THE question of access in school education has shaped many government schemes and interventions in the past few decades to ensure that enrolment in school education increases and we move towards universalisation of elementary education. However, in a school system that is defined by multiple hierarchies among schools and several of them within the government school structure itself, the access has been ensured by bypassing the concerns of quality in school education. The possibility for access to education to contribute towards addressing inequities and injustice in our society remains a mirage as the kind or quality of education that is available to the poor and the oppressed is in sharp contrast to the one available to the rich and the elite. If anything, access to such inequitable education where quality comes at a price, has only furthered existing inequities and injustices. While one hierarchy remains the divide between the private and the government schools with the former on most occasions enjoying more infrastructural resources courtesy high fees charged from the students, there are hierarchies within private and government schools as well. Not all private schools boast abundant resources and sufficient infrastructure. There are the budget or the low cost private schools which while still aiming at profit, are located in regions where people lack sufficient financial resources. However, they still manage to attract students by offering English medium education which is seen as a promise for better employment and subsequent mobility. Another more significant reason for these schools to still attract students is that the only other choice of schooling available to these students coming from poor and marginalised backgrounds are the resource deprived, poorly built and insufficiently staffed schools that occupy the lowest tiers among the government schools. The number of quality government schools like the Kendriya Vidyalayas and the Navodya schools is hugely insufficient to address the educational needs of all. It is disturbing to note that while the private vs. public school divide exists in most countries, it is in India that one finds such intense divides within public school system with the elites having better access to even the better quality government schools. Interestingly, the Draft National Education Policy (2019) acknowledges this compromise with quality in its preamble itself- “In the decades since Independence , we have been preoccupied largely with issues of access and equity and have unfortunately dropped the baton with regards to quality of education“ (p. 25). But the question does arise, is this acknowledgement aimed at doing away entirely with the goal of access and equity by shutting down public-funded schools, in the name of ‘quality’?
In the section on ‘Foundational Literacy and Numeracy’, the draft document further highlights the problems of quality schooling by pointing to the “severe learning crisis with the respect to the most basic skills” (p. 55). One would have hoped that this acknowledgement would lead to the questioning of such an inequitable schooling system and the suggestions would include demands for similar quality schooling for all with more push for infrastructure and qualified and trained teachers in all schools. Unfortunately far from it, the document resorts to a rather non-accountable, non-sustainable measure of relying on volunteers in form of ‘peer tutors’ and ‘local remedial instructors’. It is not that the document does not argue for better teacher training programmes. It does. However, as has been the experience in the past, the moment such alternatives are suggested that will allow governments to opt for less accountable, less cost intensive and less demanding options, the governments will inevitably opt for them. Easy options suggested for short term, become long term and institutionalised and are near impossible to dismantle. We have seen it in the case of para teachers, vidya volunteers, shiksha sahayaks and others.
The following section attempts to flag some of the key issues with turning to peer tutoring and volunteer instructional aides as an institutionalised, policy-directed method of addressing the crisis in learning and in overall quality of school education.
Points P 2.1 to P 2.17 (p. 58- 64) in the section on Foundational Literacy and Numeracy, attempt to focus on crisis in this area and suggest ways to address the same. It is noteworthy that the solutions begin with the suggestion of national tutors programme (NTP), followed by remedial instructional aides programme (RIAP), followed by encouragement of large scale community and volunteer involvement, followed by management of the above programmes and it is only much later that the need for redesigning of teacher education programmes finds a mention. The sequence is indicative of the priorities. The section in fact admits, “Because of the depth of and severity of the problem, the teachers cannot be asked to go at this alone- a large scale nationwide effort and dedication will truly be required, which will involve the community as well. Students themselves can be the first major resource in this regard… a further help must come from the local community.” (p. 57). It goes on to talk about researches providing support to the efficacy of peer tutoring. What of course remains not mentioned is that peer-tutoring, though definitely an effective pedagogic tool, was never aimed at addressing the lack of teachers or lack of trained teachers in school. In fact, peer tutoring is a well thought of and useful pedagogic tool in hands of teachers well equipped with content and pedagogic knowledge to mediate children’s progress through concepts. It is a technique that requires supervision and considered support by the teacher. It is not a substitute to a teacher. While of course, the teachers cannot be asked to go at this alone, but this does not mean replacing them by ‘volunteers’ and also volunteers from where? From the same ill staffed and poor infrastructure schools where the students who are now in higher grades and expected to tutor, would have suffered similar issues while their conceptual foundation was being laid? Or from the same communities where many of these children are first generation school goers? The section reveals that the drafting community had little idea of who are the children for whom the gaps in foundational literacy and numeracy are the gravest and where they come from.
Further, there is no mention of either the tutoring or the volunteering to be a remunerated service. Incentives of being ‘considered local heroes’ sound immensely patronising and condescending. The alternative opens the door for further exploitation of the marginalized in the name of providing social service as we have witnessed in the case of several scheme workers associated with health and education departments. In the mention of the remedial instructional aides programme (RIAP), which is proposed “initially” as a “temporary 10-year project”, the aim would be draw instructors “especially women” – from local communities who would hold remedial classes! Of course it is assumed that these women, qualified enough to conduct remedial classes, would definitely not be otherwise employed elsewhere. Did the drafting committee remotely try to think that if these women coming from the communities where these low performing schools are located were so qualified, trained and resourceful, the foundational literacy and numeracy levels of students would not have been so low in the first place! These gaps are significant especially for students who are coming from communities where there are not many qualified members, they lack financial resources, there is a history of exclusion of the community and there only hope was in these schools that have been kept starved of resources.
The only possible solution to this crisis can be of a strong pre-school system that provides early stimulation and lays down a strong foundation for the students and more resources directed to ensure continuous training of teachers and recruitment of enough number of these trained teachers in school so that burden of remedial classes where needed can be better distributed. There are no short cuts to academic infrastructure in school. It is these short cuts that have led us to the crisis we find ourselves in. Would the same measures ever be suggested for the privileged? It is disturbing that in several instances the document gets away with merely mentioning problems without trying to analyse the causes. If only the committee had also spent time trying to understand how an extremely unequal school system is responsible for this crisis in the first place. There are no substitutes to trained and sufficient number of teachers even when it comes conducting remedial classes. There are no substitutes to government funding on educational research which will provide newer insights to effective pedagogy, curriculum and learning materials. There is an urgent need for sustained and institutionalised efforts towards them and any other ‘temporary’ suggestions will only serve to further compound the existing gaps in learning and intensify the inequities in school systems.