Over the past few days I have been working my way through various drafts and snippets of writing sent to me by students from Bangalore who are writing their MA dissertations. I have, of course, been marking work of this nature for many years now, initially from UK based students but increasingly from colleagues teaching in India. When reading my way through these texts I am often struck by both the similarities and differences of the experiences described by Indian teachers with those of their peers in England.
There are obvious parallels in respect of their commitment to their pupils, their concerns to understand those children who appear to defy learning by conventional means and their innovation in adjusting their practices. The quality of work from Indian students is not noticeably different from that I receive from English based colleagues and they express their ideas and understanding in much the same way. The differences between an English cohort and their Indian counterpart are more often related to the day to day practicalities of working in schools and applying new ideas.
In England the special educational needs agenda has been prominent since the 1970s. By the 1990’s this had metamorphosed into a debate around inclusion with a focus upon provision in mainstream schools. Early in the twentieth century a debate around the existence, or not, of an inclusive pedagogy was provoking discussion about how teachers plan, differentiate and assess to address diversity in the classroom. This evolution has in many respects been a slow process, but one that has encouraged professional reflection and innovation in classroom practices. The danger at present is that some within the teaching profession believe that we are at the end of a journey. All the challenges have been confronted and we can now move comfortably into an inclusive era. Personally I’m not so sure. Maybe it’s only my personal paranoia, but I detect an undercurrent of political manipulation that is attempting to turn back the tide. When government documents are published containing expressions such as “we will end the bias towards the inclusion of children with special needs in mainstream schools,”* I feel a certain apprehension.
The contrast with the situation in India, and one that comes strongly through the work of students on our MA programme is quite noticeable. Many of these students are working in situations where the term inclusion is almost (if not entirely) unknown. Often they feel that they are striving in isolation to have the needs of children fully acknowledged and to encourage colleagues to recognise their responsibilities as teachers of all children. The commitment of our Indian students is immense and they are, in many instances, in the vanguard of the development of inclusive education not only in their schools, but in their states.
There are similarities in the work I read from Indian students today to that which I was reading in the UK a few years ago. I sense many of their frustrations, but also marvel at their determination. They are working in an environment where local or national literature about the education of marginalised pupils let alone the creation of inclusive learning environments is very limited. This will undoubtedly change over the coming years but certainly presents a challenge at the moment. The introduction of the Right to Free and Compulsory Education Act (2009) (RTE) about which I have previously written is causing much debate and not a little discomfort in India at present. Just as happened in England a few years ago, the status quo in education is being challenged and this is resulting in significant change not only in schools, but also in the lives of children who have previously been denied opportunities for learning and for those with the responsibility for their education. However, there are many for whom this change is uncomfortable, and the students with whom we work in Bangalore often find themselves subjected to criticism for the commitment that they have made to children who are seen by others as challenging.
Just as in England the changes will be slow and the battles to gain a more inclusive education system will be hard fought. However, I am greatly heartened by what I read in the work of our students and the determination that they demonstrate to be at the forefront of change. They write with passion and conviction about the children with whom they work and the changes that they are making in their classrooms, and this makes reading their work into a particular pleasure. Whilst it may take time for them to effect the changes they wish to see, I am convinced that the students you see in the pictures on this page are going to be leaders in the field of inclusive education in India over the coming years. As more join them I am sure there will be no turning back.
*In their 2010 Party Manifesto the UK Conservative Party stated an intention to “end the bias towards the inclusion of children with special needs in mainstream schools.” This phrase was reiterated when they came to government in coalition with The Liberal Party in Support and aspiration: A new approach to special educational needs and disability (March 2011) a government Green Paper.
Our next cohort of students will be joining the MA programme in Bangalore in September 2014. If you are interested in joining the course please contact Jayashree Rajanahally firstname.lastname@example.org