There is a saying doing rounds these days — everyone is equal before the eyes of the pandemic. The virus, unlike our social structure, is not sexist, classist, casteist, elitist or communal.
Slow claps for our bourgeois indifference, eh?
Is our apathy entirely our fault though? Our social fabric effectuated by the stratified schooling system has only reinforced the precept “Ignorance is bliss”.
Our schools can be classified into two categories — private and public (There are further sub-classifications that we are not getting into, to avoid digressing).
Private schools charge a fee for their tuition and ancillary expenses. They have exponentially helped fill the need gap for quality education, but in the process, have become representative of the social hierarchies in our society. Due to limited monetary capital, education in these schools remains elusive to a significant stratum of our society.
There are budget private schools that have come up, but they haven’t made the classrooms any more inclusive.
Government schools have been known to provide free education to all children. With the passage of Right to Education in 2009, free and compulsory education became a fundamental right for children aged between 6-14 years old. This allowed a significant chunk of the underserved stratum to go to government schools and budget private schools.
A lot of us are misled into believing that we are where we are solely because of our merit, when in fact, affordability determines the quality of education that children have access to, the kind of education they will have if any, the vocation they will take up and their future prospects.
The lack of quality education ends up creating a reservoir of the workforce that the market discards. It ends up preferring those with quality private education and better “market employable skills”. This restricts the social mobility of the underprivileged stratum and their future generations.
We invisiblise the struggle of a person from the Economically Weaker Section (EWS) or a Disadvantaged community who has to paddle twice as hard to reach the same destination. We are not interested enough to cross the bridge to understand anybody’s struggle outside of our class, because we have never co-existed with them as equals in the same space.
Our stratified classrooms set the premise for the inequality that we see around. Acknowledging the role of segregated school system in maintaining the unequal social fabric, the government introduced RTE Section 12(1)©.
Section 12(1)© of the Right to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009 (RTE), mandates that unaided non-minority private schools set aside at least 25% of their entry-level seats for children from economically weaker and disadvantaged sections of society. It envisages making a more compassionate world where children across classes learn, interact and share interests on a common platform.
Today, RTE is being implemented in more than 15 major states. Uttar Pradesh, which carries 30% of the country’s RTE seats in the last six years, has seen more than two lakh admissions.
Our schools are becoming less segregated, but our attitudes and mindsets need to follow suit. Inherent biases against the EWS and marginalised sections often manifest themselves as discriminatory behaviour that can lead to a feeling of alienation. Despite that, in a sample survey conducted by RightWalk Foundation, it was found that more than 80% of the RTE children continue going to private schools.
The pandemic necessitated the much-needed transition to online learning. In terms of access to resources, families with higher income are in a much better position to adapt to this new form of learning, while it became a struggle for RTE children to adapt to this new mode. In spite of the zeal to learn, these children have been excluded invariably.
Rightwalk Foundation conducted a telephonic interview with over 200 RTE parents during May and found that most private schools didn’t have an alternate lesson plan for students without a smartphone/laptop. These children are looking at a school year without any possibility of learning. They might fall behind in terms of learning outcome, setting in place a chain of events that will lead to further systemic inequality.
The implementation and bureaucratic hurdles in RTE have larger implications, especially on the socially disadvantaged communities. These can range from institutional failures such as poor infrastructure, pedagogical inadequacies and discrimination to biases and neglect by teachers towards children from marginalised groups, thereby creating glass-wall-styled social barriers.
While social inclusion is an intangible phenomenon, the impact it leaves on the education system can be quantified by measuring the performance across the following parameters:
1. Provision of equal opportunities
2. Student segregation practices
3. Social dynamics (interaction between RTE & other parents)
4. Treatment given to RTE students
5. Classroom dynamics (initiatives to boost performance)
6. Social sensitisation measures adopted by the school
Qualitative and quantitative questionnaires for concerned stakeholders (children, parents, teachers, school principal and school management) aimed to generate a social inclusion score-card for each school can help in categorising and taking corrective measures.
Talking alone of a socially inclusive education system would not have an impact, but we must take a step ahead and start making one. There have been very few interventions towards making private schools inclusive, beyond accessible for EWS and marginalised students.
Teachers in schools have much influence on the behaviour, learning and development of children. Social inclusion training for teachers in private schools can help in raising the inclusion bar of these schools. This can be achieved by sensitising the teachers towards their personal biases, diversity (across students in the class) and challenges faced by students from the EWS and disadvantaged communities. The training workshop must also equip teachers with pedagogical tools to promote inclusion. The impact of an inclusive classroom is not limited to EWS and disadvantaged students, but gets translated into a higher learning curve for students across classes.
The RightWalk Foundation and students from IIM Calcutta have co-developed a social inclusion toolkit and training curriculum. The objective is to make private schools a truly safe learning space for students, irrespective of their financial and social background.
Let’s keep our heads held high and our legs knee-deep in humility as we find our way towards creating a world order that is more compassionate and inclusive. After all, the right to live with dignity is everyone’s right, right?
About the authors:
Akanchha is an associate at RightWalk Foundation. A former Gandhi Fellow, she has a degree in journalism and mass communication from Lady Shri Ram College For Women, Delhi University.
Bibek is currently a final year MBA student at IIM Calcutta. He is a public policy enthusiast, quizzer and an active social worker with Prayas, IITK and Edelgive foundation.
Yuval is currently a final year MBA student at IIM Calcutta. He has been an active social contributor since his undergraduate through SHIKSHA (an NIT KKR initiative) and was associated with Zariya (a ZS Associates Initiative), wherein he taught children from underprivileged communities.
Siddharth is a final year MBA Student at IIM Calcutta. He holds an honours degree in commerce and has been actively associated with social organisations throughout his career.