Millennium Post

To sir without love

The union minister for human resource development and communications and information technology Kapil Sibal’s recent exhortation to the central advisory board on education to 'get the best minds in teaching profession' and 'improve the quality of teachers' sounds like a cruel joke. Government schools do not attract good quality teachers due to low salaries and woefully inadequate teaching facilities. The government currently spends only three per cent of its gross domestic product (GDP) on education which is pitifully insufficient. According to the latest district information system for education (DISE) survey, the percentage of untrained teachers (para-teachers) is 54.91 per cent in private, compared to 44.88 per cent in government schools and only 2.32 per cent teachers in unaided schools receive in-service training compared to 43.44 per cent for government schools. To improve the quality of education, the government needs to spend more money from its coffers on education. One wonders how many government officials send their children to government schools. On the other hand, private investors are pouring in money into the new cash cows, the primary health and education sectors. 'Affordable' English medium private schools are mushrooming everywhere along with hole in the wall nursing homes and luring the poor with dreams of an 'English' education.

Yesterday’s schooling which we took for granted is today’s premium schooling at a price. A Satyajit Ray could have come out of Ballygunge government. High School at minimum cost but today nothing less than an International Baccalaureate (IB) school will do. Alarmed at the lack of communication skills among teachers [and in some cases articulation] many horrified parents opt for alternative schools hoping to impart their formative sensibilities and experiences to their children.

Concerns were raised a few months ago by a few parents during an orientation at a Juhu-based alternative school in Mumbai which imparted the alternative curriculum up to standard VIII, about whether their children would be able to cope with the Indian Certificate of Secondary Education (ICSE) curriculum once the child reached Standard IX – and in the wider sense, the hurly-burly of the real world. Apparently this school does not believe in imparting the 3R’s (in the conventional sense) to children until they are of a fairy advanced age. On being apprised of their fears, the principal reassured them, 'We’ll ‘dovetail’ into the system.'

The worrying fact is that each alternative school has its own view of what a holistic education should be – its own zeitgeist and version of natural laws that govern the growth of a child’s mind, much like the world’s interpretations of the universe, the Ptolemic view, the Inca view, the Copernican view, string theory and so on and so forth. Much like products on a shelf, schools too must stress their uniqueness. Vive le difference!

Understandably, parents are confused, with their attentions divided between competing players with all the persuasive marketing and PR arsenal at their command, promising premium education for their kids – at a price of course. The same compulsions that drive a consumer at the mall now drive both parents and teachers. Dinesh Shah got a transfer certificate from his son’s old English medium school in Goregaon (East), where the teachers were just bored housewives out to make a buck, and put the kid in a swanky new school with air-conditioned classrooms and a whopping fee structure, (thereby rising high in the
esteem). Until one day little Nimesh Shah came home and broke the news that the maths teacher who terrified him in his earlier school and the earlier vice-principal had both joined this 'alternate' school. Old wine in new bottles. Obviously, Dinesh bhai hadn’t foreseen the attrition rate among school teachers when he was making his plans.

After all, teachers, like any other consumers are also subject to market forces. One remembers as a child in class three, successfully parsing a sentence in English grammar class. Carrying a Wren and Martin to class was compulsory and the failure to do so could attract punitive measures. Or reading about Coriolanus and his gallant stand against the Etruscans, in class four in
The March of Time.
Or cutting one’s teeth on Civics at around the same time. The syllabus was government approved and there was no great issue of 'dovetailing' into any 'system'. Nor does one remember any neurotic children in class who were stressed out by the syllabus and the frequent exams (much tougher by today’s standards) and went into coma. And child counselors didn’t grow on every second tree.

The government has diluted the syllabus to such a degree, pressurised by parents of underachieving kids (making their perilous passage from the vernacular to the globalised world), that if little Nimesh Shah, can, in a baseline test, spell Czechoslovakia, the education ministry feels profoundly grateful. The trustee of an English medium school in Goregaon (East), when quizzed about the lack of good teaching talent had this to say: 'Every year we interview a hundred teachers. Hardly two or three out of all these teachers can speak a straight sentence in English – though they claim to be have 10 to 12 years of experience.'

And this is what one of those teachers had to say: 'We are belonging to one of lowest paid professions. BMC sweeper‘s starting salary is higher than part time teacher’s only. Really qualified person won’t join this profession, no? Our salaries are not going up properly with inflation in last 20 years.'

Finally it is not about boards or syllabuses or different brands of schools, 'alternate' or otherwise. As in all endeavours and enterprises, blue chip companies or local institutions, the brochures may be glossy, the jargon impressive and the presentation tailor-made for the Joneses, but it all comes down to the saamnewala: the buck stops with the final service provider.

One was lucky to have had good teachers. They were lucky they lived in a time when teaching paid the rent.

Gautam Benegal is a writer, film maker and cartoonist.
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