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The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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In India, as in West Bengal, it is better for a child to be born thick-skinned. Brought up — or not — by men and women who believe that young people must be either shamed or beaten every time they fail to comply with an adult’s orders, their view of life is skewed before life has truly begun. Often the reasons for failure are multiple, and may have nothing to do with them at all. This is most evident in the sphere of education. The gradual spread of education and, now, the special thrust that the government has given to it, have spawned numbers of first-generation learners. In spite of national and state schemes to spread education, there are glaring inadequacies in the ability to imagine what schooling means, intellectually, psychologically and economically, for a child with illiterate parents.

On Children’s Day, all the children of Class VII in a West Bengal school were punished by their English teacher for failing to do their homework set a week ago. Boys and girls of 12 or 13 were made to kneel with hands on their ears where passers-by on the road could see them. Some wept, or covered their faces; they are at a particularly sensitive age. In a country where corporal punishment in schools becomes a matter for the courts, this could be regarded as mild. No doubt some of the students were simply neglectful, but many had reasons for feeling acute inadequacy. They had been unable to buy the textbook necessary, because it cost more than their parents could afford. It is strange that a school with such a student-profile should select a book priced at Rs 90. The insensitiveness to the realities of life in underprivileged homes is typical of the Indian establishment, whether it is the government or the school administration.

There are schemes for the supply of free textbooks to underprivileged students. But they fail either because of leakage, or because books are supplied too late or in inadequate numbers. The last was the case in the punished class. The textbook bank scheme has worked to some degree in a few states, but in West Bengal its implementation is almost non-existent. Prices of books have risen, and parents must keep buying the children books and stationery to educate them. Without a practical scheme to ensure the availability of textbooks, no policy will succeed.

But even that is not enough. A subject such as English, for which the class had been punished, is incalculably difficult for students who never hear it in their home environment, and whose parents cannot afford private tutors. English textbooks must be geared to the specific needs of these children. And teachers must be trained not just to teach English and other such subjects so that underprivileged and rural children get over their fear and incomprehension, but also to accept that a first-generation learner needs nurturing psychologically as well. Only then will education have made some meaningful progress.

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