It may be an over generalisation to say that Indians love newspapers, but certainly there are news vendors everywhere here in Bangalore. The range of newspapers, in English, Kannada, Hindi and other Indian languages is phenomenal and it seems that local people just can’t get enough news. If the results of cricket matches are the first items they look to (bad news from New Zealand again today), the politics pages certainly rate second. Electioneering is in full swing with pictures of Rahul Gandhi, Narendra Modi and Arvind Kejriwal, the three main protagonists gazing out of most of the early pages. Each promises the earth, but I see little concrete policy coming from any of them. Politics would appear to be the same the world over.
Whilst here in Bangalore I find that I quickly slip into the Indian newspaper habit. Each morning hanging from the door handle of my room is a bag containing today’s edition of the Times of India, a national paper which compares to the Times newspaper at home hardly at all. Whilst another English paper, the Deccan Herald is also readily available, my morning newspaper of choice is the Hindu. In all honesty I miss The Guardian with its detailed analysis of world events, and the daily satirical whit of Steve Bell, but when in Bangalore one really has to do what the Bangaloreans do.
Shuffling through the pages of the Hindu this morning and casting my eye across items about the recalibration of meters on auto-rickshaws, the sterilization of urban monkeys and the shooting of the man-eater of Dodabetta, my scanning was suddenly halted by an article with the headline “Most class 1 students in rural schools cannot read words”. The article, reporting the findings of the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) 2013 conducted in Karnataka State laments a general decline in pupil achievements in reading and mathematics over the past year. In addition, the number of children now attending paid tuition has dropped by as much as 2.5%. Tuition classes have been regarded by many parents as an essential means of boosting the likelihood of their children gaining good public examination results. Maybe this is an indication of financial hardship or perhaps they are reassessing the value for money angle of some of the tuition centres.
It is significant that this is a report from rural areas in a country where the discrepancy in wealth between cities and the countryside is certainly noticeable. In Bangalore new schools are emerging all across the city and are being rapidly filled by glistening children in neatly pressed uniforms and brightly shining shoes delivered by parents in their equally shiny new Volkswagens and SUVs. The city has clearly benefited from an economic renaissance and many individuals are prospering. However, in the poorest districts of the city where families depend upon state schools and in the villages, this prosperity is seldom apparent.
Of particular interest to me in this article was an analysis of the response in terms of supporting school infrastructure in order to deliver on the 2009 Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act (RTE). Criteria were established with this Act to assess the implementation of mandatory requirements aimed at improving the education of children from marginalised groups, including those with disabilities or from scheduled castes or scheduled tribes. These include the setting up of libraries and the provision of drinking water and toilets, all things we would take for granted in English schools. The survey found that in the rural schools 15.2 % did not have access to drinking water and a further 4.7% had facilities but there was no water available. Whilst 1.7% had no toilets, 32.4% had toilets that were not useable and 7.6% did not have separate toilets for boys and girls. Only 9% of schools were reported as not having libraries, but a staggering 40.4% had libraries that were not being used by children.
It is difficult to be fair when viewing these figures and this situation through western eyes. Furthermore, it is wholly inappropriate that as a guest in India I should cast any condemnatory remarks in the direction of administrators and managers who are trying to juggle priorities in education with those in areas such as environment and transport, often under challenging circumstances. Figures such as those above are particularly shattering when I think of the enormity of the task of supporting teachers in the development of inclusive schools. Each of these statistics reveals the day to day realities of the lives of many children, teachers and families. How can what we are doing on a small course in Bangalore possibly make a difference?
Every journey must begin with a single step. I can only hope that for every fifty teachers with whom we interact here in India one may go the extra mile towards changing the education system to one that is more equitable and inclusive. To do so demands resilience and fortitude. Teachers have to be activists and agents for change in a way that those in my own country can hardly imagine. The joy in working here is the knowledge that every student with whom we work on this course is making a commitment to enable children to gain access to an education that is firmly focused on their needs and those of their families and communities.
In support of this venture our students today completed activities founded upon ensuring that their pupils were able to access learning at their own level in classes of diverse need and ability. Through carefully planned lessons, the use of mind maps and the analysis of pupil needs they continued to demonstrate their dedication to learners and their ingenuity as teachers. As tutors on this course we come from a privileged background and reap the riches of working with consummate professionals. We know that we have had educational opportunities that are denied to so many with whom we work here. Yet whatever we give to our students they return with interest a thousand times.
And finally a piece of good news (that hopefully will not make the morning newspapers). Just as I was about to contrive making a dhoti out of a bedsheet in order to go out this evening my laundry was returned. This comes as a great relief to myself but even more so to the good people of Jayanagar I suspect!