Perhaps it is the system that should be examined!

A perilous way to climb to the highest grades, and not one to be condoned!

A perilous way to climb to the highest grades, and not one to be condoned!

I share an office with a colleague who is an enthusiastic rock climber. In my younger days I too enjoyed the challenges that came with scaling the vertiginous cliffs of the mountains in Wales, The Lake District or Scotland, though in recent years I have been less inclined to seek the thrills of dangling above empty spaces; though the quiet of the mountain landscape still holds great appeal. You might then think that we would admire the chutzpah of individuals clinging to a sheer wall and shimmying along narrow ledges fifty feet above the ground. But yesterday we stared in disbelief at images that were being beamed around the world from Bihar State in India, not a region normally associated with mountaineering.

Under headlines such as “ 300  Arrested Over Bihar Exam Cheating Scandal,” (Indian Express) and “Bihar Exam Cheaters Inspired by Bollywood” (Times of India) pictures such as that above, have been shown, of parents grappling their way up the steep walls of school buildings and passing the answers to examination questions to their awaiting offspring through windows. Other reports suggest that parents have propelled the answers concealed in paper aeroplanes through open windows. (This seems highly unlikely as anyone who has ever tried to achieve accuracy with a paper aeroplane will attest). This is examination cheating on a mass scale. Arrests have been made (some news reports say as many as 900) and the inquest into the demise of the Indian examination system has begun.

This behaviour is clearly scandalous, but it is suggested by some reporters that it is not uncommon and has been taking place over many years. Understandably, the majority of journalists reporting this outrage have expressed their opinions in terms of disgust and horror, in many instances they are unsure about who is at greatest fault, the parents, the students, the teachers or the school authorities? However, a few reports have made an effort to understand how this bizarre situation has emerged in a nation so determined to demonstrate educational excellence.

Amongst all the anguished wringing of hands that has typically characterised the reporting of this incident in the press, there have been a few efforts made to understand the causes of this problem. One of the more thoughtful commentators to publish his thoughts is Sanjay Kumar, himself a Bihari, who is currently a Fellow at Harvard University in the USA (NDTV 23rd March).  Kumar reports that cheating has been endemic in the Indian education system over many years, and that this results from the extreme pressure put on students to achieve high standards, despite often receiving poor quality teaching in under resourced schools. The blame for this situation he suggests, should be distributed amongst a host of interested parties.

Firstly, he is critical of an education system that is wholly focused upon academic attainment, but fails to provide well trained teachers capable of delivering the excellence that is sought. In part, this comes from an education administration that perpetuates inequality, with wealthy families sending their children to private schools that are well equipped, and where the nation’s best teachers at to be found. Those attending government schools by contrast, often work with poorly trained teachers and limited facilities, but are expected to compete with their more fortunate peers. Much sought after places in further and higher education are at a premium and these students already start at a disadvantage, the temptation to find ways around the examination process is therefore considerable.

In an examination driven education system, where teachers and schools are judged on their performance, Kumar suspects that corruption is inevitable. Schools are being run as businesses, advertising their quality according to examination results and determined to do all in their power to ensure that these remain as a focal point that enables them to sell places to parents. This, he believes, is unsustainable.

“The teachers will have to be responsible and understand the fact that education is not a business. This is the backbone of our progress and prosperity. They are building the future of the society and thus should be committed to the role they are supposed to play”.

Perhaps the most damning indictment of the education system given by Sanjay Kumar relates to the attitudes of parents. Reflecting on his own school days in Katihar, a city in the same  Bihar State, Kumar recalls that in his school day:-

“Parents were never bothered about the quality of education, but were only concerned about the output and their expectations of us”.

Having made this comment Sanjay Kumar proposes that change will come only when parents take more responsibility and become directly involved in the activities of the school. He believes that many parents feel that the responsibility for passing examinations lies entirely with children and their teachers. Parents need to support their children, rather than simply applying pressure and expressing anger and disappointment when they do not attain the highest grades.

Whilst Kumar condemns the actions reported in the Indian press, he states that:-

“Many students who have gone through this type of education process including myself could well empathize with the circumstances which lead students to get into cheating.”

Cheating of any kind is wrong and needs to be condemned in the strongest terms. But Sanjay Kumar is right to suggest that conditions need to change if such behaviours are to be avoided. Let us hope that the adverse publicity given to state education authorities in recent days leads to positive action that improves the lot of teachers, students and parents.

Incidentally, the rope handling skills of some of the pictured erstwhile mountaineers are quite appalling. I would refer them to the excellent British Mountaineering Council guidelines on safe management of belays!

