Representative photo: students wearing protective masks at a government school in Hyderabad, March 2020. Photo: Reuters/Vinod Babu
Debates are rife, for justifiable reasons, about how soon, at what level and in what manner schools need to be reopened in the aftermath of the second COVID-19 wave in India. In fact, in different parts of the globe this experience is hugely varied, ranging from total school closure to fairly uninterrupted schooling to partial and phased reopening.
In our continent-like country too, the country-sized states are experimenting with different plans and actual steps to reopen schools, since a unified formula is inappropriate for this vastly divergent socio-economic, physical and even contagion topography. Remember when floods or other calamities hit rural hinterlands in the country, forcing school closure in those ‘affected’ areas, schools continue to remain open in cities and towns in other parts of even the same district, and province, let alone the same national universe.
The journey and spread of the novel coronavirus across the country notwithstanding, its scourge has remained differently devastating in its diverse constituent corners. Therefore, a variety of ‘school-like’ civil society initiatives and those by teachers’ networks, volunteers, and students have come up in lockdown and post-lockdown periods to somehow keep unbroken the tenuous pedagogic chord between the near-‘missing’ children and the ‘missing’ school.
These efforts in the perilous setting of the pandemic, though inadequate in the vast sea of neediness, encourage us to reimagine the idea of schooling and to push beyond just the debate about reopening schools to raise a prior question of the kind of school that our children may return to. The seeds of such rethinking are already available in the ways in which schoolchildren are articulating what they value about their classroom life and what they are terribly missing in these days and months of school closure. It is their yearning for friendship and sharing, even for classroom fights, and their eagerness to meet up with their teachers face-to-face that sound in ringing notes in many conversations with them.
The school-averse, drop-out prone, isolated child is therefore more of a product of a stifling system than a natural persona. The pandemic has similarly reinforced the idea of camaraderie and collaboration among schoolteachers who are routinely castigated as unaccountable and unenthusiastic in their duties. A large section of them are watching with concern how the pandemic is exacerbating the preexisting inequalities and how the burden of suffering is being disproportionately borne by their underprivileged students, falling prey to the binds of child labour or child marriage.
Lessons from the pandemic for school education are many, the paramount among them being an urgency for a collective understanding of some of the key reforms that are needed in our post-pandemic school system, the possibility for which has been thrown open, rather paradoxically, by the pandemic itself. Surely, in rethinking school reforms, we are not caught in the syndrome that ‘nothing will change unless everything is changed’. Small and incremental changes rather than a grand overhaul often provide a reliable micro-foundation for a functioning macro-structure. In debating a few such issues, the seeds of which are already germinating in the current troubled climate, no claim is, however, made here about being exhaustive.
We have listened to quite a few young students, aspiring to be school and high school graduates, and their parents, lamenting the missed chance during the pandemic to appear for the board examination in order to finally enjoy the thrill of a ‘well-deserved success’ once the results are out. Even if we discount the opposite scenario of swallowing ‘a bitter pill of failure’, let us concede that a taste for accomplishment is one of the prime movers of our educational drives. Again, from the standpoint of the education authorities, a centralised board-controlled examination system is claimed to be an assurance for maintaining standards and impartiality.
Here lies a real possibility for reasoned debate, followed by research-informed action, in favour of school-based evaluation, with some element of board supervision and oversight. This is in fact the model that is emergent at this pandemic hour, though a systematic neglect of school evaluation and the usual primacy of board examinations for all these years have added further complications. Highly centralised, high-stakes board examinations are the legacy of the colonial era, exuding chronic scepticism about the neutrality and integrity of decentralised evaluation. Yet, the same system reposes faith in the objectivity of schoolteachers when it comes to the matter of everyday teaching and evaluation.
If there are concerns about whether the ‘locals’ are ‘fit for’ evaluation, the answer would be that they become fit ‘through’ evaluation. Schoolteachers, like any other professionals, become responsible when they are given the responsibility and freedom.
School and school meal
If evaluation needs to be decentred, what needs to be centred in the post-pandemic assistance programme of the central government is the rolling-out, and not rolling-back, of the programme of school meals and meals at Anganwadi centres. That children’s education is integrally linked with their health and nutrition, that classroom hunger impedes classroom attention in a major way, are the truisms of the ‘normal’ times that have come to their full relief at these ‘crisis’ times.
A recently published longitudinal study of the country’s school meal programme highlights intergenerational nutrition benefits of the scheme by demonstrating that there is lower stunting among children with mothers who had access to school lunches. Therefore, the interruptions to schooling and to the midday meal scheme during the pandemic – the distribution of dry food-grains notwithstanding – are and will be hurting the nutritional health of this and the next generation as well.
What warrants a special attention in the post-COVID educational imagination, therefore, is an urgent shift in the step-motherly sponsorship that these schemes are receiving by way of steadily dwindling central budgetary allocations in real terms in the recent past.
School as the ‘commons’
During the pandemic private school parents, in particular those with children attending ‘low’ fee private school, have found it increasingly difficult to pay school fees. Similarly, the management of such budget schools have also found it hard to pay salaries to their teachers no matter how meagre they are. Some of these parents are turning towards government-run schools for their children’s schooling as well as to get dry food grains that these schools are distributing among their students.
In this twilight of dwindling private capacity to access schooling, school education appears more and more as a common good, bound up inextricably with social commitment and public action. It is time therefore to revisit the individual-responsibility view of schooling that has dominated our thinking for quite some time under the spell of a for-profit model of education.
It is time to acknowledge that the digital divide generated through remote learning has deepened educational inequalities during the pandemic; and it is time to assert that a public-spirited view of a democratic and inclusive school as opposed to a fiercely competitive ‘educational horse race’ is the idea that a pandemic-stricken society needs to cultivate.
Manabi Majumdar is affiliated with the Pratichi Institute, Kolkata.