Some months ago, I received an email from a teacher in India. He asked for permission to translate my book “The Death and Life of the Great American School System.” I granted his request. He sent this post to describe what is happening in India, which may sound familiar to readers of this blog.
Grassroot experiences of global phenomena
Nexus of State-Corporates-NGOs damaging and degrading the public school education in India
Lok Shikshak Manch is a collective of school teachers, students, research scholars and others who attempt to see education in its larger socio-economic-political context. The group was formed in 2011 in Delhi, India. It has since been involved in various struggles against attacks on the public education system in India.
Diane’s book ‘The death and the life of the great American school system’ has helped us to make greater sense of our observations and experience over the last few years – particularly, since we came together as a collective some five years back. It has also allowed us to understand the import of the policy shifts we are witnessing as teachers in the public school system (in India in general but more particularly in the context of Delhi where we are based). We also totally agree with her understanding that there are limits to what education can do to remove inequality etc, so long as wider socio-economic disparities continue to exist around us. We too believe that it is the responsibility of the state to address all kinds of inequities, including in education, and this warrants a strong support to our public institutions.
India is increasingly seeing a proliferation of Non Government Organisations (NGOs), often funded by big corporations, other private businesses and individual donors, working in the field of education. Many of these are being actively encouraged by the government’s Public Private Partnership (PPP) policy to play a role in the public school system, whether at the level of providing ‘academic support’ to students or distributing those very materials as charity which the state is anyway constitutionally required to provide to all children in schools. For instance present Delhi government has come to depend upon NGOs for a range of things including testing children (Pratham), training Principals (Central Square Foundation), classroom teaching (Teach for India), improving libraries (Room to Read), activating School-Parents’ interactions (Saajha Manch) etc.
Education has caught the attention of Indian Corporates in terms of investment under CSR i.e. Corporate Social Responsibility. Chinese Magazine, Hurun reported that Indian Corporates invested 80% of their CSR in education in 2014-15.
In some parts of India, governments have been trying to fully hand over the management of public schools to corporate bodies. Some such examples exist in Delhi too. Municipal Corporation of another city, Mumbai, had handed over management of 1,174 of its schools into the hands of private players by 2013. While such outsourcing of public schools has not gone unchallenged, it has to be said that in spite of the Right to Information Act, a central legislation guaranteeing access to almost all the decisions of the government, it has proven difficult to gauge the exact conditions and parameters of these transfers.
It is noteworthy that most of these organisations lack robust academic credentials and promote a very corporatised culture in schools. For example, teachers in a government school in Delhi, which is part of 54 schools where a pilot project is being run with the intervention of some NGOs, are being asked to mark their entry to and exits from classes by registering their thumb impressions on a bio-metric instrument. They have also been told to carry a recording device on their collars and their classes have been put under CCTV monitoring. CCTVs have come to represent the era of devising technological solutions to sociological problems.
The vocabulary being used to push these interventions is perhaps quite uniform the world over – ‘improving learning outcomes’, ‘accountability and performance of teachers’, (an apparent concern for) ‘children from poor backgrounds’, ‘quality’, ‘efficiency’ etc. Anyway, the arguments advanced in support of private interventions in public schools in India seem to be very similar to those described and identified by Diane in her book on the USA.
We will like to share an example of one particular private project which was introduced in 15 Municipal schools in Delhi some six years ago. This is a program called Nanhi Kali which is run by the K. C. Mahindra Education Trust and Naandi Foundation. (Nanhi Kali, literally ‘Little Buds’, is a literary phrase in Hindi/Urdu used for young girls to signify their vulnerability and prettiness.) The program claims to support the schooling (till grade 10) of girls from impoverished families – which gets translated in action as all girls enrolled in public funded schools! – by giving them a ‘kit’ (stationery items, uniforms, bag, shoes etc.) and providing tuition. The tutors engaged by the organisers of the program are, in almost all cases, girls who are either enrolled in senior grades in schools or pursuing graduation courses through open learning/distant education institutions.
