A recent report from the World bank titled Student Learning in South Asia: Challenges, Opportunities, and Policy Priorities, makes interesting, though at times depressing reading. I would certainly urge anyone who is concerned for education in this region to work their way through this considerable tome (it is more than 420 pages in length). The report provides a comprehensive analysis of many of the challenges facing education in the south Asia region and includes an interesting discussion of issues such as the impact of poor nutrition, the measurement of student progress and the quality of teaching.
Whilst the report acknowledges many of the important initiatives implemented by governments and schools to increase both the availability and quality of education in south Asian countries, it also highlights the many shortcomings in respect of providing a system that is sustainable and equally distributed across the population in each country. One of the concerns raised in the report relates specifically to the training of teachers and the availability of good quality professional development at both initial teacher training and in-service levels. As the report quite rightly states:-
“A better educated and skilled labour force is critical to sustaining long periods of growth in a world of rapid technological change and increasing global competitiveness and complexity. The fact that—in addition to 13 million children who never attend school—one-quarter to one-third of those who graduate from primary school lack basic numeracy and literacy skills that would enable them to further their education, undermines the growth potential and social cohesiveness of the region.”
This type of statement would appear to be making a fairly obvious point, yet I see a number of problems in terms of moving forward here. Not least of these is the lack of incentives available for teachers to obtain additional training or to attend courses, accredited or otherwise. Unfortunately in many of the countries covered by this report, teaching is a low paid and low status profession, in which placing additional expectations upon teachers to attend courses and receive training is seen as a burden rather than an attractive proposition. Furthermore, professional development costs money. Assuming the availability of course providers who have the correct skills, knowledge and understanding and an appreciation of the cultural context, it is not always possible to develop and deliver training that is within the financial reach of all teachers.
My own experience of delivering training related to children with special educational needs in India bears witness to the challenges that need to be overcome. Firstly, this section of the population is not necessarily seen as a priority by many teachers and certainly not by school principals and managers. Despite the well-intentioned policies of the Indian government, including the Right to Free and Compulsory Education Act, the priorities for many schools are centred around achieving high academic outcomes for the most able children in the population, with most of these coming from the wealthier sections of society.
Secondly, the majority of teachers working in government and some private schools cannot afford the cost of attending training courses and find difficulty in obtaining financial support. This perpetuates the gap between those schools for the wealthier sections of society (often described in India as ‘elite’) and those serving the poorest communities.
In my experience, once teachers in India join well planned professional development courses, they respond well and are keen to apply the learning that they obtain in their classrooms. The greatest challenge is getting them onto those courses in the first place. Many are apprehensive about attending training that requires a considerable commitment on their part, some are wary of obtaining new skills and knowledge that they then feel they may not be able to apply in their particular school circumstances. When the authors of the World Bank Report state that:-
“Improving teacher quality in South Asia could be the most powerful instrument for raising student learning.”
I believe they are correct. However, the challenge remains one of finding ways to develop and deliver the training through means that are both accessible and affordable. Without examining ways of providing support for teachers it seems almost impossible to move forward.
I look forward to my next visit to India to teach students on the MA Special and Inclusive Education programme that we run in Bangalore through the University of Northampton. I know that I will be working alongside good Indian colleagues and with Indian teachers who are enthusiastic and committed to the children with whom they work. I am equally aware that there are many thousands of other teachers who will not access this training, either because of financial barriers, or through a lack of confidence to participate in what may be seen as a challenging course that has limited impact upon their status in the eyes of their colleagues, local community or education policy makers.
Those who do attend the course demonstrate a tremendous commitment to children and their colleagues. It is to be hoped that more like them emerge and that those who are truly focused upon the needs of children find the means to support them.