Looking beneath the surface

This child has responsibilities but will he receive an education

This child has responsibilities but will he receive an education

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.

8 thoughts on “Looking beneath the surface

  1. Another thought provoking blog. I wonder what time of day does school take place. Perhaps rather than trying to persuade the mother to send her child to school the consideration could be whether there is a time if day when the child has the time to attend.
    I did think about the problems many young people in the UK with caring responsibilities have and the impact on their schooling.

  2. Hi Carmel,
    An interesting parallel drawn here. Yes, young people as carers has increasingly become an issue here as elsewhere in the world. The notion of flexi-time in education is one yet to be properly considered but may be essential if we are serious about addressing the needs of children from poorer communities.

  3. Nice post (again!), Richard. Foucault, were he still alive, might see power structures in Indian society that contribute to the perpetuation of the way things are – a complex tangle of culture, professional territory, and human nature. Thanks for trying to untangle this issue!

  4. My word Tim, if Foucault struggled who am I to attempt to unravel this conundrum? One of the greatest problems with power structures is that those who possess the power are reluctant to relinquish any of this – maybe this is the human nature element. With regards to professional territory we again have the problem with “expertism” (sorry -never sure about that word!) – where the professional always knows best. For me the true professional recognises that he/she is there to serve rather than to impose expertise. The cultural matters are far more complex. In Indian society issues of caste are ingrained and not easily challenged in many communities. There is much to debate here and hopefully through our discussions we may all learn. If we could only encourage more engagement in the debates I would hold out more hope for making progress.

  5. Hello everybody, I would like to share an interesting experience here. On eof my friends introduced me to a gentleman who has migrated to B’lore from North India and works as a helper in a mechanic’s shop. He has a daughter who is about 5 years old but does not go to school nor is she given any experience at home. So Uday requested me to help them out and I met them. The man agreed and said he would come with his daughter. He did not come, upon my speaking to him, he said he is happy the way she is, after all she will go back and get married to some “chora” and do household work and bear children. There was little we could do to persuade him. Being comfortable and secure is being in the same style of living and seldom is education looked upon as a necessity by many.

  6. Hi Savitha. I think one of the problems here is that this has been a pattern for many families for generations. For many it has indeed been a pattern with which they are satisfied and therefore it is unlikely to change quickly. The greatest difficulty here is that the young girl will have little choice in any life decisions and if she has problems in the future may not be equipped to deal with these. I think that dialogue with families is the only way forward. The more that we as teacher condemn, the greater the distance we create between parties with differing interests.

  7. I’m struck by two thoughts regarding the comments.
    Rather than Foucault could I suggest considering Freire and in particular whereby the teacher becomes the learner and the learner the teacher. This would allow the educated to understand life from the the learner’s perspective. As a child when I complained about someone not taking opportunities my father quoted that I should walk a mile in their shoes.
    The second thought comes from my Head Mistress at school who suggested that if you educate a boy you educate a man whereas you educate a girl, you educate a family.

  8. Hi Carmel,
    Yes Paolo Friere often comes to mind when I am working in India. Perhaps the distinction betwen the teacher and the learner is a false construct. After all, when I teach I also learn. I like your teaching a girl line – someone once told me that if you educate a man you make him potentially dangerous, if you educate a woman she may be able to exert some control over the dangerous man!

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