The advertisement of the program portrays a false and demeaning picture of the ‘girls in need’, claiming that they have been abandoned or that their parents are unable to send them to schools etc. Donors are then invited to ‘adopt’ a girl who would then be his/her ‘foster daughter’. In return, they get to receive regular photographs and reports on these girls. Not only are the students and parents completely uninformed of the basic idea and finances of the program they are encouraged to enroll in, the education department itself did not care to do a background check to protect the privacy and data-confidentiality, not to say the dignity, of these students. The insulting idea seems to be that now that these people are receiving aid, their other and finer human rights do not matter. The tutors who are working for the program at extremely pitiful wages – conveniently defended as ‘honorarium’ – seem to be under the impression that the students’ photographs are taken to prepare their school I-cards! Most of them have no idea of the details of the program. (And this seems to be true of almost all energetic or financially desperate volunteers working for philanthro-capitalist organisations.) Obviously, the tuition-support which these students were getting was not academically sound, and it could not have been otherwise, given the lack of academic and professional qualification of the tutors and the program’s emphases on primitive literacy and numeracy standards and pedagogy. We found that if students wanted to opt out of the tuition – which meant going back home after the regular school got over instead of staying back for another couple of hours – they were often not just disallowed but even humiliated, being told that having once accepted the ‘kit’ they could not now refuse to attend the tuition! On the one hand, the program claimed grossly inflated figures of girls enrolled under it – for example, in one school, while around 250 students stayed back for its tuitions, their report showed all the nearly 1500 students as participants! On the other hand, we had cases of parents whose daughters had been enrolled in the program without their knowledge and who would then come to school looking for them since they had not reached home by their usual time after the closure of the regular school.
We were able to engage with the parents of these students, fellow teachers and campaigned successfully with the department to get the program’s permission refused after a couple of years. In this process, some teachers have faced subtle threats and even been falsely and maliciously complained against by the organisers of the program. Moreover, the program continues to run in some neighborhoods, having once gained currency through a public institution, and there have been reports of the organisers trying to once again gain official permission to work in schools.
The other worrying trend which we are a witness to is the entry of Teach for India (TFI) volunteers in many Municipal schools. Most of these volunteers are said to be ‘bright’, young graduates freshly passed-out from colleges and other institutions of higher learning. While the wording of their permission-letter is careful enough to state that they will aid and assist the regular teachers of the English-medium sections in the teaching of English, Maths and Environmental Studies, there does come a situation when they sort of take-over the classes. (There is an increasing trend across states in India to have either ‘special’ schools which are English-medium or at least have one such section across grades in all other ‘normal’ schools. The trend is contrary to all the protestations of educationists and reports of various commissions and committees on the issue of the medium-language of education, and has to be seen in the light of a lack of serious commitment by the government to developing a system of education removed from colonial vestiges and free from the elitism of English, a tame response by the executive machinery to the ‘demands of the market’ and the peculiarly multi-lingual conditions in India.)
A teacher who used to teach, till some months back, in one such school where the TFI volunteers were working with the English-medium sections, shared his experience about a phenomenon which we term ‘student snatching’. Once, when he came back to school after a week’s leave, he was told by the TFI volunteer that she had tested the students while he was away and she wanted to exchange one ‘weak’ student under her charge with one ‘bright’ student from his class. The teacher was outraged by the suggestion, put his foot down and took the issue to the principal, who disallowed any such transfer of students but not before giving enough hints that she herself was under the impression that TFI had strong support from the bureaucracy in the department and thus their requests could not be easily negated.
Another example will perhaps make clear what the principal’s understanding of the situation meant. Sometime back, an NGO was granted written permission by the concerned authority (in the education department of the MCD) to work in five schools. When its representative came to the office which issues letters authorising such organisations to work in particular schools, he asked the official in charge of issuing the letter to mention ten schools in the letter instead of the approved figure of five. The official declared his inability to do so since their proposal had been cleared specifically for five schools. Thereupon the NGO representative made a telephonic call to a still higher official in the education department and let him speak to and pressurise this functionary in the office into releasing permission to the said NGO to work in ten schools. It is not rare to find even the education department officials, leave alone principals or teachers in the affected schools, to be kept in the dark about the details of the programs some of these NGOs seek to implement in schools. We have come across teachers, principals and even officials who did not know, for example, that the organisation working in their schools was not permitted to photograph students or bring un-authorised people to work with students in schools or to disturb the routine and functioning of the school (for days) in order to prepare the students for its promotional event in the school. No doubt, such impunity is helped not just by a culture of apathy and permissiveness in the corridors of the bureaucracy but also by the carefully worded ambiguity in the official letters which are issued to allow these NGOs to work in schools. Obviously, teachers and principals are bypassed when it comes to seeking their prior opinions and understanding of the proposed interventions by these private organisations.