Punitive measures alone will achieve nothing

These children in Bangalore attend a government school in one of the most deprived areas of the city. However, the commitment of teachers is great because of the respect and esteem in which they are held.

These children in Bangalore attend a government school in one of the most deprived areas of the city. However, the commitment of teachers is great because of the respect and esteem in which they are held.

I am seldom convinced that punitive measures in education work. I am even less well disposed towards these when they are applied in poor situations which have, to some extent, been created by those who would inflict punishment.

A number of news reports from the state of Bihar, one of India’s poorest districts have lately caused me to reflect on how a dire educational situation there could be improved. For many years there have been major difficulties in recruiting teachers to work in this deprived area of the country, which has often been singled out for the poor quality of its education and social provision. A few years ago a significant recruitment drive was conducted in order to fill the many teaching vacancies in Bihar, and with a stated intention of improving both school attendance and levels of pupil attainment. At one time, this was reported as a success story, with an increase in school attendance and progress being apparently made towards increased levels of literacy. However, in recent months all of this good news appears to have evaporated amidst scandal and intrigue.

Recent reports (see for example http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-india-28190261) indicate that more than 20,000 teachers recruited under a state scheme had forged their degree certificates in order to gain employment. It is claimed that almost 800 of these teachers have recently been dismissed from their posts and that others are to follow.  Furthermore, more than 60,000 primary schools lack principals who could provide leadership and direction for schools where the average pupil teacher ratio is currently one teacher for every 63 pupils (India’s national ratio is about one teacher for every 40 pupils).

All of this makes for depressing reading, but I believe that the information is not easily interpreted. Those unqualified teachers, many of whom are described as incompetent, who are currently working in Bihar’s schools, were presumably appointed by authorities who made very little effort to check their qualifications prior to appointment. One also needs to ask questions about why it is so difficult to appoint teachers to work in this area, whereas in some other parts of India this does not seem to be such a problem?

Part of the difficulty in this situation appears to be the low status afforded to teachers in India, particularly those who work in government schools. Having visited several of these schools (though not in Bihar) I am always aware of how poorly resourced they are when compared to the private schools in the same vicinity. The teachers working in these schools are often less qualified than their counterparts in the “elite” schools, and government schools regularly report difficulties with recruitment of staff. The majority of teachers working in government schools are women and many have second jobs in order to make a living sufficient to feed their families. Recruitment of men to the teaching profession remains problematic because of the low esteem in which teaching is regarded as a profession. In Bihar, which is regularly reported as one of the poorest Indian states, there are major difficulties in attracting a skilled and educated workforce. I am for example, aware of many migrant workers from Bihar and other deprived states such as Orissa, working on the building sites of Bangalore because of the difficulties of finding well paid employment at home.

Children need well qualified and competent teachers and it is quite right that the state officials in Bihar and those at national government level, should be not only expressing concerns, but also identifying those individuals who are working under false pretences and with forged qualifications. However, punitive measures alone will not alleviate this dire situation and it is surely essential that these same authorities address the situation, by enhancing the status of teachers and providing more effective training for those who have ambitions to teach. There are many examples from other countries, including my own, of the development of incentive programmes to encourage teachers to work in poor areas. The provision of assistance with housing is just one of the benefits that have been used to entice well qualified teachers to work in areas where there have been difficulties with recruitment.

I am not suggesting that this is an easily solved problem. However, I do wonder if those teachers who have illegally falsified their qualifications might also be the source of a potential solution to the current difficulties. Presumably some of these individuals have demonstrated a commitment to work in situations that other more qualified persons have avoided. Perhaps an initiative to raise their skills and support them to gain the necessary qualifications might be one part of the answer to the challenges of recruitment in this area.

I have witnessed in many government schools, even those that are poorly resourced and where class sizes are above sixty students, dedicated, highly motivated and competent teachers who are affording children learning opportunities that were denied to previous generations. At one such school, the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan BBMP school in Bangalore, which serves one of the most deprived areas of that city, I have seen enthusiastic and skilled teachers making a significant contribution to the lives of their students. This has been achieved because of the ethos of respect and appreciation created by the school principal and the gratitude of the community served. Whilst I am sure that many of the teachers working in that school could obtain better paid posts in private schools elsewhere in the city, their dedication to their students and the recognition they receive for the progress that these children make, ensures that they have status in their community and feel appreciated for their professionalism.

I do hope that the authorities in Bihar take the appropriate action to address the serious fraud that has characterised many of the schools in that state. But I would also urge them to look in more detail at the underlying situation that has led to this problem, and find ways of enhancing the position of teachers who would provide a commitment to the children in that area.