Educational Forum


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Following address was prepared by Maxine Berntsen and delivered on her behalf by Manjiri Nimbkar at the Indian Merchants' Chambers' platinum Jubilee Award Ceremony at Mumbai on April 22, 2006.


Other People's Children: The Challenge To The Elite

Although I have lived in India over forty years I have never seen the kind of euphoria that middleclass-or say, elite-Indians are experiencing today. Of late the Sensex has been hitting new heights with amazing frequency. Driving down the Pune-Mumbai expressway at 100 km. per hour is a heady experience, making us feel that ours is a powerful nation, well and truly on the move. The heads of international IT companies and prestigious foreign universities are telling us that Indians are the smartest people in the world, and foreign governments and our own are predicting confidently that India will be a super power in the not far distant future.

All this may be true, but it is only one side of the coin. The other side is that in terms of many Human Development indices-especially those regarding child health and education-India ranks with sub-Saharan Africa on the lowest rank of the scale. The number of children who have never gone to school, the number who are on the rolls but do not attend, the number who drop out, and the number who stay in school without learning the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic are all shockingly high.

How can we account for this anomaly-on the one hand, a relatively small middle class bursting with confidence and able to hold their own with the best brains in many fields; and on the other, the abysmal state of the education of the children of the masses?

The answers to this question are many and complex, but if pressed to put it succinctly I would say that the main problem is a lack of political will. The middle class - 'elite' might be a better word-take care to see that their own children get the best education, but they do not have the time or energy to see that the children of the poor also receive an excellent education. Of course, the political will required is not just a vaguely benevolent attitude in regard to the educational problems of the poor. What is required is an informed understanding of the educational scenario, in particular, why so many children drop out, and why those who stay in school often fail to learn the basics.

Actually dropping out of school and staying in school but failing to learn are just two different facets of the same problem: that our Zilla Parishad and municipal schools are not doing their basic job. The decision to pull a child out of school is often a rational one, based on the recognition that the child may as well not go to school because s/he is not learning anything anyway.

Educational administrators often put the blame for this situation squarely on the heads of the teachers, assuming that children are not learning because the teachers are shirking their duty. But this is too simplistic an explanation. While there are undoubtedly shirkers among the teachers, there are many teachers who are sincerely trying to do a good job, but are facing too many handicaps. These include the poor quality of education and pre-service training they have received, inadequate or inappropriate textbooks, the ridiculously limited number of days they actually meet their classes, and the total lack of professionalism in the field of education. To this list we must add the problems connected with the children and their families-problems of health, poverty, illiteracy of parents and inability of parents to meet the demands of the school for punctuality and for regularity of attendance.

Ironically, such efforts as the Central Government's Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA) and the State Government's Quality Improvement Programme have exacerbated the problem rather than contributing to the solution. In the last couple of years teachers have been subjected to many training workshops under SSA, but generally they have been of such poor quality that they are seen by most teachers as a waste of time. The Maharashtra Government's Quality Improvement Programme has required teachers to conduct so many tests that teachers are working at a frenetic pace, spending more time in administering and evaluating tests and recording results than in teaching.

The situation is bad enough. But there is no need for despair. The Pragat Shikshan Sanstha of Phaltan has shown that a comprehensive approach combining provision of well-designed teaching materials, giving ongoing guidance and support to teachers, monitoring children's health, and maintaining contact with parents and the Village Education Committees can make a significant difference. This kind of effort needs to be done many times over-with many NGOs cooperating with the Government. But the effort must be subject to constant public scrutiny. And for that the political will of the elite is required.

Someone has said that the greatness of a nation lies in what people are willing to do for other people's children. If India's elite wishes to make India a great nation, they must demand that the quality of education they want for their own children be given to all.

(Speech read on acceptance of IMC Platinum Jubilee Award, Mumbai, 2006)