It is clear that most of these organisations enjoy an undue and unaccountable reputation among the highest political and bureaucratic functionaries which makes it easy for them to influence the decision making process in their favour. Apart from the heft they gain merely due to their corporate background and bearing, they are also able to use the advantages of networking and insider-influence by recruiting education department officials who retire from senior positions in the bureaucracy. Such personnel come in handy to gain reputation, trust and access to much needed knowledge about the formal and informal functioning of the system.
Scholars in University departments of education who are working on some of these interventions have often made critical observations on the narrow focus of these programs. For example, TFI volunteers clearly emphasise the conversational aspect of English in their classroom interactions, thereby reducing the objective and pedagogy of the subject but in doing so they obviously gain some popularity with parents who see English speech as a marker of upward mobility.
Similarly, the exercise books recently introduced by the Delhi government to teach students of grades 6 to 9 for a couple of months this session are said to have been prepared under the direction of the NGO Pratham. These work-books, which are supposed to address the ‘learning deficits’ of students who have been negatively affected by the no-detention policy – in place till grade 8 under the Right to Education Act, 2009, but increasingly under attack and likely to be amended by the central government in near future – have not only been trashed by many teachers as too shallow, but have also been described by many students (in personal conversation) as demeaning to their intellect.
This intervention gels nicely with the annual report (ASER or Annual Status of Education Report) which Pratham brings out and which has been drawing a lot of negative attention to the ‘alarmingly low levels’ of achievement in Maths and Language among children enrolled in Public funded schools.
Diane consistently cautions against ignoring the socio-economic context of students while comparing their learning levels across schools. It was the public schools who catered to the education of children with special needs or children whose first language was not English in USA while Charter Schools tried to keep such students out in order to improve their results. We have similar problem with Indian think-tanks here. Reports like ASER remain silent on the question of caste and class context of children they test. They pass unqualified judgments with dangerous implications. What can’t be missed is how elected governments accept these conclusions as matter of faith. In a country where majority of households are not in a position to provide required nutrition to their children, any link between poverty and educational reality is being deliberately erased from public conscience and policy making.
Another matter of concern for us is the constant propaganda about the inefficiency and non-performance of the highly-paid government school teacher. Much like Diane describes in her book, these achievement reports and their statistics have become a part of the common but deadly arsenal of all those business leaders, management gurus and op-ed writers who, without having any credential or experience in education, passionately advocate vouchers for families and ‘performance-pay’, ‘temporary recruitment’ etc of school teachers. Not surprisingly, Pratham provides its untrained and unqualified volunteers to many public schools at the primary level to ostensibly improve upon these standards!
It is the same set of people who advocate the introduction of ‘vouchers’ and ‘choice’ in a system of schools left to the working of the market, if not the closure of public schools themselves. An experiment along the line of ‘voucher system’ was conducted in 90 villages of the southern province of Andhra Pradesh where parents were given ‘vouchers’ – called scholarships – for transferring their wards to a private school of their choice. A study released by J-PAL (Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab) in 2013 showed that only 60% of the parents applied for the vouchers in the first place and later 60% of the ‘benefitted’ parents rejected the option of changing the school. 20% of the remaining students who had used the vouchers returned back to their original schools within four years of the transfer. These figures imply that almost 80% of the students refused the benefits of the voucher program. The question is, can such short-term, isolated remedies take-over the State responsibility of providing equal and quality education to all children?
