Whilst India may be teeming with bright young things with excellent brains and potential, there is no doubt that the education system itself is in dire need of an upgrade. Often lacking in both accessibility and quality, there is a heavy focus upon grades and a desperate rush towards admittance to prestigious colleges. This kind of a system can leave some students – particularly the less advantaged by caste, or disability – shafted to the side and bereft of the chance to use their skills and potential.
Earlier this year, the government of India’s Ministry for Human Resource Development, which is in the process of drafting a new education policy, invited suggestions from the public. While the Government has taken into account recommendations of teachers, parents, and academic experts, a key voice was missing – the children themselves.
To bring in the voices of children, the largest stakeholders in education, a special ground-level panel named Shikshagiri was hosted over four days in July 2016. It comprised 16 children from a range of educational backgrounds, some of whom had experienced considerable barriers in their schooling due to the present system. Curated by development organisation Praxis India, in consultation with organisations such as CBM India, the panel focused on investigating and analysing the areas where present education was deemed to be lacking, and how to improve upon it. Read below the vision of six children from the panel.
Living in Ahmedabad, Anju has three brothers, none of whom finished their education (they all work full-time now). Whilst Anju wants to be a doctor, she lives in constant fear of bulldozers destroying the slum where she and her family presently live. At the panel, she raised the question of how schools could ensure the safety of their female students. In an environment where staggering rates of abuse is committed against school-age girls, female students are discouraged from going to school. Anju suggested security guards in schools, as well as a bus service to help girls commute safely.
Originally from Ajmer, Rajasthan, Nandkishore studies in a government secondary school. Whilst he said he likes his school – it has good infrastructure and teachers – he raised the question of how caste-based discrimination could be handled better in schools. He suggested that teachers who witness pupils bullying their peers on the basis of their caste, should both approach the parents of the perpetrators and make sure the perpetrators know that discrimination violates the principles of the Constitution. Lower caste children often experience discrimination both in general life and in education, whether directly in the form of bullying and harassment, or indirectly in the form of being less able to take advantage of opportunities due to poverty.
Studying in a government school near Washabari Tea Garden in Siliguri in West Bengal, Juli was originally required to work to support her family after the death of her father. Due to this, she ended up having to put her education on hold. Juli has a visual impairment, and whilst she successfully returned to school later, she still remains concerned about the lack of educational facilities available for children with disabilities. India has a population of persons with disabilities, and whilst there have been great steps towards accessibility in terms of products and general awareness, the supply has still not met the demand in terms of education. At the panel, Juli expressed the need for accessible infrastructure in schools, as well as increasing the number of special needs teachers, so that children with disabilities can attend school, along with their non-disabled peers.
Another aspiring doctor, Anisha studies in Sarvodaya Kanya Vidyalaya. Whilst she enjoys going to school a lot, she finds much room for improvement in the school’s approach to hygiene, saying that the toilets are dirty and she doesn’t want to use them. Clean toilet facilities are a vital part of creating a welcoming, studious environment for children, especially female pupils, who may need to use feminine hygiene facilities whilst menstruating. Dirty and inaccessible toilets make the school day that much tougher to get through. Anisha stated that the washrooms should be cleaned daily, and sweepers should be employed for the rest of the school.
Sonam is from Bhuwapuri Gazipur. She experiences a lot of discrimination, as her mother is a rag picker, and therefore doesn’t look forward to going to school, despite wanting to study medicine when she leaves. She states that teachers have a duty to stop discrimination in classrooms, and have a duty of care to the most marginalised students. She raised the question of child-labour, stating that if children receive an education, they won’t have to work, but will be able to get good jobs later. She also emphasised on the importance of speaking to other children about their aspirations and encouraging them to stay in education.
Ankush’s family suffered an upheaval after they were evicted from the slum they lived in due to the Commonwealth Games. Thus the distance between his school and his living space increased, causing him to fail his exams. However, he is undaunted and is seeking admission to another school. He inquired about how homeless children could get an education, especially since children without official documents often could not be enrolled in classes. He also encouraged schools to provide mid-day meals to children, as it would aid their education if they didn’t have much else to eat. There are huge barriers to homeless children receiving an education; the parents’ suggested documents, which required an address, should not be mandatory for enrollment.
As the Indian Government takes steps to improve the present education system, policymakers must make sure they keep in mind the valuable contributions from India’s younger citizens, regardless of background. Judging from the eloquence and determination of just a small sample of school pupils, there is much to be gained from making sure we keep listening.
All information is sourced from the official Shikshagiri report, accessible in English here.