I was not surprised when a colleague approached me making horrified noises about the contents of the Human Rights Watch report “They Say we’re Dirty” about which I wrote yesterday. The issue of bullying of children by their peers, and even more disturbing, their teachers, is clearly distressing and I would have anticipated that any of my colleagues might have had the same reaction. “Why”, she asked me, “don’t parents get together and do something about this?” This is a natural reaction, but I think we should try to see this situation from a number of perspectives.
In many instances parents in any education system can feel intimidated by what seems like a fairly alien and intimidating environment. In England I suppose it is easy to believe that because parents themselves went to school, they will feel comfortable in their dealings with teachers and in visiting classrooms. Yet those of us with experience of working in schools know that there are many parents who feel anxious in meetings with teachers. How much more intimidating might this situation be for parents who had a bad experience of schooling, or even more so for those who have never attended school?
It is evident from the Human Rights Watch report that there are many parents who do not know how to approach schools or to work with teachers, even when those teachers are keen to involve them. There may be many reasons for this, but one in particular stands out for me from this document. For many of the families living in the Indian communities discussed in this text, existence is a hand to mouth business. In order to feed their families and maintain any form of reasonable livelihood it is necessary to make the most effective use of all available labour. One of the children interviewed for the Human Rights Watch report states:-
“My mother stopped my studies and asked me to look after cattle. We have goats, sheep and two cows. I feel like going back to school. My parents are not ready to send me to school but otherwise I would go. Earlier they had asked me to stop going to school when my elder sister had a daughter. I like going to school a lot.”
For many of us, as parents as well as teachers it is hard to imagine the dilemma that exists in some of the poorer communities around the world. Caring for cattle or looking after a baby so others can work and in order that everyone can eat is a reality for many children, whose families live within or close to poverty. Whilst we might say that it is irresponsible of parents not to send their children to school, it may equally be said that it is negligent of a society to allow such a situation to persist. Who am I to criticise the mother cited above until I know more of the pressures under which she lives?
Maybe we need to be more sympathetic to the needs of families and to listen to their reasons for dropping out of the education system. Even more important might be the efforts that could be made to design learning opportunities that sit more comfortably with the life patterns of people living in poverty. Rather than creating education systems and expecting children and families to adapt to these, we might consider examining the life styles of these families and building education provision to support them. This of course demands thinking in a different way about schooling, but as professional educators isn’t this what we are supposed to do?
Many platitudes are voiced about education being the route out of poverty. There is, of course, much evidence to suggest that obtaining a good education improves life chances. However, education takes time and does not address the immediacy of families in need. Suggesting to a mother than her child’s schooling will have benefits in ten years time may appear meaningless when she is struggling to find the resources to provide today’s meal. There is no easy solution to this problem, but I am concerned that whilst reports such as “They Say we’re Dirty” serve an important purpose in raising awareness of the many injustices that limit opportunities, there is a danger of resting on indignation rather than seeking reasons and solutions. We need to look beneath the surface of these issues rather than taking a simplistic view.
For many parents their aspirations are for maintaining their current living standard, even when these are far from satisfactory. Some even fear that if their children receive an education they will leave their community to seek better paid employment and opportunities away from home. Perhaps the challenge for educators is to identify the ways in which to communicate to families that their lives may be improved by a generation of educated young people, whilst campaigning to ensure they receive the support that they need today. There are no easy answers, but I would be interested to hear what you think.