Last month I had the opportunity to participate in a discussion with representatives of Sarva Siksha Abhiyan (SSA) of Telangana and academics and activists from the state. The focus of the discussion was the girl child, the challenges to bringing gender parity in school education and the possible strategies that could be adopted. Perspectives from the field, the classroom, and the policy arena were brought in by the participants, offering a rich context against which the conversation unfolded. Reports from several sources – both government sponsored studies as well as those by NGOs – suggest that the country has made progress in terms of bringing girls into schools at the primary level. However, retention remains a problem, with a significant fall out in middle school, for reasons we are well aware of – this is when puberty sets in and all the attendant complications that constraint girls’ lives not the least of which has to do with inadequate sanitation facilities in schools as well as cultural taboos associated with menstruation. Another big challenge is making school education relevant for girls – and indeed, for all children particularly those from marginalized communities. In this regard too, studies have shown that the classroom experience can be biased against minority identities, gender being among them.
There was a general consensus that the school is part of a larger social, political, economic and cultural eco-system and many of the issues related to gender that we see in the classroom or playground are reflective of the larger community and society in which it is located. One activist spoke of how girls are unsafe everywhere – at home, on the streets, and even in school – as we are constantly reminded by the reports of violence in the news media. So clearly, school reform can only go so far, and unless there are wide-ranging changes in society, the situation is unlikely to change very much.
It’s easy to be daunted by the scale of the challenges we face, especially those that arise as a result of deep seated inequalities in the fabric of our culture and society, and as teachers, we may often end up feeling like we can’t make any real difference. So we retreat into the narrow spaces where we can see and measure impact – simple learning outcomes, small steps toward understanding of a subject. But it’s also important for us to keep this larger context in mind, even as we continue to work on these more easily handled aspects of learning. We need to see how our classrooms can become spaces where those inequalities and biases are mitigated, to some extent, how we as individual teachers – and as enclosed school spaces – can give children a sense of what it might be like to live in an equitable, just, inclusive society.
It’s also easy to become cynical about large scale programmes like SSA and their limitations. But as one participant remarked, it is important to note limitations, but it’s even more important to not be limited by them!