Teachers’ Perspectives on Inclusive Education in India

Distinguished Fellow, Professor Maya Kalyanpur further explores the topic of inclusive education in India in a low-fee private school.

Primary schoolteachers in a low-fee paying, private English medium school in a low-income neighborhood in Mumbai, India, were interviewed on their perspectives on inclusive education. The school was established in response to the liberalization of economic policies in India in the early 1990s that sought to provide alternatives to the existing government-run public education system, which had proven unable to meet the demand for schooling for all. English medium private schools catered primarily to affluent families, whose children then benefitted from access to the colonial legacy of an English-based higher education system. By charging low fees and offering instruction in English, the school attracted parents from the neighborhood who wanted their children to learn English, recognizing it as a passport to success, but could not afford a more expensive private school. All the children spoke a language other than English at home and were being introduced to both conversational and academic English, for the first time in school. The study situates itself within the current debate on low fee-paying schools. Some scholars assert that the government being unable to meet the demand for quality education, private schools are better than nothing at all (e.g., Tooley, 2009) while others have argued that private schools exploit low-income parents’ aspirations for their child to access top tier higher education by offering poor quality education (e.g., Nambissan, 2012; Sarangapani & Winch, 2010).

Based on ethnographic interviews and classroom observations conducted over a four-month period as well as an analysis of policy documents, this study focused on what inclusive education meant to six teachers within the context of the national “no fail” policy which requires that students be promoted regardless of their academic performance until the eighth grade. Three themes emerged: (a) despite an awareness of the benefits of child-centered learning, teachers focused on teacher-led instruction, with a strong emphasis on rote memorization; (b) their limited pre-service training not having provided them with the strategies to respond to the needs of those who struggled to learn, teachers engaged minimally with these students and held largely negative views of them and their home backgrounds; and (c) in a highly competitive context and a strongly hierarchical system where the teacher has considerable authority over parents, teachers are not accountable for ensuring that students learn.

Photo from a classroom in India courtesy of Educate Girls Globally (EGG)

With a minimum of 60 students in their classes, the teachers struggled to ensure that students acquired the academic language while meeting the curriculum standards that would enable their students eventually to pass the state-mandated school completion exam in Standard Ten exam to enter pre-university. While their own middle-class backgrounds had enabled them to go to middle tier private schools where they had learned English, they too rarely spoke the language at home. Classroom observations corroborated their efforts to teach in a language that was unfamiliar to the students and equally cumbersome for the teachers. In the end, they reconciled themselves to teaching to the top two to five percent of the class. Instruction was primarily teacher-led. The standard format for lessons was an opening introduction to the lesson, which mostly consisted of the teacher reading from the textbook and offering translations or clarifications as needed. The teacher then recorded the main points of the lesson on the board and for the rest of the class period the students copied these notes from the board into their notebooks. Students who were able to do so within the remaining time shared their notes with those who were not. Although the teachers mentioned having received training on using child-centered instruction and had some play materials available to facilitate this, these materials or strategies were rarely used. During initial observations, teachers did pull them out to show the researcher and even some in one or two lessons, but over time, they fell back on their habit of teacher-led instruction. Informal assessments of the students by the researcher found that most of the students had memorized the notes from each lesson with very little understanding of their meaning and were able to apply this learning to similarly worded or duplicative questions for the school’s month-end examinations.

All the participants held fairly negative views of the struggling students and would often make reference to their family background in terms of their parents being uneducated. Many of these students came from particularly low socio-economic backgrounds and received state-supplied free uniforms and some fee subsidies to attend school. The students were either bunched together at the back of the class or made to sit next to an academically successful student who was expected to share their notes with them. Again, during initial observations, teachers did check on these struggling students’ performance in class, but over time, they engaged minimally with them. According to the teachers, in every class, there were inevitably five to six students who would be at the bottom of the class, and who would have been held back if the “no fail” policy were not in place.  They were ambivalent about the policy: they acknowledged its disadvantage- that students would keep getting pushed up the grades without learning the curriculum and would possibly drop out at the eighth grade, but also identified its advantage in that the students would not be their concern after this school year was over.
The teachers strongly held the view that parents were equally responsible for ensuring that the students were academically successful.  According to them, responsible parents arranged for their child to attend remedial classes, or private group tutorial services offered in the morning for students who attended the afternoon shift in school and in the afternoon for students who were in the morning school shift.  Some teachers offered special after-school sessions on Saturdays to go over the content covered through that week and openly berated the parents, when they came to pick up their child, for not taking responsibility for making sure their child had the necessary notes (or “portion”) and for forcing the need for these make-up sessions.  The study argues that, despite efforts towards education for all, the poorest of the poor continue to be the most disadvantaged in terms of access to quality education.

Meet Maya Kalyanpur

References

Nambissan, G. B. (2012). Private schools for the poor: Business as usual? Economic & Political Weekly, 47(41), 51-58.

Sarangapani, P. M. & Winch, C. (2010). Tooley, Dixon and Gomathi on private education in Hyderabad: A reply. Oxford Review of Education, 36(4), 499-515. DOI: 0.1080/03054985.2010.495465

Tooley, J. (2009): The beautiful tree: A personal journey into how the world’s poorest people are educating themselves. New Delhi: Penguin.

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