Diversity in the Classroom

Janaki Rajan

The last couple of years, we have seen decisions regarding children's learning in Delhi shift from schools to the courtrooms. Not unnaturally, those who spend their professional lifetimes educating children; and parents who want the very best possible education for their children, have felt disempowered. The admission policy for 3 -4 year olds that emerged was a formula that looked more like a DNA code. It is so complex, elaboarate and detailed, that it makes admissions into IITs and IIMs simple by comparison.

The impetus for this wholesale interest in the admission policy of unaided schools comes from a long neglected stipulation of the Delhi Development Authority while allotting land to registered societies to start schools, to provide 25 per cent of seats to children from weaker sections of society. Unaided schools had not taken this seriously for decades and this has provided just the peg that enabled the unaided schools becoming the cynosure of all eyes.

Those of us who view schools as the building blocks of the nation, expect that schools must have the freedom to forge their vision and lead the society of the future.

What is understandably troubling is that just about every entity of society – polity, governance, civil society, special interest groups of caste, class, gender and ethnicity except the school itself, has been engaged in the matter of children's admissions into schools, which are not even being provided any aid by the government. It is a pity that this widespread vigilance is not directed to the government and MCD schools of Delhi , where such a watch would surely ensure far better quality of schooling than is presently provided by them in these schools with the tax payers money.

In most professions, experts are expected to lead what happens in the sector, but in the case of school education, which no one will doubt is a professional activity, the space for educational professionals has been historically rather small. Hemmed in as school education is, by the requirements of higher education; the work world; the national and state policies, principals and teachers do not have much space to apply the wealth of direct knowledge, wisdom and the insights they have acquired by working closely with thousands of children for many years. This is a huge waste of acquired knowledge.

What lessons can those engaged directly with schools learn from these experiences?

Belief in the value of the unaided schools is obviously the first point. This is not difficult to establish. Unlike the state schools, each unaided school has strong, individual managements who are account­able to the parents. When we compare this with the highly centralized state schools, where power for 1000 or even 2000 schools rests with a small apex team, the differences in the responsiveness and flexibility of private schools to children's learning becomes readily apparent. And so long as the state school system remains shackled by centralization of all aspects of schooling, they are not likely to emerge as vibrant institutions.

The unaided schools emerge as valuable institutions, for their ability to raise their own resources, through fees to run the schools and not be dependent on the government. This also frees them from the administrative restrictions of state funded schools.

Unaided schools have also emerged as leaders in terms of examination results, have led the children who they educate to admissions into professional courses, which in turn, has provided society with its leading doctors, lawyers, engineers and so on.

The Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) sector owes much to the unaided school student, who set the international call centres on the top of the world map. The leadership and language skills these young people learnt at schools is greatly responsible for our economic growth. The government schools' record in these fronts has been miniscule. Principals and teachers of unaided schools have taken the leadership to put Indian schools on the international map through collaborative training programmes for teachers, exchange visits, seminars, work­shops and many such activities. Unaided schools of India have built bridges with schools in Australia , New Zealand , UK , USA , Israel , Dubai , Saudi Arabia among others while the state schools continue to remain isolated.

Within the world of the school, unaided schools have also evolved effective and innovative classroom practices and learning materials and have been in the forefront in using Information and Communications Technology right from the early years of schooling. Unlike young people who went abroad to study in the 1970s and 1980s, the unaided school graduate merges seamlessly in campuses everywhere in the world. They have not been left behind in social sectors either.

Most effective social interventions in literacy, story telling, theatre, environment awareness, old age homes, orphanages, involving children in urban slums and rural areas etc. have been led by children and teachers of unaided schools. Their relevance and contribution are not in doubt.

How can heads of schools and teachers expand the legitimate space and autonomy to decide the various aspects of schooling?

A key factor here, is the admission policy of the school. There is no doubt that unaided schools are obliged to turn down around 50-100 children or so for each child they admit. This leads, not unnaturally, to more parents nursing a sense of resentment than parents who have obtained admission for their children. Since the unaided school is a fee paying school, the parents come from the middle class and this includes children of the lakhs of teachers in government schools, as well as from other sections of society.

It is my case that the collective build-up of the sense of being rejected by schools among the middle class lingers, even when eventually, the child does get admitted to one or the other unaided school. Principals and teachers need to take this seriously. This resentment also enlarges the space for influence by non-school agencies, on the schools. As unaided schools currently work individually, there is huge duplication of applications, as parents are not sure which school would accept their child. One way could be for unaided schools to form a network where information can be shared so that there could be lesser number of rejection of admissions. Sharing information also enables schools to collectively and academically decide on what is best for the child. This would help reduce greatly, the parents feeling that their child has been rejected. It will perhaps require the network of schools to evolve a basic set of admission guidelines that are common for all the unaided schools of the network, without taking away from the individual schools' autonomy to finally select the children. For instance, the Delhi University has a system of rank and an order of preferences of institutions by parents in a common application form.

The other factor, the Court judgement requiring schools to admit 25 per cent of children from weaker sections of society has been received with a marked lack of enthusiasm by the unaided schools, even though the undertaking to the Delhi Development Authority does exist in many schools. The lukewarm response must not be viewed as unaided schools rejecting the idea of diversity in the classrooms. It appears more to be a response to the continual barriers unaided schools face from various quarters and the enforcement of a provision is being seen as the proverbial last straw.

Unaided school teachers and heads need to reflect on this issue collectively, not as a diktat, but as a question of diversity in classrooms as a pedagogic principle of effective learning. Indeed, unaided schools already realize the need for social commitment, which is why many of them engage in various social interventions. They now need to sharpen this understanding further. A diverse classroom, with children from all socio-economic sections of society is an invaluable and irreplaceable learning resource.

The diversity of experiences and perspectives that the children will bring into classroom discussions can help all of them learn with greater understanding, develop multiple perspectives and intelligences.

As India becomes the focus of world action in the years to come, this unique under­standing that children from diverse socio­economic settings will develop in the classrooms of today is just the knowledge, values and attitudes that globalizing India needs.

This can only be learnt in a diverse classroom. It cannot be substituted by any amount of books and Information and Communications Technology (ICT). Middle class parents will agree, provided the teachers are able to demonstrate how, that their child, studying with a child of a weaver or a tailor together in the classroom, will learn more and better. Their imaginations will expand far more than if they were to study with children only from middle class backgrounds, using similar imageries, similar experiences, and from similar homes.

By socially diversifying the classroom, unaided schools can demonstrate their value yet again. They would then be the only 'common' schools, something one would have expected government schools to do.