I am quite sure that some people, including more than a few teachers, imagine that teaching in a small rural school in a beautiful environment would be part of an idyllic lifestyle. It certainly does have its attractions. The economist E.F. Schumacher in his thought provoking book Small is Beautiful contributed positively to the education debate when he suggested the need to ensure that learning values local communities and contributes to regional economics, a focus best achieved through locally based provision. For many, his economic theories have been interpreted as ensuring that schools remain small, locally based and committed to the espousal of ethical and sustainable living. Such schools should enable communities to maintain their own identities and enable the maintenance of family cohesion. This idea has at times been fostered through fiction, as was the case in the 1950’s when Miss Read (the nom de plume of Dora Jessie Saint) wrote her idealised accounts of life in the mythical English villages of Fairacre and Thrush Green, including the best-selling Village School.
It is still possible in some of the more remote regions of the British Isles to find single teacher schools serving tiny child populations, though in recent decades many of these have been closed and amalgamated with others to provide for a larger pupil group. The loss of a school from any community is sad and can be traumatic for those who live there, but the notion that these were ideal establishments in which to work was often far from the truth.
Teachers in small schools are responsible for delivery of the same breadth of curriculum as their counterparts in larger establishments. The demands made upon a single teacher to provide a thorough foundation in all subjects are considerable and daunting to all but the most versatile of professionals. There are often difficulties in maintaining classes if the single teacher falls ill, and even greater challenges for any pupil who doesn’t relate well to the teacher, when there is no alternative. So, whilst a romanticised image of the small school will persist, they are certainly not institutions free of difficulties.
These thoughts came to mind today after reading an article in the Hindu (Here Dalits denied basic education, by R. Sujatha, April 1st 2015) which tells of the apparently parlous state of education in some rural areas of Tamil Nadu. This reports a campaign by educational activists (it is not explained exactly who these are) and a non-governmental organisation called Samakalvi Iyakkam to appoint more teachers to what are currently single-teacher schools. I would imagine that at this point readers in England and other European countries who have an image of single teacher schools in their minds, may be thinking of a class of perhaps 15 to 20 children. However, the focus of the campaign from Samakalvi Iyakkam is upon providing additional staffing to single teacher schools with a population of more than 115 students. I think that most of us would accept that one teacher with 115 students of mixed age, needs and ability is far from the idyllic situation that readers of Miss Read’s novels might have anticipated!
The Hindu report, which draws heavily upon budgetary figures prepared by Adi Dravidar Welfare Department, identifies the poor staffing ratios in school as just one of the critical factors limiting school attendance. Even where there is a reasonable supply of teachers, the lack of expertise in some subjects such as science and mathematics, is inhibiting effective curriculum opportunities. The article reports that less than one third of students completing primary education in six districts of Tamil Nadu (Chennai, Kancheepuram, Tiruvallur, Tiruvannamalai, Vellore and Villupuram) progress to secondary schooling. In addition to poor staffing levels other factors such as poor toilet facilities, the lack of safe drinking water in 33% of schools and 58% of schools having no playground facilities, are also seen as contributing to this sorry situation.
The Right to Education Act is one of the most progressive and imaginative pieces of legislation to promote inclusion, to have been put into place in any country. However, this is most certainly destined to fail if attention is only given to the development of school facilities in urban areas. Furthermore the lack of professional development for teachers and the low esteem in which they are often held, particularly in government schools in rural areas, is a major obstacle to progress.
I don’t believe that many teachers are really expecting some form of Shangrila in their teaching situations. We all know that teaching is a challenging profession, but equally one that can be immensely rewarding for teacher and pupil alike. It is unlikely that an education system that places an excessive load upon teachers by putting them in front of ridiculously large classes, or denies pupils and teachers access to the most fundamental of resources, and basic necessities, will aid the significant progress that is articulated as a desirable outcome in current Indian legislation.
As is almost invariably the case, those who are struggling most with the challenges outlined by the Adi Dravidar Welfare Department, live in the poorest communities of Tamil Nadu. I am quite sure that a similar situation pertains in other states across India. The willingness to implement change is in evidence throughout the Indian education system. I see this regularly in the commitment of the teachers with whom I work whilst visiting the country. There is, however, a persistent difficulty in achieving the levels of co-ordinated response that can bring about the change that everyone wishes to see.