People that Education Policy Left Behind

10 Feb

It is not enough. It is not enough to work only to educate some people and not plan to include the rest. It is true that India has a huge scale challenge in education. Numbers that are national targets elsewhere are mere pilots of schemes here. Yet to design for some and leave out the rest may be pragmatic but is also rather sad. It is as if those left out are of less importance, or their needs are less urgent.

 

Even the Right to Education Act, let us remember, applies only to those between the ages of six and fourteen. When a child reaches the age of fourteen there is no provision for their future. The assumption is that the eight years of schooling would prepare them for life. This should be true in a perfect world but we sadly have not arrived there yet. If a child has not been taught well, then they have little to show to the world. Given the poor quality demonstrated by the ASER and PISA results, amongst others, this is likely. Children now do not even get a second chance at learning since they cannot be detained in a class where they have ‘failed’ to learn to the standards expected.

 

Those with disabilities – whether mental, learning or physical find themselves sidelined even earlier unless they are very lucky. Most schools are built without ramps for wheelchairs. Few teachers are trained in identifying special education needs, let alone in dealing with them. The dyslexia depicted in a famous movie is but one kind of special need – there are others that need support and guidance to be able to lead independent lives. It is only the rare ‘elite’ school that has counsellors and even they are generalists, not specialists. In many countries those with limited or no hearing or vision live full lives, with jobs, given the right education and support. Our education system denies them the chance to a life of dignity as it does not provide for them yet.

 

As we try to raise the skill levels of the nation and include more students in higher education, again we tend to lose sight of the less able and of the less fortunate. It would be wonderful if the new community colleges mooted are designed to serve their local community in its entirety rather than merely become a replica of other university linked colleges. To serve the less able and provide for their independence benefits both the individual and those who would otherwise have to invest in their care. To include the middle aged and elderly is to create a more cohesive society with better mental health.

 

Those who got left behind in schooling often do not have the means of raising themselves to the standards required for higher education. If they dropped out of school they are rarely able to get back on the education ladder. Even as the nation plans to build pathways via vocational and skills training everyone acknowledges that the numbers are blindingly large. These numbers only include youth up to the age of 25 – those above are not  part of the plans or targets yet. Some may say the issue is moot since we do not have the capacity to meet the needs of even a fraction of this surge. Yet it matters – schemes will be designed either to meet the needs of the entire population or will cut off opportunity, possibly by age. If the planning itself is ageist or ableist, then it is not inclusive. If it does not include all those who can improve their lot with education, it can never overcome the gaps between the haves and the have-nots.

 

We see exactly the same happening in Higher Education – the goal is set in terms of higher Gross Enrollment Ratio (GER) which does not include lifelong learners. Nor are the less able tracked or supported. The choice to look away from the less fortunate seems to have slipped through under the RTE Act too where a number of budget schools, regardless of the service they provide are scheduled to be shut down. They do not meet the input criteria that are used as a proxy for quality.

 

For policy making to be relevant, it must start from the people, their needs and aspirations. Each individual matters, they are not the masses to be fed off the same template. Mass customisation and the ability to create a diverse mosaic of opportunities will deliver relevant education and accessible opportunities to all. To plan for the young, fit and able first may be pragmatic, and may make them richer, but it leaves us poorer as a society.

 

This appeared in the Daily Pioneer Newspaper on Thursday, February 6, 2013

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