If we love our children…

Image: © RSA Animate Sir Ken Robinson, Changing Education Paradigms 16.06.08

There is an urgent need to boldly reclaim the human scale of our schools

If you loved your children you would see to it that there was no war!

— J. Krishnamurti

Small is Beautiful – Economics as if people matter

— E.F. Schumacher

Children in India, the children we all love, are facing twin crises. The first is one of safety, and the second is one of the quality of schooling they receive. Both have come to public notice with one sexual assault that led to the murder of a seven-year-old boy and another, the rape of a five-year-old, a murder of innocence and trust! It is time for adults and parents to do something significant.

Child safety has been an issue across the world, much before the media got wind of it, much before the path-breaking movie by Grace Poore, The Children We Sacrifice came in 2000, or since we all grew aware of the risks and the wide prevalence of child abuse when Pinky Virani wrote Dark Chocolate. Aamir Khan’s thought-provoking episode in Satyameva Jayate did create a few ripples in influential circles, but as evidence would have it, has not stopped this atrocious crime against childhood. The horrifying statistics will make any sensitive adult squirm. One in two children is abused in India. Boy and Girl! And sexual abuse leaves a mark for years and leaves one traumatised, dysfunctional, unhappy.

But schooling promises safety! An ecosystem of learning that cannot ensure that each child is safe and secure is to be recognised as being short on several scores. First, the anchoring supports for safety are not prevalent. Second, people who may not share the core purpose, the service providers included, have access to children in most elementary schools. Third, there is big gap between the stated purpose and what is delivered in terms of child empowerment to speak up and be heard.

For a child, the school must be a safe place. The child must feel safe physically, emotionally and mentally. If one child is not safe, we must see that many are experiencing this to varying degrees. The fact that there is only a small number of reported cases is no cause for complacence. Extreme situations become visible at the end of a sequence — there were enabling conditions to permit this to happen, many smaller breaches that were not dealt with, many near-misses.

Large systems, such as schools with more than 200 or 300 students, will have a large number of people who are not connected with the core purpose of education. Large systems build anonymity: not only do children not know everyone, teachers and other role-holders do not know everyone. This choice means we value numbers over relationship and the safety and security of the known person is abandoned for an industrial revolution numbers game called the modern school.

The main enabling condition is the economy of scale doctrine that requires us to accept the anonymity of large numbers, and this has crept into schools. Well- established schools are built around large numbers. The excuse is infrastructure and land costs. A school is valued only if it has a large numbers of students and produce good results. If the least care required for each child cannot be guaranteed, it is important that the obstacles to other possibilities be opened and a fresh direction allowed to emerge.

The security of anonymity allows one to stray from the norm, and creates space for irresponsible behaviour. Schools today mimic the market ecosystem. Anonymity rules in the rush and surge in the marketplace and the street. With a large number of people thrown together — adults who have roles and responsibilities and jobs, and children who are the recipients of their efforts — education is supposed to happen, delivered like a parcel, food or a product from a digital store. There is no way every teacher knows each child or vice versa. In the school precincts people are recognised by means of uniforms or name tags. The core processes do not require recognisable and familiar people. And so anonymity rules the school, much like the market place.

But the safety of children cannot be handed over to chance and the security of anonymity.

Fear and poor imagination have set off the next step. We will have heightened surveillance: individuals will be forced to wear bar-coded tags and electronic access control will ‘monitor’ all movement, and there will be CCTV cameras. The ‘system’ will be able to attribute blame and responsibility for problems, difficulties and mishaps. Punishment will be exemplary, backed by irrefutable electronic evidence. But fear and exceptions will not end.

Is it possible to reconceptualise school with a different core principle? Can ‘small is beautiful’ replace ‘economies of scale’? Can scale mean multiple small units rather than monoliths? Can relationship and recognisable human others be the guiding principle in the organisation of a school rather than anonymity? The right to education insists that all children must go to school. School is a social space where one finds viability and finds one’s place in society as one grows up. Unfortunately, schools have fallen really short of this on several grounds.

One relates to the content of education. The smart boards and air-conditioned halls do not build the muscle to think, to create carefully or to learn skills that will earn a membership in the world of work. The skills of collaboration, negotiation and creating solutions are not learnt; instead, the quick-fix, the short-cut and the principle of feeding the system what it needs, get absorbed. With increasing anxiety the government and individuals are seeing the unviability of our trajectory. Our children will not be bold members of future communities that value cerebral work and manual work, which respects the individual without clauses. Their education has not attended to these aspects.

Secondly, the processes employed in education are cosmetic and do not help deep learning that is needed for confident decision-making. Cosmetic learning offers membership without substance. Again, this is very similar to what the marketplace offers — brands and glitz, facade over substance, superficial pandering to whims, a blurring between needs and desires. Schools are mimicking this. The conspiracy to create value for corporations is deep — a gullible, anxious consumer with low discernment is all that is needed. Schools have surpassed Macaulay’s dreams! In short, we have gone for extent over depth, scale over quality and chosen large infrastructure as the model of choice.

