Irrespective of the genuine chaos and despair that coronavirus has caused in the economies of nations, livelihoods, and health care systems, it seems highly unlikely that any national policy will come in for as colossal an upheaval in the post-corona age as the one that covers education — especially school education.
School education, which has received deserved attention and priority in budgets and budget speeches, has cracked open the widest and left the largest of gaps between the haves and the have-nots. In many nations economic power, for instance, came into play when it was time to decide whether two children of a similar age group could continue their learning or not during lockdown. It also brought into sharp focus the disparities between private and state-owned schools.
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Whereas the former was able to quickly formulate policies and put together the infrastructure and training required to design and deliver learning in a world that permitted absolutely no physical sharing of spaces, state-owned schools simply caved in. It therefore transpired that a set of children (by virtue of belonging to a particular stratum of society) continued on their learning journey, whereas another group of the same age, nationality and citizenship let their intellect atrophy.
This schism in opportunity is most vile and regressive in any nation least of all one like India which is hoping to attain economic prosperity by tapping on its huge human resources. State owned schools are burdened with the responsibility of ensuring accessibility to education but are clearly lacking in the power and investment to ensure outcomes. Private schools, always vilified for their high fee structure, seem to have further reinforced their image as an elitist lot. How do we break this impasse?
Fascinating in its simplicity
Ironically enough, one disease may have just opened up the cure to another. Over the last few months, I have been fascinated by the number of posts and videos on social media of many teachers all over the country setting up their own little contraptions at home in order to transmit a lesson onward to their students. The ingenuity of some of the devices is fascinating in its simplicity.
If a school or a nation is endowed with a set of such committed and zealous teachers, then surely the lack of a physical campus should not come in the way of a child’s learning. If lessons can be designed and delivered by a set of adults, then helping children receive those lessons in remote corners of the nation could and should be taken up as a state responsibility.
Many states have had the practice of giving away laptops and tablets for meritorious and graduating students of government schools for quite some time now. This investment could be bolstered with fresh funds so that learning devices become accessible to all. If teachers are being veered away from the “chalk and talk” method of learning, then it is only logical that students too be weaned away from the notebook and pencil box as the only learning tools.
Problem of connectivity
Then we have the problem of connectivity. This area, could serve as an ideal ground for private players to commit to their CSR. Nothing could earn an organisation more goodwill than its acts of sowing into the lives of children and by extension sowing into the future. Cheap or subsidised broadband connections for families with young learners is worth consideration.
Ultimately, what matters is the physical execution of stated goals. Enough has been said and written on the need to invest in the lives of our children. Nothing can reverse that. If anything this pandemic has only served to further reinforce the need to keep our priorities in order and step up funding, through intelligent private — public partnerships where required. Precious investment that used to go into desks and chairs, and books and boards, needs to go into software and hardware.
But let us not for a minute assume that money and funding will solve all problems. For, if that were the case the more progressive nations should not be asking some or all of the questions that we are pondering too. The unfortunate truth is that schools as we know it — the campus, practices, operations, and expectations- have all disappeared literally overnight. An education system that was set up over many centuries by different nations and borrowed by the others has all but rendered irrelevant.
A new education model
Leaders and educators have been forced overnight to build a new model that will address present needs and demands. Whereas the new model had been a topic of discussion across elaborately laid out conference tables and plush seminars for some time now, suddenly it was time to implement. And the buck as always stopped at the desk of the classroom teacher. That would force us leaders to introspect and look at how much and how seriously are we sowing into our teachers.
How seriously are we rating the teaching profession? How lucrative are we able to attract the best in qualification and expertise? How much of our knowledge and resources are we sharing with each other and passing on to the new recruits, so that the ultimate goal of offering the best education to every batch of students passing through our campuses remains fulfilled. We as educators cannot expect society to take our teachers seriously, unless we ourselves do.
There is a clearly a lot of work to do. There always was. We have just had the luxury of time yanked rudely away from us. Taking responsibility for young children was always going to be a lifelong job. We opted to take up the responsibility. Now, as never before is time to fulfil our duties.
Dr Farooq Ahmad Wasil is a noted educationist. He is the global head of Affordable Schools, GEMS Education.