An article in yesterday’s Times of India – “Confusion Prevailing over RTE Act Impedes Admission Process”, (12th May) reports that schools are finding reasons not to provide places to children from marginalised communities. The deadline to submit applications for students from disadvantaged circumstances for admission under the Right to Free And Compulsory Education Act (RTE) ends on May 18, yet it seems likely that many will still have difficulty obtaining a school place.
The implementation of new education legislation, particularly in a country as populous and diverse as India, was always destined to prove challenging. The logistics of managing such change and the difficulties associated with getting information to the right people inevitably impacts on the administration of such radical change. However, as we say here in England, where there is a will, there is usually a way. Unfortunately the necessity to have the will appears to be a stumbling block in terms of making progress in this particular case, and it is evident that many children and families are destined to be denied the opportunities that they desire for their children.
Half way through this brief article a sentence stood out for me that brings into question the significant features of the responsibilities of schools to children and families. When questioning school principals about the reasons why they are not complying with the requirements of the RTE, one (who demanded anonymity) is reported to have stated:-
“We tell them that it will be difficult for their children to adjust in our schools.”
I would not question the fact that for children who have previously been denied an opportunity to attend school that this is a considerable change that will inevitably bring new difficulties. Learning to be part of an unfamiliar community, making new friends and learning routines are challenges that all children face on entry to school and this will be no different in India. Certainly there are added challenges when children enter well established classrooms where friendships are already formed and classes are familiar with the expectations and ethos of a school. But in my experience children quickly adjust and are soon accepted by their peers and teachers alike.
My concerns are founded upon the notion that children need to adjust to schools, rather than considering how schools may change to accommodate children. The expression from the anonymous principal (presumably anonymous because he or she lacks the courage to stand by their opinion) seems to me to be an affront to the very professionalism that committed teachers show to their pupils. Effective teachers adjust their teaching to accommodate the needs of their pupils and in successful schools differentiated teaching and the development of personalised teaching resources has become the norm. Certainly children are adept at learning how to conform to the requirements of schooling and this is an important part of their social education, but where schools are so intransigent they are certainly destined to create problems for themselves.
The statement made by the school principal quoted in the newspaper indicates that either they do not understand, or that they are opposed to the movement towards inclusive education. There is an assertion here that it is not the responsibility of the school to make reasonable adjustments to ensure that children are welcome and encouraged to learn, but rather that children and families must conform to an established and restrictive school pattern. This surely begs the question who are the schools for? Are they establishments set up for the convenience of teachers with a focus on ensuring that they have a comfortable and relatively undisturbed life? This would seem to be the interpretation given by the principal quoted above. By contrast there are many school principals who would advocate schools as flexible institutions that welcome children, celebrate diversity and have a commitment to exploring teaching and learning in order to address the needs of all children. Of course, this latter approach to education is far from comfortable, makes demands upon teachers and school managers and requires a commitment that every member of the school population is prepared to rise to these challenges and be a learner.
I have been fortunate to visit many innovative schools in India managed by principals with passion and vision and in which teachers are eager to demonstrate their dedication and professionalism. These schools are already showing how their commitment to welcoming learners of diverse needs, background and ability is having a major impact on the communities that they serve. It is, I suppose, inevitable that some school principals will continue to bury their heads in the sand and try to halt the flow of progress towards a more just and equitable education system. It is to be hoped that those charged with the responsibility for the implementation of the Right to Free and Compulsory Education Act have the courage of their convictions and see it through to its desired conclusion. They will undoubtedly face opposition and obstacles, but if the teachers who I work with regularly in India are in any way typical of those in schools across the country, there will be no holding back the tide that is moving inexorably towards a more inclusive education system.