A recent news clip triggered a controversy among Bengali social media users this month. Students who failed the English paper in their higher secondary exams were sitting in a protest, demanding to be passed. One of them was randomly asked to spell umbrella, and she could not.
While one section found this funny or was enraged by what they thought was an unfair demand from these students, another section tried to point towards a rot in the education system itself.
“I head a school and I have to say this with a lot of pain that many of my students will not be able to spell umbrella. But are we willing to look at why it is so? The only time the quality of education in government schools is at all discussed is during the results,” said Manisha Banerjee, headmistress of a government school in the Birbhum district of West Bengal.
Banerjee was speaking at an event organised by the People’s Film Collective in Kolkata on Sunday. The Collective, which is in its ninth year, works towards taking political cinema and documentaries to the grassroots. The film for the day was ‘Are You Going to School Today’. Directed by Anupama Srinivasan, the film takes the viewers to a rural government school in the predominantly tribal district of Dungarpur in southern Rajasthan and explores the myriad complexities of just getting children to schools.
Image Credit: People's Film Collective
The film and the discussion were anchored on the crisis in school education after the COVID-19 induced lockdowns, said Kasturi Basu, one of the founding members of People’s Film Collective.
Basu pointed out that though the film does not deal with the post-pandemic challenges, it talks about what ails the government schools today, which, she feels, needs more documentation.
Though there is no national or state-level data on how many children dropped out of school because of Covid-related hardships in the last two years, there are indications of an alarming number.
Last August, educational Minister Dharmendra Pradhan said that around 15 crore children are out of the education system. According to a survey conducted by a group of scholars, including social scientist and economist Jean Dreze, when schools were shut during the pandemic, only 8% of students were regularly studying online while 37% were in rural areas not studying at all.
Even beyond these numbers, the question of the educational quality that students receive in these schools remains ignored. “When I once spoke with a school teacher in Birbhum district, he told me that six out of ten students in his class will fail if assessed properly, and he doesn’t know what to do with them. This is one example, but it shows how the idea of the right to education has come to mean seats, infrastructure and even midday meals, but it has not ensured that a child enrolled in a school will learn basic math or languages,” said senior journalist Swati Bhattacharya while speaking to NewsClick.
The reasons behind the current situation are hard to find. When one asks, the teachers often blame the controversial policy on passing all students at the primary level. However, the experts feel the policy is just a cop-out in the face of a system that does not have enough incentives for economically disadvantaged children to learn.
Add to that a top-down system where the voices of those dealing with students in these schools are hardly heard. In West Bengal, for example, when an extended summer vacation was declared in June, hardly any teacher was consulted, said Banerjee.
“Our school starts from Class 5 and children from 24 girls’ schools come to this school as this is the only school with classes till class 12 in the area. Additionally, our school has a hostel, so girls from far away stay here and study. In this hostel, accommodation and meals are free. But during Covid, we were instructed to shut the school without any plans for these girls, which was really painful. Many girls requested us to let them stay because they at least get two meals a day here. But we had to ask them to leave,” she said.
Image Credit: People's Film Collective
It is this way of policy planning that constitutes many aspects of governing the education system. “We are only told that so and so need to be done or not done. There is no scope for thought beyond that. There is no planning for consequences even if that means denying meals to a child,” Banerjee said.
She added that the situation is similar for the directive on online classes. According to her, neither the teachers in these schools are trained to handle applications like Google Meet, nor the students have the means to go online when they are home. “This is just creating a greater divide,” the headmistress said.
Though any kind of solution or hope for children in this situation seems like an uphill task, pedagogy researcher and teacher Sudeshna Sinha offers some insights from her long experience of teaching and the evolution of methods.
Speaking at the event, Sinha explained that the students who come to these schools from underprivileged backgrounds often face a lot of insults, so much so that the school itself becomes a place for humiliation. The first challenge, she said, is to turn that around.
“The beginning needs to be a place of respect. If you ask any child what they like to study, they will respond with something they can do well. If we make an effort to engage with them in their own language, experience and culture, we will see that they will make an effort to learn what comes from us,” she said.
The process of listening to students has the potential to bring in new teaching methods and even shape policies for governments that are practical and sensitive.
Sinha mentioned how organisations like Ekalavya and Jyoti Publication in Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh have emerged with books and stories about the local communities and for the local communities.
However, as things stand now, the government has yet to make any policy declaration to get children back to school or ways to make up for the lost time.
The author is an independent journalist based in Kolkata.