Thirdly, the nation-state with centralised control is holding all possible options hostage. Not very long ago Lord Clive wrote to Queen Victoria that ‘every man, woman and child in India knows to read, write and do arithmetic’. Unwitting followers of the conqueror’s legacy, India after 70 years of Independence is yet to free itself of the shackles in the mind. We continue to justify age-wise segregated education within cubicles of disciplines in a world where barriers are crumbling daily between disciplines. And diversity is advancing, however jerkily, in all walks of life.

In other words, we have not digested the lessons from history of schooling and ignored models that were effective.

The child has a right to school and education. It is obvious that other solutions have to be found. The author, having inhabited the space of schools, children, education for nearly 3 decades, trying hard to breathe possibility and empowerment to children has the following to offer:

  1. No child should travel more than 300 to 500 m from home to get to school. If the existing schools cannot ensure this, parents should be allowed the possibility of home- schooling or alternate schooling in ways they consider suitable. Small schools, with 15 to 20 children and one or two teachers, is a good and viable possibility.
  2. No school should have more than 250 children. This way, relationship will be at the heart of the work that teachers do and the parents or the government will find ways to support this.

With this model, traffic volumes on the roads will come down, vehicles dropping children to school will be minimised. And of course this will have an environmental and economic cost-saving dimension too. Most important, the small size of the school may allow even a timid child to speak up if confronted with unsafe behaviour from an adult.

Perhaps the biggest hurdle and difficulty with school education is the notion that teachers have to be trained to do their jobs even if they have done their graduation. If IAS officers do not need to be trained when they are selected and when they move form portfolio to portfolio every year or two, why is it that a teacher cannot be trusted to learn the trade in the context of learning. With the existing approach, the system is shooting itself in the foot. Not enough teachers, not enough of the kind of teaching needed — we are creating a desert in a sea of plenty.

Having agreed to be a signatories to the regime of the general Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), India should boldly open itself to the entrepreneurial schools, deregulating industry on one side and over-regulating education on the other is like choking oneself. India is today conducting itself in a masochistic manner. The teacher long ago was an entrepreneur, and he will find solutions to today’s needs. India has not recognised one-teacher schools and the innovativeness that has led to their functioning. Perpetually stigmatised, we have failed to recognise the model of multi-age schooling as educationally effective, and socially healthy and economically sound.

Multi-age classrooms must be encouraged and it must be understood that children learning from each other is natural and healthy. The teacher is a facilitator of learning and not the source of all knowledge. This will also ensure that Small is Beautiful. In case we need to feel secure with such a choice, schools abroad are recognising this and large schools are being broken down into smaller units.

India has neither valued nor recognised the ustads who run schools that train in plumbing, welding and construction. New solutions are not going to emerge from the BEd colleges alone. Institutions are struggling to innovate. Individuals must be allowed the freedom, with the support of parents, and suitable legislation should be enacted to set up small schools. And no school, however creative or competitive, can call itself one if children don’t feel safe or can’t speak up.

Ask yourself if you would send your child to a small school under an adult you trust, who you have chosen and with whom you have a rapport, or to a factory where you have no relationship with the teacher. Not many are aware that Indian education permits a teacher to certify that a child has been under his / her care up to Class 5 and thus enable admissions into Class 6. If this model is encouraged, there is hope of good primary education for our children. Also if 10 to 20 parents have to choose a teacher, they would be very careful. The arguments against this are as follows, and many will raise them:

  1. Does the teacher need to be qualified?
  2. What about buildings, playfields and laboratories?
  3. Will children do as well as in ‘regular’ schools?
  4. How is one sure that children will acquire the necessary skills and capacities?

We must remind ourselves that every child manages to learn to talk and walk, however impoverished the environment and however difficult the circumstances. The regimented age-wise segregated atmosphere of our schools certainly cannot be ideal.

With the child having to inhabit a life space we cannot predict, it is important that we do not continue to depend on a system that has outlived its usefulness. We know now that the large economic system has deluded us of a modernity whose shelf-life was too short. There is an urgent need to reclaim the human scale of schools.

I hope the India I live in will do something to arrest the slide and boldly opt for human-sized schools. Our children and grandchildren grow too soon. One wonders if they will feel supported by our generation or condemned, to poor education, tossed to the mass education market, a glorified cog in the consumerist Orwellian juggernaut …

Either we say: Our children matter and we wish to open doors of possibility and empowerment for them …. And scale is a significant element in the way ahead

Or we say: My child was unfortunately educated in India and had smart access cards and control access in school and we were satisfied… and we did not dare to do anything different and watched the system crumble slowly…

Reprinted from the Hindu Online Special dated October 29, 2017

G. Gautama


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