In a country where about 97% children are enrolled in a school in the vicinity of their home, the problem of ensuring the remaining 3% get to go to a school is an obvious one. Either the school has not quite reached their neighbourhood or there are obstacles — physical, social, or economic; often all three that prevent them from going to a school. This is the first and the most severe level of exclusion.
Going to school, yet to become a habit
If we go a bit deeper, we find that in several northern states of the country only about 50-60% children out of those on the teacher’s roster are present in the class on a given day. Overall about 75% of Indian children are found in school on a given day, with near 90% attendance in the southern states including Maharashtra and the northern states of Punjab and Himachal. Those who do not attend regularly are not necessarily chronic absentees and it is not clear why they do not attend regularly although the government has been providing mid-day meals in school. Clearly such incentives do not attract children who stay away out of sickness, or boredom, or because their teacher is not in the class regularly, or simply because there are better things to do outside the school. Going to school everyday has yet to become a habit in most of our underdeveloped states and in underdeveloped regions in our developed states. So this could be a second layer of deprivation or exclusion.
We could go a step beyond and look at what the quality of learning in the schools is. ASER has been pointing out for the past nine years that about 50% Indian children who reach Std 5 cannot read a simple Std 2 text and about 60% do not have basic arithmetic skills ranging from number recognition to solving a long division or more that is expected at that level. Effectively these 50% children, many of whom may have been guilty of not attending school regularly or may have had obstacles that prevent regular school attendance will be excluded from participation in economic and social activity that could help to build a reasonably healthy and stress-free life. Most of these children will be promoted to the higher classes up to Std 9 regardless of what they have learned thanks to the provisions of the Right to Education (RTE) Act and they will leave school with a false sense of having ‘completed’ primary and upper primary education. By the time they are looking for work, their aspirations are high and skills are extremely low to get a job.
Schools need to be a friendly place
Typically, we think of physical or mental challenges or social exclusion when we refer to inclusive education and we talk about opening schools to end lack of access to education. In order to make the school ‘inclusive’ we have a law that says even children with disabilities should be a part of the same school and not segregated. However, the point is that merely providing a school in the neighbourhood or even providing ‘schooling’ does not end the exclusion. Much more needs to be done if we want the children to grow to be a part of India’s economic growth.
Exclusion begins with a school not being a friendly place. The observation that most of our schools do not have an atmosphere that children find welcoming and warm is not new. The RTE Act has forbidden corporal punishment and humiliation of children, which is a good thing. But no law can compel a teacher to be friendly, affectionate, and caring. Before they become good teachers they should be friends of the children and accept them as individuals. Unfortunately, the school has become too impersonal a place for most teachers and in government schools the alienation of the teacher is extreme. Unless a teacher has a sense of ownership about the school, it is impossible for him or her to be caring and affectionate towards the children except in case of some extraordinary individuals. The extreme centralisation of the system that does not even allow the Head-teacher to have full control and hence a full accountability as regards the school is the main cause of this. We need a decentralised school system. I will go one step further. When we say that the state is responsible for delivering education to the children we are simultaneously implying that the family has no part to play in the children’s education. The assumption, at least in the case of a vast majority of Indians who are poorly educated, is that families cannot participate in the child’s education except by attending parent-teacher meetings, if at all they are held. We pretend that forming School Management Committees will help govern the school better.
Exclusion threatens social and political equilibrium
Inclusion would probably imply that there is a small minority that is left out of what the rest of the society has. But, when at least half of the people are threatened with deprivation the problem is much bigger. It threatens not only the lives of the deprived, but it also threatens the chances of an economic growth that is less uneven geographically and socially. It threatens social and political equilibrium.
The idea of inclusiveness in education fundamentally begins with caring for all children and this requires that the familyand the community at large should be much more directly involved in the well-being and learning of the child not limited to what happens in the classroom. Currently our process of education only focuses on the teacher, the classroom, and the textbooks which insufficiently represent the curriculum. At the same time, children are learning much more outside this restricted ‘education’ process thanks to rapidly increasing access to media. It is important to acknowledge that our current process of education can be strengthened only by making it a much broader community and family process. The idea that the government or the school should deliver education has not turned into a belief, that they alone can deliver education and the family and the community is not responsible or capable of participating in it meaningfully. The reaction to poor education, is to send children to private schools and/or private tutors. In the Eastern states of India – Bihar and West Bengal, 45% and 67% of school children go to private tutors. Although there is no clear data available, in urban India a very high percentage of children, regardless of
what kind of schools they attend, go to private tutors. Those who go to tutors do much better than those who do not.
Another major factor that is working against inclusion is the increasing tendency in the society towards exclusiveness as wealth increases and public systems fail to deliver. Every year more and more rural and urban children are being sent to private schools. Not that these private schools deliver significantly better education, but children understand that they are being treated differently when their friends go to other schools. If we have poor schools for the poor, it is predictable that a large majority of the children will not grow up to be included in the growth of the country.
Reforms that can lead to inclusive growth
So, how are we going to have inclusive growth through education? It seems that our society currently is going the way of segregation and exclusion rather than inclusion. As long as we continue to neglect our public systems and do not find the right solutions to make them effective, inclusive growth based on doling out welfare will not work. Our schools in particular need two major reforms. First we need to ensure that we focus on learning outcomes at every stage of the school, instead of a knowledge focused curriculum that is limited to cramming of textbooks. Second, we need to decentralise the system to achieve the learning goals for each child. In this endeavour, it is important to ensure that parents and the community at large become equal partners in the process of education. We need to change our mindset that somehow once the children are left at the doorstep of the school, the parents should not and cannot take responsibility.
Even a small school must have extended network of local resources; not just for committee meetings but to actually engage children in the learning process. Simple things like sending home books to read from the library, asking parents to help the child to do some home-based activities, asking village resources to become mentors or visiting faculty can help in improving learning outcomes. This is not as hard as it sounds.
Inclusive growth is not just a matter of making laws and creating governmental welfare programmes. It needs a cultural shift in the society. Schools are but one point where the process of shifting can begin.
Annual Status of Education Report, ASER 2013, facilitated by Pratham