A Convenient Alibi to Degrade Schooling for Poor Kids


File photo of a Bihar school. Credit: PTI

File photo of a Bihar school. Credit: PTI

In the debates on education raging around us, especially following the yearly reports on poor learning outcomes in government schools, one ascendant view is that the government’s education policy has misdiagnosed the problem and the way forward is to ask parents what they want.

This is a question I am often asked these days. Most recently, by Delhi government advisors, tasked with preparing a policy note on education. As on earlier occasions, it left me befuddled.

Rich parents or poor

What could parents possibly want from the schools they send their children to? Teachers who are educated and trained to do their jobs optimally and who are sensitive and empathetic to the needs of the child. A safe and secure environment, and a system of teaching and assessment that does not penalise, but encourages learning. And infrastructure – classrooms with desks and chairs, clean toilets and drinking water.

But, to the government’s policy makers these are not simple questions with simple answers.

As they see it, the question conceals a problem, and the problem is that there are apparently two types of parents. The first type are like myself, and possibly you reading this article, who can afford to send their children to good private schools and have high expectations and an understanding of education. The second type are poor parents, who subsist on daily wages, have no time for their children and their schooling, do not know how to speak to teachers, do not understand what goes on in a school, or indeed anything about their child’s schooling. It is the second type of parent that these policy makers apparently want to address. The Delhi government is trying to establish what they want and how they can be provided for.

Most parents of any type do not have the time to make regular visits to their ward’s school to check how it works and how their child is faring, and many, myself included, may not know all that they should expect from a school. However, posing the question as a problem of ‘types’, suggests that certain assumptions are being made:

  • poor parents cannot be provided the same quality of education non-poor parents have or take for granted, presumably because this would cost too much;
  • poor parents have no way of knowing if their children are learning and calibrate their child’s learning through “test” results of pass/fail, so merely doing well on those tests must figure high on their list of wants;
  • since poor parents do not understand education beyond basic notions of literacy and numeracy, other goals of education can be dispensed with for them;
  • children of the poor are unlikely to pursue higher degrees so their schooling need not be geared towards such lofty ends.

The question of what needs doing to fix a failing education sector is, therefore, quickly reduced to: how best [read: least] we can frame these needs of poor parents and then go about satisfying them.

Simple needs of simple folk

A common understanding that has emerged based on a widespread acceptance of the assumptions mentioned above is that the expectations of poor parents from schools and education are rather simple. They do not want toilets, as they do not have them at home. They do not need desks and chairs, as they are used to sitting on the floor. They do not need educated or trained teachers either as they are content with their children learning simple skills to allow them to get by in life. Simple messages, that will allow them to score decently on simple tests of reading and maths is what they will be content with. Or vocational skills that will allow them to get a job – any job – to help out with household income, or assist parents in their work. And of course English – to create the veneer of being “educated”.

There is a huge surge of demand for education that is spilling over from government to low-cost private schools that are low-fee-charging, do not focus on “inputs” (as government schools do), but cater instead to the so-called needs of poor children.

These schools are the models that policy makers who ask, “What do poor parents want?” hope governments will follow.

Warning from Africa, unheeded by India

A recently released joint statement by over a 100 organisations in Africa is worth highlighting in this context as it categorically refutes the claims of precisely such thinking.

In Africa, education initiatives like the Bridge International Academies [BIA], backed by international organizations, most notably the World Bank, have pursued this model for the poor. The joint statement highlights the following flaws in the thinking about these initiatives. It states: a) that there is no independent research to show that “learning”, even narrowly defined, is better in these academies; b) that “only five weeks of training” for teachers relying on “scripted standardised lessons…cannot substitute for a qualified teacher”; and c) that the right to free education is a statutory obligation of the state and cannot be out-sourced to private agencies, no matter how ”low” the fees they charge.

In India, Geetha Nambissan, a scholar of education policy at JNU, has diligently documented, the trend towards low-cost or Budget Private Schools [BPS]. She finds that it is not just shoddy teaching and a high turnover of teachers which characterise these schools but that the under-qualified teachers hired to teach English are barely able to speak the language themselves.

Further, many schools, unable to sustain themselves on low fees, either morphed into “affordable” private schools or simply shut shop, with no concern for the children enrolled in them. Despite these pitfalls, the move towards BPS is continuing unabated with several well-funded and vocal advocacy groups set up to promote the model. This model – which reduces the role of the teacher, increases the role of ‘technology’, reduces education to simple messaging and cuts expenditure on all necessary inputs – is also being promoted in government schools as an effective means of improving learning outcomes.

Ominous direction

Such a model does not provide even the basics that any parent wants and, in fact, peddles a service that is of low quality and low utility. This model is not concerned with a “system” of pedagogy geared towards the larger goals of “education” but primarily at cutting costs and ensuring “effective learning outcomes” reduced to simple reading and mathematical skills. It raises crucial questions of the direction in which education is heading.

Is this the vision of education that we are offering the nation? An education system, which only benefits those who can afford to pay large amounts for quality and cheats the rest of a chance to participate in the life of the nation as anything other than as a low skill-low pay sometimes-employed person? Are unqualified and poorly trained teachers, minimal skills and infrastructure-less surroundings all that the poor can expect to get by way of an education? With a New Education Policy in the offing, this is a question that urgently needs addressing. Is this what the BJP, or indeed anyone, wants to Make of India?

Kiran Bhatty is a Senior Fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi and a Founder Member of the Forum for Deliberation on Education