May 5, 2012 : India: School as a Site of Social Transformation

India: School as a Site of Social Transformation

The interaction between less privileged and rich students will enrich the experience of both.

The Supreme Court recently upheld the validity of Clause 12 of the Right to Education Act that mandates aided and non-aided private schools to reserve 25 per cent of the seats for disadvantaged children in their neighbourhoods. This is arguably a landmark judgement that creates an opportunity, though not a certainty, for rendering school a site of social transformation.

In his novel Maid Marian, T.L. Peacock poses a series of questions and answers: “Why are laws made? For the profit of somebody. For whom? Of him who makes them first and of others as it may happen.” Will this court-validated law affect the educational fortunes of ordinary people only superficially, incidentally and occasionally, as the quote suggests, or will it present a real possibility for building up inclusive and socially mixed schools? At a time when one notices a yawning social distance between the students of government schools and those of private schools (especially the elitist ones), will the mandate for recasting the social composition of school somewhat disturb, if not dismantle, the roots of background social inequalities within which the education system is embedded?

Real possibility

While there is no guarantee for inevitable progress, there is a real possibility here. We try to substantiate this claim by invoking a series of binaries that are germane to an analysis of the current school education system in India, namely, “elite capture” versus “elite flight”, “mirror” versus “window”, mind versus hand, and choice versus voice.

There was a time when government schools were peopled almost entirely with children from upper and middle classes. Those were the days of elite capture of government-run elementary schools. But as doors of these schools started opening up for the masses, the elite, in pursuit of exclusivity, voted with their feet in favour of private schools — a phenomenon we describe as elite flight. Now government schools are peopled mostly with children from less privileged sections of society.

It is indeed ironical that the government school system that is technically universal and meant to cater to all is rendered targeted. It is not that the government-run schools target any particular socio-economic group or exclude others; it is the elite that discount these schools and select themselves out in favour of private schools. By the dint of their exit the government school system is rendered, for all practical purposes, a ‘BPL’ programme. The elite’s flight away from integration solidifies the divide between haves and have-littles.

For example, a full page advertisement in Outlook magazine by an upmarket school “…warns parents that their maid servant might become their child’s guru if they do not send the child to a high fee paying private school”, openly and unabashedly declaring the desirability of a social divide in the education system (Rohit Dhankar, 2010). Educational inequality is not only not seen as a problem, it is even considered desirable. It is against the backdrop of this barefaced avowal of the idea and practice of school segregation that we need to assess the meaning and significance of the Supreme Court ruling that ratifies a measure intended to promote social integration of children and to curb persistent leanings towards an “education apartheid”.

Inclusive education

An argument for inclusive education of course raises the next obvious question: inclusion into what? According to the American educationist Emily Style, education “needs to enable the student to look through window frames in order to see the realities of others and into mirrors in order to see her/his own reality reflected”. One may wonder what kind of mirror or window the country’s school education is in reality, and for whom. Schools often are a mirror for the children of the elite and middle classes, who see the dominant worldview reflected in the curriculum and school processes, while it is a window frame for students of subordinate groups who get a peep into the world of the dominant society.

It is a real concern therefore how to make private schools, and their textbooks, classroom pedagogy and school practices sufficiently inclusive of diversities that define Indian society, and consequently to ensure that genuinely socially mixed schools can become a reality.

‘Solution,’ not ‘problem’

In dealing with such vexing issues, poorer children are often seen as part of the “problem” vis-à-vis their more affluent and “able” peers; the focus is largely on how their lack of background training may slow down the process of teaching-learning in the classroom that would be costly for the other privileged children. But there is much neglect of the thought that the presence of less privileged children in school and their active participation in classroom and other school processes could actually be part of the “solution” toward enriching the currently “provincial” and isolated school-life of many a rich kid, trapped within the narrow confines of five-star schools.

There is a conspicuous silence about what cultural riches disadvantaged children could bring into the classroom to the profit of their peers, about how their background knowledge, skills and experiences could strike at the root of the separation between mind and hand, between mental and manual labour that sadly shapes much of India’s mainstream educational practice. A school with children from different social and occupational groups could provide an antidote to a still-strong aversion to manual labour among the upper and middle classes, and a belief in the inferiority of manual occupations.

It is certainly important, and even genuinely challenging, to ensure that have-little children feel comfortable to mix and study with their have-enough classmates and vice versa and to see to it that new zones of exclusion do not come up within the school premises. But such foreboding need not detract from the truth that academic and social abilities are randomly distributed among children from different social strata; the expressed anxiety that the quality of education will suffer upon the entry of poor children into private classrooms presumes a non-random, class-specific distribution of abilities among children, which when apparent is actually an upshot of social exclusionary forces.

‘Overzealous’ and ‘unduly’

It would, therefore, not stand to reason if the issue of “quota” in private schools is couched in terms of a trade off between parental choice for educational quality and the “overzealous” and “unduly” imposing public voice in favour of educational equity. Why should choice and quality be seen as automatically interlocked, but quality and equity as oppositional? Doesn’t the choice talk sometimes mask, in the name of quality, a penchant for exclusivity, a preference away from integration? The remarks of the principal of Shri Ram (a much sought after school in Delhi and one among others that challenged the Education Act in the Supreme Court) vis-à-vis “a quota for underprivileged kids” that the school adopted under a Delhi law smack of such an attitude. When the principal’s household help enrolled her son at Shri Ram, “I [the principal] was shocked. A parent in my school, mopping my floors! I just couldn’t handle it. I can’t sit across the table from someone who sweeps my floors” (Wall Street Journal, 2011).

When background social inequalities keep breaking into the school system with such force, what are the ways in which a measure to promote greater social integration of school children can bear fruit? Here looms large the centrality of ‘voice’ — a clear articulation and open exchange of people’s educational aspirations, ideas, demands and complaints — in exploring how the purpose as well as quality of education be wedded to the idea of justice.

There are several trouble spots in Indian schools, both public and private, such as curriculum overload, excessive examination-orientation, competition for marks, etc., that can be dealt with only through public discussion, effort and action, and not through individualised private choice. A socially mixed school, with its contact and coupling with many lives, experiences, and viewpoints, is likely to facilitate such a collective endeavour.

(Manabi Majumdar is at Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta, and Jos Mooij at the International Institute of Social Studies, Erasmus University, Rotterdam. They are the co-authors of Education and Inequality in India: A Classroom View, Routledge, 2011.)