Scarred children of failed schools

At the start of summer every year, parents and teachers agonise over preparing students for exams. And recently in some quarters, there has been growing concern about enabling students to cope with exam failure or to altogether avoid the stigma of having failed in school. But, in the midst of such concerns, little thought has been given to the fate of children who are victims of failed schools.

Recent reports, including the annual ASER surveys of the Mumbai-based NGO Pratham, have highlighted the poor learning outcomes in a significant proportion of India’s schools. Educationist Prof. Krishna Kumar pointed out long ago that children don’t just leave school or drop out. They are pushed out or ‘eliminated’ from schools across the country.

Attempts to address the causative factors of this phenomenon have resulted in initiatives to retain children in school so they become literate, or at best to prevent them from joining the ranks of child workers. And much of the recent effort and even funding seems to be directed towards the attainment of these objectives. But, what happens to children who continue in schools that far from catering to their social, emotional and intellectual growth needs, actually scar them?

The grim socio-economic reality is that to the overwhelming majority of children, India’s schools — especially rural schools — offer dysfunctional learning environments. Frequent closure, absence of teachers, little or no teaching and routine infliction of corporal punishment are defining characteristics of failed schools. Subjection to long periods of boredom in dysfunctional schools produces restiveness that signals the beginnings of anti-social behaviour among children. Hitting and pinching each other, destroying paper and stationery, scribbling on walls or floors, are activities that children resort to during prolonged periods of boredom. If to these conditions teachers’ brutality is added, the culture of failed schools prompts children to develop strategies to survive the system. Bored, restive and unengaged children, especially boys, tend to engage in rowdyism in which crude language, violent gestures and impertinence are seen as markers of smartness.

Moreover unchecked anti-social behaviour results in dominant children taking over the class, and replicating behaviour learnt from deviant adults. It is not unusual to come across boys in classes VI-VII (aged between 11-12), speaking the language of adolescents, full of bravado, swagger and violence. In failed schools, it is common for boys to harass girls and indulge in improper conduct which violates all the social norms their families and communities uphold.

Having failed to discharge their responsibilities towards students, most teachers also fail to make the connection between their own conduct and the unruly behaviour and recalcitrance of children. Chiding children for unmanageability, teachers use this as an excuse for their indifference and inability to teach them. Moreover by blaming children or their parents for their lack of cultural capital or castigating them as dregs of society, teachers actively transform schools into failed institutions.

Yet most of the blame for failed schools must necessarily be laid at the doors of education ministries at the Central and state levels, for neglecting to monitor and improve malfunctioning institutions. Focusing primarily on the supply side of education, i.e provision of basics like buildings, infrastructure etc, and ensuring that the numerical targets of access to elementary education are met, the ministries turn a blind eye to the numerous complexities of building education institutions. Excessive routinisation of the education system, failure to make teachers accountable for conditions prevailing in schools and poor learning outcomes, and focus on superficial inspection are the principal acts of commission and omission of education bureaucrats who have taken it upon themselves to design and manage the education system.

A combination of mass demand and the national
drive for compulsory education has forced parents to send their children to school. But for parents compelled to send their children to dysfunctional schools, what of their hopes and expectations? Many parents in rural India rue what failed schools have done to their male children, expressing frustration that they are ‘na ghar ka, na ghat ka’ — neither fit for home nor work. Frustrated and hurt, such students vent their anger at home, disobeying parents and elders. In home after home, parents complain of children who far from becoming the educated ideals, transform into truants who defy established norms.

In the larger context of shrinking rural economies and lack of employment opportunities in India for the uneducated and poor, there is a high possibility that products of failed schools will widen the pool of the urban disaffected. Like failed states, failed schools will produce citizens who address their grievances in the manner they were treated; they will be either indifferent, unreasonable, brutal, or a combination of all.

(Dr. A.R. Vasavi is a social anthropologist with the National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bangalore)