Second Chance for Adult Learners

2 Mar


Second chance for adult learners

Thursday, 06 February 2014 | Meeta W Sengupta | in Oped

Regardless of where you are on the education ladder, even if you are not on it, there should be a window of opportunity to improve

Two Hundred and Eighty Seven Million. People. Adults. This is the estimated number of people who are denied the dignity of literacy in India. These are people who are dependent on others to read their bank balance, to understand what they sign, and are unable to comprehend the laws they are held to, they cannot read the names of the medicines they ingest. They are handicapped when it comes to seeking opportunities because they cannot realise it. They cannot read. Four in 10 people in the world, an estimated 37 per cent according to the recently released UNESCO Education for All Report Global Monitoring Report, are illiterate.

This is not about the children who have had schools built for them; this is about the adults who are too old to go to school. And they have few other options. Yes, there are designated adult education centres, there are NGOs and there are programmes. Despite that India dominates the world in adult illiteracy. A visit to my local adult education centre revealed that it did not have admission forms, did not know when these would be available and was unwilling to commit to an annual cycle of admissions, if there was any. Being illiterate is a stigma that these people carry through their lives like an illness where seeking help is a matter of privilege. If you are lucky, you are rescued from this, for there are few systemic solutions for your plight.

There has been much invested in school infrastructure and capacity in the last Five Year Plan, and enrollments are said to be at 99 per cent at the primary school level. Without debating the quality of the capacity built, let us look at its utilisation. These buildings are accessible to living clusters. They already have roofs for bad weather, space outdoors and basic learning material. They are also not used for three quarters of a day. Allowing for poor electricity connections, there are at least three hours in a day when school buildings can be used as community learning hubs, specifically for adult education classes. If India wants to solve its literacy problems, it has to start using its resources better in addition to making targeted investments. Again, there is no real need to restrict school learning (and admissions) only to children. People can work according to ability sets, rather than age, which would bring other advantages of scale and opportunity too.

The current definition of school is narrow, and education is seen as an isolated bubble limited to books, examinations, teachers, tutors and buildings. These bounds do not allow in outsiders — such as the adult illiterates who were left behind — nor do they allow students to interact with the rest of the world. It is only in some excellent schools that students work on projects that engage the local area around them. Both groups suffer. Neither do the illiterate people get access to learning and opportunity, nor do the ‘literate’ students begin to understand the real world of life and work. Schools create barriers to engaging with real life problems when they should be doing the opposite — preparing the students for life, not merely examinations.

Schools and the education community need to open up their portals to engage with more sections of society to foster a culture of continuous learning. Regardless of where you are on the learning ladder, even if you are not on the learning ladder, there should be a chance to improve yourself. India needs a caring community college network that engages the local community in disciplined ways and engages the learning communities in ways that work for them.

This is an uphill battle — those who were unable to learn to read and write in their early years may not be suited to the traditional ways of learning. They may not be used to using memory and may need to see results soon. A daily wage labourer is used to instant results. Literacy requires patience, iteration, care, commitment and the resilience to fail and try again. Those who missed out by choice or circumstance in their childhood deserve a second chance and a life where they can live with true independence — that is a life of dignity and informed choice.

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