Most of these interventions are well placed in the context of the government’s declared and much-hyped projects like Skill Development, Digital India etc. Thus, the former requires students to be tested, classified and labelled early in their schooling careers in order to then move them to different programs corresponding to their ‘academic’ or ‘vocational’ aptitudes. This is most likely to affect the higher-education chances of children studying in public funded schools and has already begun making its impact on schools and students. On the other hand, digitalisation is being used as a tool of an un-examined and mostly unethical intrusion into children’s privacy, their records, attendances etc, all in the name of ensuring e-governance. The compulsory enrolment of all people, including children not in a position to give (or withhold) consent, under a bio-metric (ten fingers and iris scan) identification register (now backed by a law, in spite of facing criticism and opposition from civil liberty groups and pending final judgment in the Supreme Court) is being proudly used by the central ministry of education (the Ministry of Human Resource and Development) to showcase a tracking of children and their test (and perhaps other) records not just by parents but accessible to all as a measure of transparency, accountability and convenience for the worried parents!
The document on school education released by the ministry as a framework for inviting public comments in the process of preparing a New Education Policy presents ‘learning outcomes’ as the first issue of discussion. It also includes questions on using technology to ensure teachers’ presence, has ‘school standard and management’ as another theme and asks states to identify areas in which they would like to seek international participation! Yet, there is some sliver of hope too. While we have found colleagues in general and our representative unions more unacceptably, oblivious to the dangers posed by many of these intrusions under the garb of NGOs, more recent exchanges with colleagues across schools tell us that even politically less active teachers are beginning to identify the vested interests behind these programs. This is surely in response to the direct assault they have come to face even in their classrooms, which has begun restricting their academic judgment and freedom as professionals.
Likewise, solidarity groups of organisations like the AIFRTE (All India Forum for Right to Education, a platform of national and state-level students’ and teachers’ organisations and other activists in the field of education, working for a fully state-funded common school system and resisting policies of commercialisation and communalisation in education) continue to engage in grassroots struggles and expose and oppose policies which are seen as harming the public character of education. An evidence of the power of these associational struggles can be had from the recent successfully-waged opposition to the decision of the Andhra Pradesh government to close or merge thousands of its schools in the name of ‘rationalisation’. Many such struggles are being waged across the country because many such anti-people decisions are being taken by state governments and the centre acting under the influence if not control of neo-liberal policies.
Thus, of course, while we appreciate and hope to make use of the remarkable public-spirited documentation of evidences by Diane in her book, there is one thing on which we would take a more political position than perhaps she allows herself as an academic. We would rather identify this whole swathe of often seductive changes, which are ultimately destructive of public education systems the world over, as the necessary machinations of the neo-liberal capitalist order. We in India trace the sharp turn in state’s policies from the beginning of the 1990s, when the government adopted, under the pressure of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, a structural adjustment program to reduce its welfare role. The policy is more (un)popularly referred to as LPG (Liberalisation, Privatisation, Globalisation). Where they seem to halt their onslaughts and appear to negotiate compromises favourable to our schools, students, teachers and communities, even there the neo-liberal forces make all attempts to distort the character of education and the unity of the people.
A case in point being the Ambani-Birla Report on ‘Policy Framework for Reforms In Education’ (2000) which was framed by heads of two of the richest and most influential companies in India, Reliance and Aditya Birla Group, on the invitation of The Prime Minister’s Council on Trade and Industry. The report intended to lay guidelines for re-shaping the national higher education system. It claimed that “education must shape adaptable, competitive workers who can readily acquire new skills and innovate” for market economy thus paving the way for vocationalisation of education. A decade later, University of Delhi came to witness what Diane has called ‘cafeteria curriculum’ in the form of half-baked courses under a Four Year Undergraduate Program (FYUP) 2013-14 which students rejected on a large scale and got rolled back.
We firmly believe that the proper role of education and the unity of the people are sustained by public funding and public character of our institutions.
We also see in Diane’s work the proof, if any was needed, that all those who cherish intellectual vigour in education, even if not persuaded to name capitalism itself as responsible, will find it unable to ignore the ill-effects of the growing power and influence of corporate capital on our schools and education system. As she rightly says in her book, we cannot hope to sustain democratic societies in the absence of a strong and common public school system. No matter which part of the world we may belong to.