Where knowledge is poor

The role of education in reducing poverty is widely recognised but our planners are yet to realise how the impoverished struggle with a learning process that is unresponsive to their needs

October 12, 2013 12:10 am | Updated December 04, 2021 11:10 pm IST

131012 -- Lead - Poverty and education

131012 -- Lead - Poverty and education

In a society where poverty is far more common than prosperity, one would expect the implications of poverty for education to be widely recognised. What we find, instead, is that poverty is seldom mentioned directly in policy documents on education. Policymakers feel more comfortable using euphemisms like “economically weaker sections,” the “marginalised” or the “deprived” to refer to the poor. No wonder the impact of poverty on children’s life at school and learning is understood rather vaguely not just by educational planners, but teachers too.


The reason poverty must be treated as a factor of education arises from a basic incompatibility between the two. Education necessarily demands long-term horizons. Poverty, on the contrary, compels people to remain embedded in immediate or short-term concerns. India has now recognised eight years of compulsory education as a right of every child, but endemic poverty and social inequality are posing tough constraints in making this law a reality. Elementary education by itself means little; it can only serve as a foundation for further education over many years. The informal economy on which the poor survive forces them to live from day to day. They want to — but usually fail to — plan for the distant future in which their progeny might reap the fruits of education. The children belonging to poor families find it difficult to cope with the regularity that schools demand. This is because hunger, illness and insecurity interrupt their life at home all the time. Their parents have to use most of their energies in order to deal with everyday emergencies.

Life under poverty is unpredictable and prone to sudden losses and traumas. For the poor, there is no such thing as normalcy. Anything can happen anytime, and all you can do is to cope as you suffer. In big cities, municipal authorities can suddenly clear a street of food vendors or bulldoze an unauthorised colony. Next morning, when a child fails to be at school or looks subdued, the teacher shows no curiosity to find out what might have happened to the child’s father or mother the previous afternoon. In rural areas, flood waters can drown hundreds of houses; yet the school is supposed to function and cover the prescribed syllabus! Dams or factories can mean displacement of whole villages. What will happen to children is the least important concern for those in charge of such operations. I once met children in Manibeli, a village that now lies at the bottom of the Sardar Sarovar dam. They had gone through the trauma of seeing their own school vanish under water.

Mid-day meals programme

Poverty also has a corrosive effect on children’s health and mental capacities. Frequent illness, especially on account of stomach-related problems, is common among children who live in conditions characterised by poor sanitation. A recent study has shown how filthy surroundings, in which faecal material mixes with water and food, weaken the capacity to absorb nutrition. Limited resources to eat well and regularly result in a daily cycle of anxiety and low energy which translates into poor attention to the teacher’s expectations. There cannot be better evidence of the relationship between hunger and education than the success of the mid-day meals programme. The fact that this minimalist scheme has actually improved enrolment and retention proves how major a role hunger and malnourishment play in pushing children to drop out of school. Certain State governments have recently administered a dose of deworming medicine, recognising the prevalence of parasites and the impact of this condition on children’s nutritional status, energy and attention.

Vicious cycle

Poverty often leads to children’s involvement in household work and outside activities that might augment the family’s income, on top of their school work. The burden of responsibilities at home or outside directly influences the child’s participation in school life and capacity to fulfil the teacher’s expectations. Teachers of private schools where 25 per cent of the seats are now being given to the “economically weaker sections” (EWS) category seldom know with clarity what life at home means for children in this category. From looking after younger siblings to sweeping the floor and cooking, an EWS girl often shares major tasks her mother is supposed to accomplish on a daily basis. Whether children work at home or outside, their effort to juggle work-related responsibilities with classroom routines makes their life at school porous and thin. Absence from school or inability to focus makes a direct impact on performance. Once a child starts to lag behind others, he or she becomes a relevant object of stereotyping by classmates and teachers. A vicious cycle sets in. Common stereotypes about the poor get invoked in the teacher’s mind and the child’s behaviour resonates and reinforces these stereotypes. Some of these stereotypes are rooted in caste-related beliefs or in religion. Of course, no principal or teacher would ever acknowledge being guided by these stereotypes.

Education alone cannot address poverty. However, it holds an important place among the numerous strategies that a welfare state must adopt to loosen the grip that chronic poverty has on its victims. A recent British study led by Anand Mani shows how poverty saps the energy of its victims. They often fail to keep up with the effort it takes to avail the state’s benefits. The daily struggles and anxieties of life reinforce the cycle of ill-health and missed appointments. In India, the state’s efforts are quite often mainly symbolic. The distribution of iron tablets or syrup to overcome chronic malnutrition among adolescent girls is a good instance. Had the famous mid-day meal been aimed at middle class children, it would have been priced more realistically. Greater flexibility to cope with price rise would have been permitted. Schemes for the poor are themselves so emaciated and stiff that they cannot be expected to make a significant difference in the lives of their beneficiaries.

Nor are strategies to combat poverty sufficiently contextualised or flexible. Rigidity and uniformity are said to be necessary to avoid corruption and misuse. Even a distinction as broad as rural and urban is overlooked when plans to address the educational problems of poor children are designed. Whether a school has drowned in a dam or been blasted by insurgents or it has been demolished because it was collapsing anyhow, the officials in charge make no distinction or find ways to compensate for the loss of classes. Children studying in government schools are deemed to be poor and, therefore, unimportant. I remember visiting a village in Haryana where the children told me that their best teacher had been transferred away two months ahead of the annual examination. All over the country, government school children cope with the absence of their teachers during elections. It is the children who subsidise the cost of democracy while their parents enthusiastically cast their vote, hoping that it will lead to improvement in their lives.

For better training

Teachers can make a significant difference in the educational experience of poor children, but only if their training equips them with the awareness of what poverty means. Our training programmes are so wordy and wasteful, they make no effort to get into specific issues like poverty. A widespread belief in the ideology of social Darwinism prevents teachers from realising that children of the poor are like any other group of children, with individual differences of interest and motivation. According to this ideology, survival is the proof of being the fittest, hence only the exceptional child from a poor family is endowed by nature to succeed. Training courses don’t engage with such attitudes and beliefs. Teachers who work in mixed classrooms don’t expect all children to succeed in their own different ways. They focus on the few who look exceptional; the rest are believed to lack any potential. It is hardly surprising that the system of education makes so little impact on the majority of children from poorer backgrounds.

(The author is professor of education at Delhi University and a former NCERT director. This article is a shorter version of his silver jubilee lecture at the National Institute of Open Schooling.)

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