An old debate with a new angle?

Jawarharlal Nehru, First Prime Minister of an Independent India whilst at Harrow Public School in England. Might "elite" schools in England and India now take a lead in promoting inclusion?

Jawarharlal Nehru, First Prime Minister of an Independent India whilst at Harrow Public School in England. Might “elite” schools in England and India now take a lead in promoting inclusion?

In the UK a recent article written by David and George Kynaston and titled Education’s Berlin Wall: the private schools conundrum published in The New Statesman magazine (3rd Feb 2014) old arguments about private schooling were re-rehearsed, whilst a few new(ish) ideas were put forward.

It has long been the case that in UK society many of the individuals who are in positions of influence and power have received their education at fee paying public or independent schools. Caution needs to be exercised when using this term – public schools, unlike in the USA far from being open to the majority of the public have traditionally been attended for the most part by children from the wealthier sections of society. Many of these schools are long established and have developed a reputation for the attainment of high academic standards and providing sound foundations for those wishing to enter “first class” universities such as Oxford and Cambridge.

Much has been made in the UK media of late of the fact that a significant number of the UK Government cabinet have come through the traditional public or independent school and Oxbridge route. These include the Prime Minister David Cameron (Eton College and Oxford), the Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne (St. Paul’s and Oxford) and Nick Clegg, the Deputy Prime Minister (Westminster and Cambridge). Of course the influence of the public and independent schools is not limited to UK public life, with several other prominent world leaders including Jawaharlal Nehru (Harrow and Cambridge) first Prime Minister of an Independent India being just one example of a politician educated in this way.

The discussion in the media and to a large extent that in The New Statesman article has focused upon whether privilege or merit are the most significant influences upon gaining opportunities in adult life. As I said earlier, this is not a new debate, with prominent writers over many years including George Orwell and Mark Haddon expressing opinions for and against. The reason that I am interested in the article written by the Kynsatons is not simply about whether such schools have a valid place in twenty first century society, but rather the questions they raise about who attends them. As they put it:-

The question is not whether these schools should exist. We are where we are. The question is, are they educating the wrong children? And how do we end the divide to make them part of the common weal?”

They examine the common arguments in favour of private education, including the oft quoted, though somewhat fallacious, right of parents to choose where they educate their children. As they rightly state:-

“As a society, do we prioritise the right for individuals to educate their child as they wish (a phantom right for most people, given that fees are not an option), or the right of every child, including the poorest, to an even start?”

More interesting in their discussion is a suggestion that maybe these “elite schools” should take more responsibility for educating children who do not come from backgrounds where parents can afford to pay school fees and therefore do not have the choice that their wealthier counterparts have. In many ways this seems to sit more comfortably with the expectations of a more inclusive schooling system.

I would not necessarily have been very engaged with this somewhat tired debate that has raged for many years with no significant change to the status quo, had it not been for a response published this week in the edition of The New Statesman following that in which the original article was published. In this latest edition (February 7th – 13th) Laura McInerney, a Fulbright Scholar studying education policy writes a brief article under the heading “Follow the Indian Model”, in which she argues that in the UK we should learn from the 2009 Right to Free and Compulsory Education Act (RTE) implemented by the Indian Government.

McInerney writes:-

“India, a nation with a caste system, now requires all of its private schools to ensure that 25 per cent of their intake comes from the poorest children in a given area. And don’t think that they can pick out their favourites. The places are won by open random lottery. Any child from a low-income family can enter; if he wins he must he admitted and taught.”

On reading this I confess that my eyebrows raised. Not simply because I had not expected The New Statesman, a magazine for which I have a certain respect and indeed affection to publish something quite this naïve, but also because of the suggestion that this is indeed a step forward.

The notion of a lottery for entry into education is one that appals me. It has long been argued that those who enter our elite independent and private schools have benefited in the “lottery of life”. In other words they have the good fortune to have been born into wealthy families. Laura McInerney implies that it is now acceptable for other pupils to be admitted to schools if they are fortunate enough to win a different kind of lottery, albeit one that is open to all comers.

Two questions remain in my mind. Is it now deemed acceptable that those with the losing lottery tickets are to be excluded from this elite education system? Surely a situation no better than that which already exists. And where is the evidence that schools in India, whilst abiding by the rules set out in the RTE and accepting their twenty five percent quota (where this is happening – and we know that this is not the case everywhere), are doing so willingly and in conditions where teachers are confident in addressing the needs of a more diverse population?

Is this truly a route to inclusion, or is it political expediency which may well be destined to fail? My concerns are these:-

Having accepted children into  these “elite” schools are they being set up to fail because teachers may be either reluctant or lack the necessary skills and understanding to meet their needs? Will there be a backlash, not least from parents concerned that the new intake of pupils may detrimentally affect school standards, which leads future politicians to renege upon these new regulations resulting in the very pupils intended to benefit from these arrangements being further isolated?

I do not doubt the sincerity of those who constructed the RTE. Neither do I question the commitment of many teachers who are more than willing to address the needs of a more diverse pupil population. I am less confident that the ground has been effectively prepared to enable both teachers and pupils to succeed in schools that have traditionally been exclusive, and I am concerned that the narrow focus upon academic standards that has driven so many of these schools for so long may inhibit many pupils from getting the education they deserve. Why not support those schools willing to develop inclusive approaches to teaching to enable them to open their doors to a more diverse population rather than enforce a policy upon reluctant and in some instances resistant institutions?

I have major concerns, but do so hope that I am about to be proven wrong!



4 thoughts on “An old debate with a new angle?

