COVID-19 and Education: A Priority for Whom?

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Photo: DNA India

By Rajshree Chanchal

The question of education is one of the contested issues in the current COVID-19 crisis. A plethora of articles, blogs and opinion pieces are being shared on different online and offline platforms. The COVID-19 crisis is projected as a ‘golden’ opportunity for the privileged to take a competitive edge over their less fortunate peers. For some it is a complete block out from the process of education. The debates raise a fundamental question about the philosophy of education and schooling system in the country.

Actors in positions of power have a skewed understanding of education and school system. On the one hand, in face of COVID-19 crisis it is advocated that ‘education should not be the priority’ for the underprivileged and displaced children. On the other, agents in power see it as an opportunity to push further the agenda of privatisation and e-learning. Actors in power and big market players have joined hands. They claim to provide smooth e-learning experiences to the privileged children. The learning solutions provided by market giants are teacher proof. A motivated learner is independent of the teachers for support and feedback.

Like the Indian society, the school system is also highly stratified. At policy level some attempts were made to make the schooling experience equitable for children coming from diverse socio-economic background. The opening statement of the Kothari Commission 1964-66 states the future of India is taking shape in its classrooms. School are called the miniature of the society. Even if children do not achieve the stipulated curricular goals as expected, they do learn a lot of things. They learn about children coming from different socio-economic and cultural background. It helps them to develop their understanding of the society and its diversity. It also teaches them that there is possibility to live with people from different beliefs and culture in harmony. The role of school is to encourage children to have an open attitude towards different worldviews.

Upper and middle classes have been primary beneficiaries of both public and private education since Independence. Through elite private education the dominant classes were able to maintain their hegemony over the highly paid jobs at national as well as international level. These classes are now going to the privately owned international and world schools. Many empirical studies suggest that government school are over-represented by children coming from underprivileged background. For many of the underprivileged children living in crammed and congested areas, the school is not only a place for cognitive learning and nutrition but also a space which provides a relatively different environment in terms of physical space, avenues of friendship and peer interaction. It could take children’s mind off from the home deprivation and give them a chance to share their feelings and emotions. It also gives them space to play with their peers and feel safe. Schools are not only places for making children obedient, regular and punctual. These are places of dreams, imagination and aspirations no matter how limited for the underprivileged and marginalized. School have tremendous potential to change/influence the worldview of its pupils. Life chance and future employment in the market are directly dependent on the level of education an individual attains. Understanding education only in terms of achievement of systematic curricular goals of the school is trivial and minimalistic. This also belittles the role of schools as institutions. Schools are supposed to make children aware of their rights and prepare them as critical future citizens, not mere docile workers.

The crisis time is often the litmus test for the society at large to extend solidarity to those who are worst hit not only by the pandemic but also by the crisis created by the system and its faulty decisions. Indian society has failed to show any solidarity with the workers. The authoritarian state instead of extending a helping hand to the stressed workers took the opportunity to suspend labour laws. Workers are left helpless with no employment and no legal right to demand the same. Whatever minimal legal and social cover they have is withered. Charity on the part of the civil society in the time of crisis is not an answer for violating the dignity and rights of workers and their children’s education. The reasons for the failure of underprivileged children to access online education are again placed outside the school system. It is not just the lack of resources such as laptop, computer, smart-phones and internet connectivity but the invisibilization of marginalized and displaced children by the dominant classes.

It could have been a lot more humanitarian if schools could have pitched to extend emotional, psychological and social support to the children in an attempt to help them cope with the fear of pandemic and other emotional stress. Instead of making schools responsive towards the needs of deprived children, it is suggested that education should not be a ‘priority’ for them in the face of present crisis. Attempts are being made to marginalize them further. It is a case of clear contradiction of provisions of Right to Education Act. At the same time private players are aggressively promoting their education apps for the upper and middle classes. This push towards e-market solutions to education would have long term ramification for the education and school system of the country. The middle classes are apprehensive of the ‘slow academic progress’ of their children and demand value for the fees paid. There are media reports of middle class parents bullying the teachers for not conducting online classes as per their suggestions/expectations. It is not just the question of effectiveness of online learning/teaching or as matter of fact any other alternative mode in case of underprivileged children. It is the insensitivity with which the question of their education is being looked at amid the crisis.

Bio:
Dr. Rajshree Chanchal is assistant professor, Ambedkar University, New Delhi, India.

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Read the latest issue of Cafe Dissensus Magazine, “Poetics and politics of the ‘everyday’: Engaging with India’s northeast”, edited by Bhumika R, IIT Jammu and Suranjana Choudhury, NEHU, India.

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