares some insights on alternative models followed in different contexts. But, some of the pedagogic strategies discussed in these alternatives — such as different assessment techniques for different students and mother tongue education in a multi-lingual classroom — have high expectations of the teacher. While looking at students through various categories and groups becomes crucial to understanding educational needs of students belonging to marginalised sections, questions such as — do we need a curriculum that speaks just to the marginalised groups or, are we arguing for a broader curriculum that speaks to all students with sensitivity; are the authors for meaningful mainstreaming, or would they prefer region/language/community-specific alternative schooling — persist.
Answering these questions at some length would have added more value to the book. It is important to answer these questions, for there is an increasing tendency to romanticise cultures and traditions of the marginalised as being rich. And that perspective may not always translate into meaningful interventions. However, the work presents some important truths, perspectives and challenges worth paying attention to. School Education, Pluralism and Marginality is not only a highly relevant resource to those engaging with school education in different capacities, but is also a must-read for anyone who might think India’s public education system is a grand success story.