The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Pittance of a coaching system

The power-brokers of our country spend crores on the nuclear option while teachers at the grassroots go underpaid, says Brendan MacCarthaigh

how long is it since any of us heard, “Your schooldays are the best days of your life!”' Today if anyone dared to say it, it would surely be either incredibly naive or dripping with cynicism, at least in our country, at least in our city. My own school days, a long, long time ago, were no heaven — far too much corporal punishment. It was a pretty universal situation in those days, so the individual didn’t feel particularly stressed. It was part of the school thing. But, “That was then, this is now.”

I have to tell you, I am weary of the horror stories. Some people like to tell us, as if introducing us to a mystery we never knew about, that the problem is really parents. Take my word for it. The problem is really the syllabus. And then by way of illustration there will be a story from their daughter’s or their son’s experience in school. We, at SERVE, listen as respectfully as we can, but it is a weary thing to go rehashing the same old sick stories again. If it were only a soap-serial, you could decide never to look again — it’s just too bleak. The crushing thing is, it is all too true.

This morning my secretary brought me our file of newspaper cuttings about education. Let’s flip through a few headlines and dates, of this year only. ‘Summer is season of exams and depression.’ — June 18. ‘Punjab pupil dies after beating’ — July 14. ‘Teach for nothing, get paid in sticks & stones’ — July 30. ‘Classroom as torture chamber.’ — August 2. ‘Outdated exam system needs overhaul.’ September 8. ‘City schools rope in shrinks to make bad boys good.’ – September 8. ‘Leave us kids alone.’ — September 16. ‘Lessons in gain, weighed in pain.’ – September 20. ‘Answer scripts to be placed before court.’ — September 27. ‘Centre’s literacy funds bypass states’ treasuries.’— October 5.

Now it would need a different sort of naivete to believe that the entire scene is unrelievedly gloomy. Of course there are success stories, of course there are teachers making the best out of difficult materials. There are NGOs making big differences to the children by innovative and liberating approaches to the system, the most widely known and loved being perhaps Ekalavya. The Delhi SCERT has taken to our SERVE system (“Where the child is without fear”) because of the relative happiness it is bringing the students. Calcutta, however, appears impervious to most such thrusts. Most, not all: rumours of good things percolate from here and there, but alas, not a single worthwhile piece appears in the media, either to refute the dispiriting commentaries that plod their weary way across page and screen, or to highlight some happy new development that is realistic for our overcrowded classrooms, overpressured children, and overanxious parents.

To respond to that half of our children who get no education, various schemes have been launched, even by the government. It has various faces, but the broad gist is to have the very poor youngsters attend some local centre, taught by a local teacher trained by some trustworthy nodal body like CINI ASHA, following a syllabus focused on getting into a nearby government school and thus being rescued from the curse of permanent illiteracy. So far so good' Ok, so let’s continue. The class timings there are tailored to suit the children, not the children who have to fit a timing. This is in recognition of the needs of the family, the domestic and other work many such children have to do as well as go to the centres.

What centres' Well, the formula is, a deprived area is identified, surveyed, and the local authority met. If the NGO and the local authority are agreed that an educational centre would be a good idea in this impoverished locality, it is usually the local sports club whose premises are made available during the day. The families are then required to chip in the stationery the children will need, and suggest local people from whom the NGO can pick and train the appropriate teacher or two. In this way, the locality will have a direct stake in the enterprise.

We’re still ahead, no'

Oh, and one other thing. The teacher will not only be trained in the specific methods the NGO favours, but also in community mobilisation — getting the local folk to back up the kids’ efforts. That would take a couple of hours a few evenings a week after school. Total work time for that teacher could then be seven-eight hours a day, five or six days a week. A small detail is, if the trainee has to use, say, an auto or a rickshaw to get around the area, that money comes from her/his pay-packet.

Umm, yes, well, ok.

Last scene of all that ends this strange, eventful history: an un-incremented monthly pay of Rs 1,000. That’s right, one thousand rupees a month. Courtesy the government of India, via the state government. Now I ask you, if you want to make sure your business will fail, is not axiomatic that all you have to do is underpay your workers' They soon lose their will to do their best, they will flag, leave, and — well, how long can you keep doing that'

You who are reading these paragraphs, we promise you: the system is very cheap, why not send your daughters and sons to these centres' No doubt your child will be rubbing shoulders with the children of all the local and state politicians, wouldn’t that be glorious' The teachers have received solid training over 10 days or so. Oh, it is true that a TTC or a B.Ed takes a great deal longer, but let’s not get fussy.

As you see: diabolically brilliant. And NGOs dependent on government just to keep going have very little room to demand justice. Oh some are doing it, but the faceless they who comprise the decision-makers, who exactly are they'

The power-brokers of our country have dreams (mirages') of India becoming a First World country overnight. Please don’t go all rational and wonder why in God’s name we had, and have, to spend so much on the nuclear option, with our kids and their parents to the tune of half our billion people in desperate need. I’ve been reading our own Praful Bidwai & Achin Vanaik’s South Asia on a Short Fuse (Oxford University 2001). They are winners of the Sean MacBride International Peace Prize. It is horrifying. This is not the place to mention anything other than the astounding figure of Rs 280,000,000,000 or Rs 2,80,00,00,00,000 as the investment cost of nuclear weaponisation. Those of you with training in economics and business matters can make the relevant comparison with the expenditure on education, and calculate what we could do for our kids with all that money — an annual figure, by the way.

Indicative of advanced schizophrenia and catastrophic euphoria over the ability to kill, maim and destroy on a huge scale. The truth of course is, as stated, that the only meaningful future for our beloved but betrayed India is in our kids, not just in the rich (a fraction of 1per cent in any case), but the vast majority: the poor. Our daughters, our sons, our people, who have no interest in bombs or death but only in life and peace. Thing is, one feels that as things are, and are planned, those kids haven’t really a chance.

Poor kids. Poor India. If you have tears…

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