What drives schools? A critical sociology perspective

Simran Luthra

Schools have become a part of the landscape of modern societies in a ubiquitous and unremarkable way. In the modern world, not only is it unimaginable what else children would do if they did not go to school, but also frowned upon when children are not allowed the opportunity to attend school. Goals have been set both at national and international levels (viz. universal primary enrollment, which is a part of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), the Education for All (EFA) internationally, and the Sarva Shikhsa Abhiyan (SSA), the Indian education programme with the same goal of universalization of elementary education), to ensure that enrollment rates for schools improve, while non-enrollment and drop-out rates decrease. The Right to Education Act (RTE) also came into force in India in April 2010, so the SSA acquired the required legal backing for its implementation by making education a fundamental right for children between the ages of 6 and 14. However, formal schools, as we know them, are relatively recent institutions.

Contextualizing modern schools
Modern schools came into being in Europe circa 1700s. The emergence of formal schools in Europe was tied to building national identities among citizens as several nations transitioned from monarchies to nation-states. Around the time of the Industrial Revolution in the 18th century, schools also became associated with the goal of economic development. Schools were supposed to provide the requisite skills and knowledge for participation in the modern economy and advancement of the nation-state (still largely believed to be the purpose of schools). Hence, right from their inception, formal schools have been political entities that seek to produce certain kinds of identities.

Various thinkers and sociologists have analyzed the larger role and functioning of schools. The French sociologist, Louis Althusser, for instance, classified schools as one of the ‘ideological state apparatuses’; that is, one of the means of the nation-state to exercise control over its citizens akin to the media, police, army, or courts. Another eminent philosopher, Foucault, drew parallels between prisons and schools, pointing out how both institutions, along with others such as hospitals and factories, were highly successful in maintaining surveillance over their inmates. It is only in more recent times, with the increasing privatization of schools, that the overt stranglehold of the nation seems to have decreased, though not disappeared completely. That is not to say that schools cease to be politically charged institutions. It is just that with changes in the fabric of world politics and economy, the manner in which power functions through schools has changed.

In India, the history of schooling has deep ties with colonization. The current schooling system is an inheritance from our colonial past; the supremacy of the textbook and evidence of learning through rote, for instance, are two key characteristics of this. Several convent schools established during the British rule still enjoy a high reputation. While post-independence government schools were popular, by the 1980s, what Geetha Nambissan referred to as the ‘middle-class flight’ from government schools in favour of private schools took place. By the 1990s, the liberalization of the economy had led to a greater impetus for the private sector in all spheres, including education. Since then, there has been a proliferation of a variety of schools in India, ranging from low-fee private schools for the poor to super-expensive schools for the elite and wealthy.

So, what drives schools?
Schools are often considered places with transformative potential or spaces where individuals become empowered through education. However, it is crucial to remember that schools ultimately function within the society and often respond to the needs and demands of the times. As our world becomes increasingly focused on individualism and consumerism, schools also respond to these forces. Schools often advertise themselves as places that can ‘future-proof’ students, help students reach their highest potential, make them ‘leaders’, and so on. Different kinds of schools make different kinds of promises. However, ultimately, it is a question of who runs the school and for whom.

Just as Indian society is highly stratified, so is India’s schooling landscape. This means that people from different class groups and backgrounds send their children to different kinds of schools. Even though parents try to choose the ‘best’ schools for their children, they are constrained by their financial capacities and judgment of what would be a suitable ‘investment’ of time and money. Sociologists have, in fact, identified this to be a key role that schools play: of maintaining the existing social stratification through class reproduction. In simple terms, ‘class reproduction’ means that the children of privileged or wealthy parents go to schools that teach them to maintain or improve their status. Conversely, children from disadvantaged or low-income families go to schools that teach them to follow the rules and instructions, preparing them to occupy jobs later in life that require them to follow rather than lead. The pedagogy, curriculum, and the hidden curriculum of schools, all come together to maintain and reinforce the status quo.

Illustration: Sunil Chawdiker

Already, from the very concise outline of the evolution of schools above, one can see how different imperatives drive schools. These range from the agenda of nation-states to form certain kinds of citizens to the larger economy dictating the kind of workers schools should produce. Besides these larger societal forces, there are also several instances where schools are set up on the basis of certain religious or philosophical ideals. A few examples would be the Waldorf schools based on the educational philosophy of Rudoph Steiner or the Krishnamurthy schools that integrate the principles and ideologies of such thinkers into the pedagogy and curriculum. Interestingly, it is such schools that come to be called ‘alternative’, while the ‘mainstream’ schools are those that rarely have any clear-cut philosophical underpinnings.

