Quantity and Quality come together – Education

25 Jul


Thursday, 25 July 2013 | Meeta W Sengupta | in Oped

For too long, the focus has been on building new schools and enrolling more students. But few care about what these students are learning in schools

The approach of quantity first, quality later, has never made sense to me, though wiser heads seem to have thought this to be the right way to deal with the massive need for education in India. We know this is how the funding was arranged. A plan with funds allocated for quantity, and now, a plan with funds working towards quantity. Build the schools, bring the children in and serve them what you can for now. And then, there will be enough time for quality later. Seductive logic, certainly. If only we were not talking about people — children, each with a future.

What of that child who gives up learning how to work in the fields, not convinced that literacy is necessary for life, and is faced with substandard conditions — poor schools, often absent teachers, generic learning materials and regimentation enforced by bullying authority? True, not all schools are like that, and this is the only saving grace here — the few good men and women who serve their learning communities with commitment. But to come back to that child: Why does that child deserve to be merely an enrollment statistic, better quality being allocated only to those who were born five or 10 years after him or her? Because it was planned so?

As with any well-intentioned intervention, the first rule of caution has been do no harm. The law of unintended consequences has been drilled into all development professionals. Think it through, and act only if you are absolutely sure that your actions do not damage the society you seek to help. Here, in making the choice of quality versus quantity there clearly has been consequences for a generation — those who were given school buildings and mid-day meals, but no working systems that could offer governance over the quality of either the lessons or the meals.

The fact that children who are in Class Three and Five cannot read as well as a Class One student is shameful. But it is easy to forget. Poor quality pushes them down the wellness cycle. Maybe a generation loses out on prosperity. What a shame, right? But the same poor governance also allows graft and profiteering in the name of mid-day meals. The Chapra case reports say that the school principal’s husband supplied the materials, that she forced the children to eat the food. When power and profit hold hands, ungoverned, tragedy is inevitable. This is the direct consequence of choosing quantity ahead of quality. It does not work.

Yes, we need universalisation of education, but is it really that hard to invest in a good system design that serves the child it seeks to reach? That is accountable for the well being of each child? Is it not possible to think of providing education in terms of what the child needs, rather than in received frameworks of school buildings, timetables and regimes? Of course, mistakes will be made along the way, and will need rectification. But if everything we do is about making a better future for each child, then it is unlikely that callousness becomes in-bred into the system. What we face today is a systemic focus on resources and deliverables that disenfranchises even the teacher at the forefront, let alone the student and the parent community.

There is hope in the school management committees that are mooted under the Right To Education Act. One of the things that the RTE gets right is engaging the community in governance and delivery. But did anyone think how it would work? It is a challenge in many areas to get parents to send their children to school. Others either do not have the resources or the support to perform the role expected of them in the school management committees. For many of those who do manage to spare the pair of working hands and send them to school, it is a struggle to finish their day’s work, let alone spare time and effort to the local school. Yet, without them, the focus cannot become the child’s welfare. The parent community is essential to provide the counterweight to Government systems and resources. If parents do not demand the best for their children, who else will hold the budget holders accountable?

Parents who are not equipped for these roles need support and training, if just to build their confidence and team skills. They form the backbone of local governance that is essential to bringing in a quality culture in our schools.

This was published in the Daily Pioneer newspaper on July 25, 2013 and is linked here: http://www.dailypioneer.com/columnists/oped/quantity-does-not-ensure-quality.html


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