  1. My opinion of what is happening here with the RTE 25% is mixed. On the one hand I feel it is a good move and a step forward to bridge the divide in a miniscule measure. And like other provisions this is also being abused and exploited. On the other hand, going by my experience [however limited] of seeing how displaced children from economically weaker sections become when placed in these ‘elite’ surroundings, I feel this is again a useless exercise. These children end up belonging neither here nor in their own communities. If the legislation put down that each private school should adopt one government school and share teaching and other resources and also get the students involved, more things would have happened. What is more important and needed is to work right from refurbishing, reequipping and relooking at the government schools that are there all over the country and the curriculum. Many of them don’t have even the basic facilities and the curriculum does not have much to equip children from semi urban and rural environments, to learn and contribute to rejuvenating their communities. Paying teachers proper salaries and also working out a plan for coexistence of schooling and health which are free and accessible and meaningful to them and other things in the same direction are needed more. Otherwise many of the government schools will close down [as they already have] or become centres for nefarious activities.

  2. At the heart of these concerns is the notion of belonging. I am aware of the concerns expressed by many colleagues in Indian Government Schools that whilst they are losing small numbers (and they are relatively small) of pupils who are transferring to more prosperous establishments their own resources are not being improved. I like your suggestion that maybe schools could be partnered in order to provide greater benefits for all children. I have no doubt that this would be difficult to manage but not beyond the imagination of Indian education administrators. When I see the conditions and facilities in Government schools that I have visited in Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Goa and then compare these to private schools in the same vicinity it is quite clear why parents would chose to move their children into these “elite” establishments. However, as we have seen in Bangalore, many of the private schools are playing games with numbers and others are resentful of being asked to admit children from low caste, scheduled tribe or with disabilities. I think the best we can do is ask for some honesty in the debate about the transfer of children.
    We should not blame the teachers in the private schools. Many are simply upholding the educational values that they themselves experienced as pupils in a divided education system (yes, I know, inherited from the British!). Personally I feel that the way forward is to equip all teachers for a more inclusive education system by providing them with skills but also an understanding of the potential impact of a divided and inequitable society. The work that you are doing with colleagues at the Brindavan Trust is making an important contribution in this respect and hopefully the MA programme on which we work together will also have an impact.

  3. Being an elementary school teacher under the state of Kerala Govt. and a student of Post Graduation in Education ( M. Ed) I wonder whether you, Richard have a good (true) picture of India’s present education system or not.By law ,the Act of RTE ensures that every child under 14 in India has a right to get quality(?) education.Since it is considered students as the sole recipients of the( good) quality of education , RTE is based on national provision to ensure child centered, child friendly education to help all children develop to their fullest potential.These assurances of child centered and child friendly education were made on the basis of psychological and scientific ideas.This means, child has the ultimate freedom to choose the answers of all the ‘wh’ questions related to learning. For the question, from where to learn (choice of schools) are still being answered autocratically by the parents. All the famous leaders mentioned here were the ‘products’ of Elite schools and their choice of schooling was done by their Parents, fortunately that gave them a good foundation for their great fortune to come . So was the case o f J. Nehru’s. Even after the implementation of RTE on India’s education system ,parents play their role well to chose which school, which syllabus, which medium of instruction and what more , which profession is good for their children.Unfortunately, this choice of selection
    reflects parent’s social prestige, status and even their ambitions.No regards to child’s liking or interests. Naturally, the well fed sections of society choose a school which promotes their similar style of living (spoon fed nurturing) where no morale of co-existence is
    encouraged and lacks the opportunity to learn about and accept individual differences. Two kids who are neighbors behave like strangers since they study in different schools according to their economic ability. By law, there is public school system for everybody to be treated as equal At the same time there is disparities created by private elite schools where no students are learned to live alongside peers. In the present education system of India ( which is a land of multiple diversities!), inclusive education will remain as a mirage which dreams of children learning together, playing together, growing together and are being nurtured together unless the political ground of India is well equipped to meet the needs of a more diverse population.

  4. Hi Jenet,
    This is a most thoughtful posting that you have made. Let me begin by saying that as an outsider to India, who has been privileged to spend some time in your beautiful country, I cannot claim to have the first hand experiences that you and several of my Indian friends and colleagues have. However, I do recognise many of the issues that you raise.
    As I have stated on several occasions I believe that the RTE is a well drafted and intentioned piece of legislation. It has built upon Sarba Siksha Abhiyan and given more power to those who wish to implement a more inclusive education system. Sadly I feel that the way RTE is being managed denies opportunities to make significant improvements to Indian schools as a whole. The focus as reported in the media has been upon getting children from scheduled castes, scheduled tribes and those with disabilities into “elite schools”. I personally feel that an investment in improving the resources in government schools and opening new schools in poorer communities would reap better rewards. The media hype has not helped. The focus upon quotas has distracted attention away from the obligation to support improvements in government schools and to ensure that those children who do not currently attend school at all, or only for a limited time have their needs met.
    When you say that “this choice of selection
    reflects parent’s social prestige, status and even their ambitions. No regards to child’s liking or interests. Naturally, the well fed sections of society choose a school which promotes their similar style of living (spoon fed nurturing) where no morale of co-existence is encouraged and lacks the opportunity to learn about and accept individual differences”, you are quite correct. However, are we not all involved in this. When my children were of school age I wanted them to go to good schools. In our case this mean a local authority (government) school for which we did not have to pay. Our choice was partly on the basis that, as you say, we wanted our sons to have an opportunity to make friends with children from the locality, but also with those of different ethnicity, cultural heritage, religion and experiences.
    We are fortunate in England that our government schools are well equipped, have top quality teachers and provide an excellent education (not everyone here would agree), whereas in India there are some parents who want the best for their children and believe that this is achieved only in fee paying schools.
    From my perspective moving quotas of children into “elite schools” will not achieve inclusion. This will happen only when every teacher in all schools, including government schools, feels competent and confident to address the needs of all learners and is supported with the resources to achieve this.

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