The World Bank Report Student Learning in South Asia Challenges, Opportunities, and Policy Priorities that I mentioned yesterday on this blog, whilst offering a detailed analysis of education within the region also provides some rather confused messages. At times it seems that the authors of the report are a little reluctant to make definite assertions, possibly because the evidence to support definitive statements may be limited.
I have considerable sympathy for these authors, having tried to make sense of much of what I have seen within an Indian education system that operates in ways so different from that in which I spend my daily life. Often I see things happening in Indian schools, or listen to conversations between Indian teachers or education officials, and find myself having to interpret ideas that are very different from those I encounter on a regular basis. I am aware of the danger of trying to view India in a simplistic way through western eyes. This is a country I have come to love but cannot pretend to really understand.
Whilst there is much to be commended within the World Bank report, I found myself re-reading one section several times in order to try and understand the message that was being conveyed. This particular section in Chapter Six, Inside the Classroom: Teacher Effort and Practices discusses the role of “remedial programmes” in supporting children who are struggling to learn in Indian mainstream classrooms. These programmes are quite common in India and indeed I have several good friends who operate within such a system in Bangalore. The programmes tend to run facilities such as after school classes, often focused upon the development of literacy or numeracy skills, working with children identified by their schools as being at risk of academic failure. As the World Bank Report states:
“Remedial programs offer the possibility of teaching pupils who lag behind at a level appropriate to their achievement. Ideally, such intervention increases student advancement and decreases learning heterogeneity in a given grade. On the other hand, if remedial programs teach at a slower (and lower) level, students who did not need remediation might have achieved more without it”.
In making this statement the authors of the report identify a conundrum that has troubled many of us working in education for some time. The purpose of such interventions is clearly to help children bridge the gap between their current academic performance and that of their peers. In order to do this they are taught in discrete groups away from others and hopefully assisted by high quality teachers to improve their skills until such time as this intervention is no longer necessary. This model of support is not unique to India and continues to operate in many education administrations across the globe.
It is the second part of the extract from Chapter Six of Student Learning in South Asia Challenges, Opportunities, and Policy Priorities cited above that gives me most cause for reflection. There is a tacit recognition here that unless such “remedial” intervention is carefully planned, monitored and evaluated, it may be that its impact is minimal or indeed a complete waste of time. This statement is surely one that is deserving of greater consideration than is given within the World Bank Report. Though in fairness to the authors, their brief was so broad it would have been difficult for them to give attention to the minutiae that is to be found in every point discussed.
The challenge it seems to me is around the ways in which we support teachers to address the needs of all children in their classes. The model of providing remedial teachers is well established. Indeed, in my very first post as a teacher in 1970’s England one such teacher was used regularly to withdrawal children from classes to provide them with additional support before returning them, hopefully better equipped to cope with the rigours of working with their peers. My concerns for such a model are centred around issues of teacher competence. If children are regularly removed from classes in this manner, or are sent for additional after school “remediation”, where is the incentive for those mainstream class teachers to develop the skills that will enable them to teach children with difficulties more effectively in their classrooms? Is there a danger that teachers, knowing that someone else will assume responsibility for pupils described as having “learning difficulties” or “special educational needs” will have little incentive to develop the skills, knowledge and understanding that would enable them to operate a more inclusive learning environment?
In making these observations I am not being critical of teachers. After all, we all have “teaching difficulties” or “special pedagogical needs” and at times these cause us to struggle in our classrooms. I am certainly not advocating that we suddenly abandon those support systems that are currently in place to assist teachers and children who are struggling. In fact I would suggest that those teachers who have given a commitment to operate a remedial service or after school system, are amongst the most dedicated in terms of supporting children. What I would advocate is that we reconsider how these committed professionals are utilised for the benefit of a greater number of children and teachers in schools. Might it be possible that these specialist teachers could be in the vanguard of change within schools, working alongside their mainstream colleagues to enhance their skills and to change attitudes and expectations?
I know that many will say that this is an idealistic stance, and I am certainly not so naïve as to believe that such a change could happen overnight. But I am conscious of the difficulties in providing the kind of professional development that teachers need in order to move inclusive education forward in India, and suspect that this will not happen until the skills and dedication of those teachers currently struggling to provide support is more effectively deployed. Whenever I am in Bangalore I am moved by the commitment shown by colleagues operating after school classes and specialist support. Many of these highly skilled teachers may hold the key to the development of inclusive schools, but I am not convinced that they can achieve this within the existing model.
The World Bank Report has done a great service in raising the issue. However, it will be the actions that will hopefully follow that will make a difference.