The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Give them all a chance

A few weeks ago, I went for an evening show and hoped to spend two hours “switched off” from the rest of the world. But every few minutes, mobile phones made their ubiquitous presence felt. When I protested, I was told by people younger than my own children to “chill”. They were from rich homes and the fluency with which they spoke the Queen’s language indicated education in private, English medium schools. Yet their behaviour was worse than the so-called paan-wallah crowd on the groundfloor of the cinema hall.

It is simplistic to blame schools for student-behaviour as adolescence and peer pressure spur people on to inconceivable levels of foolhardiness and irreverence. But perhaps this is a good time to reflect on school education, value systems and what appear to be perceptible outcomes of education. What are we doing to make teaching worthwhile, to create an intrinsic motivation towards the enhancement of knowledge'

There is no lack of discussion on these issues, but these usually end up romanticizing the “old days”, eulogizing teachers and masters and laying the blame on “the system”. But we need to realize that the system is all of us put together. We have to accept that as members of the teaching profession we have something to do with what has gone wrong, just as it is our collective responsibility to set the system right.

Today, education is measured by rank, job, salary and material possessions. The pursuit of education and the development of wisdom have not, necessarily, meant the same thing. This is evident from the conduct of the so-called “educated” who have ruthlessly propagated class, caste and gender inequality and have used their position to control, dominate and sometimes, abuse. Education now is about possession, power and a tool for creating an underclass.

Nowhere is this more evident than in our private English-medium school system. English-medium education is seen as a passport to success. The need for change, for review and reform diminishes as a long waiting list ensures that empty places are always filled, a child withdrawn is easily replaced, a piqued parent silenced by others who are satisfied. I am a product of this system, but the real lessons about life were learnt in university, when I met better and brighter students from less glamorous schools. Further lessons were learnt in my years working with children with disabilities, meeting their families and learning about courage and conviction. More recently, as a teacher coordinating a service for children from “normal” mainstream schools facing learning and other difficulties, I regularly witness the trauma and anxiety of children, hear the desperate pleas for help from adults as schools issue warnings about withdrawal, observe children stuttering and stammering with nervousness.

What makes the system what it is' The answer probably lies in our search for success. The rat race starts with the process of selecting children who “perform” in the interview, have the potential to be achievers, have the capacity to win accolades for the school. Advantages lie in having parents who are achievers and can speak English. The period before the child gets into school is fraught with stress. The day the child gets into school calls for a family celebration. Then reality bites!

In the classroom, all knowledge of child development, psychological theories of the intelligence curve, information processing and overload, positive reinforcement and rewards are forsaken. The child is expected to behave like a miniature adult. Woe betide the child who cannot understand why he must sit and write pages of what appears meaningless to him, or if he cannot understand or speak English. Parents are called in, told to control their child, sometimes even sent for an assessment to a psychologist or a child guidance expert.

As children grow, schooling emphasizes over and over again that achievement and success are all that matter. The bright and clever students are the ones who become captains and prefects, the best players get to the field, the best debater represents the school. The ones who are average never get to know the feeling of pride associated with representing the school. The school is happy to take the credit for the student’s performance and shrugs off the responsibility for failure or lack of achievement, blaming it on parents.

Parent-teacher meetings for all but achievers are an exercise in humiliation. As a parent I have been ticked off by teachers for being a “bad” mother, for my child’s “lack of effort”. All this in spite of having two girls who in school were above-average in academics, although they did not always “live up to expectations”. Parents undoubtedly have a large role to play in the system. They want their children to be successful, rich and famous; they constantly compare one child with another, and seem to realize their own dreams and aspirations vicariously through their children.

In the midst of this performance-oriented paranoia, the lot of the average and the below-average student is pathetic. We talk about multiple intelligences but in practice the factor is never taken into consideration. How is it that a child poor in academics is never in the limelight' Why does a child have to resort to attention-seeking strategies that develop into challenging behaviours' Why don’t children with, say, a language delay, a learning deficit, a physical or sensory loss get admission into regular schools for “normal” children' Schools plead their inability to cater to these children due to paucity of resources, crowded classes, lack of specially trained teachers. But what prevents fee-charging schools from employing special educators to cater to the needs of students who need some degree of extra support'

The answer lies in schools wanting to be known as institutions producing “first divisioners” with the potential of being leaders or professionals. If education were to be identified with value-based learning, enhancement of wisdom and enlightenment, schools would automatically be more inclusive, dedicated to providing learning opportunities to all children.

Is it unreasonable to want schools to become better teaching-learning spaces for all children' No. There are already a few private schools that share this vision and have taken steps to be more inclusive in their policies and practices. Ironically, in the issue of school reform the government schools are winning hands down. Thanks to schemes like the district primary education project with the Integrated Education for Disabled Children scheme, positive steps have been taken, particularly in states like Andhra Pradesh. Delhi state schools are now open to all children and each school is supposed to have at least one specially qualified teacher to support children with special educational needs. The Sarva Shikshya Abhiyan, slowly being implemented in all states, advocates a “zero-rejection” policy in schools and applies to all government schools. Private schools may choose to remain outside this unless there is public pressure.

As citizens, as teachers, it is now up to us to reflect, to review, to garner resources within the teaching community to change the system. As Teachers’ Day approaches, let us, teachers, take a pledge to work together to make our schools produce free souls, good human beings and responsible citizens.

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