Another interesting fact is that although schools in India are mandated to be not-for-profit by the government for all practical purposes, private schools are profit-making entities more often than not. Schools often need to cater to what parents want from them to sustain themselves. It is also interesting to note that parental involvement (and, at times, even interference) is directly proportional to the high fees that they pay. While alternative schools have a much clearer philosophy of education and attract parents who find alignment with them, the vast majority of the schools for the masses are focused on helping students go through the motions of exams and marks. This helps students establish ‘merit’ through marks, subsequent entry into higher education at times through other competitive exams, whereby they can get ahead in life. Elite schools on the other hand, especially the newer crop of international schools which offer curricula such as the IB, are playing a different game. The focus on rote learning and marks is replaced by a focus on developing skills of communication – both spoken and written, confidence, and an understanding of multiculturalism – that students will find helpful for higher education abroad or in the global labour market.

Parents are deeply invested in the futures of their children. They intuitively choose schools they believe will get their children ahead from the differential points they are standing at in life’s race. Choosing a low-fee private school over a government school signifies hope for a better future for parents from a low socio-economic background. Similarly, sending their child to an expensive international school, even though it means making some sacrifices, is aspirational for middle-class parents. The promise of a secure and bright future, especially from a financial perspective, is one of the strongest factors that motivates school choice. Schools, too, are aware of this.

But what should drive schools?
To answer the question posed in the subheading, of course, ideology and higher values of equal opportunities, critical thinking, care for the environment, empathy, and the like should drive schools. However, since school choice today is a demand-and-supply game, these values and ideologies are superseded by profit motives and the quest for individuals to gain advantage to have better life opportunities. While discerning parents often choose ideology-driven alternative schools for their children, and wealthy parents today increasingly opt for international schools that focus on real-world skills such as research and critical thinking, the vast majority continue to send their children to mainstream schools in the ‘factory-model’ mould.

Paolo Freire, a Brazilian educational philosopher, was one of the harshest critics of this ‘factory model’ of education. In his book The Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Freire refers to the mainstream education system as the ‘banking model of education’. He describes it as a system in which teachers treat students as containers into which they deposit knowledge. Such a system, however, lacks any focus on critical thinking and alienates students from the creative process of education. This, Freire believed, is what is responsible for individuals becoming oppressed, as students are made to conform to become ‘adaptable and manageable beings’ rather than individuals who have their own agency. The alternative that Freire proposed was that of ‘problem-posing education’ in which students are treated as being in possession of intellect, agency, and their own interests and can contribute positively through dialogue.

This means that pedagogy or how students are taught is central to what should drive schools. While we usually look at pedagogy from a narrower perspective, relating it with content, pedagogy, in fact, is extremely powerful as it situates the teacher and student in a certain power dynamic. The more equal this power dynamic, the more empowering the learning experience becomes. Rather than merely being the means to an end, pedagogy is important in and for itself too.

To conclude…
One of the most common debates one hears time and again is about whether cinema is a mirror that reflects the current state of society or if it is something that can or should reform and transform society. As an art form, the argument for cinema’s potential and responsibility is limited, and we often hear arguments about how cinema cannot be held responsible for societal change. It is ironic that we rarely hear such debates about schools and their purpose and role in changing the world when schools, in fact, are places that have the potential to transform society. But more often than not, they function as institutions that maintain the status quo and existing power dynamics and reproduce societal inequalities. [Perhaps because they do hold the power for such change that it is safer to have such debates regarding an art form!] However, if we were to even attempt to move in this rather radical direction, the first step would be to engage with how schools function at the current societal level, which is what this article nudges one to do, hopefully.

In a utopian world, if schools were driven by ideals of equality, justice, and equity, there would be no stratified schooling system. Despite being a policy goal in India, the ‘neighbourhood school system’ or the ‘common schooling system’ has faced mass rejection because they threaten to upset the status quo. Adopting such a system would do away with the need for choosing schools as the children of the rich and the poor would go to the same school without any barriers of caste or religion. Having such an equal and level playing field in education today seems near-impossible. However, being aware of the larger sociological implications of what it means to have different kinds of schools for different sections of society is important for anyone interested in questions of equality and justice.

Schools, we must remember, are specific types of social institutions that have become popular for socio-historical reasons for imparting of education to humans. Their omnipresence should not blind us to their other functions, some of which may not always be desirable. As educators and teachers, such a sociological orientation can be helpful when choosing a school to work in. It might also be a helpful exercise to take sociological stock of what the purpose of the school you are teaching at is, and if it aligns with your personal educational philosophy, and if not why so. For which game and at which level is the school you are teaching at functioning? Is it furthering the ‘banking’ concept of education? Can you try to make it more ‘problem-posing’? In other words, who and what drives the schools you work at, or send your children to? Who really gains from the schools, and how? Answering such questions might help understand the macro picture, which can put many of the micro-practices that take place in schools in context. Such an orientation may help one understand one’s own position better, and help make more informed choices in the already complex world we inhabit and strive to do right by.

The author is based in Pune and is currently pursuing her PhD. in Education from TISS, Mumbai. She has completed her Masters in English from Jadavpur University and Masters in Education (Elementary) from TISS, Mumbai and taught Hindi at Stanford University, California while on a Fulbright fellowship. She is passionate about language, social studies education, human rights, gender, life skills and teacher education in particular. She can be reached at simranluthra@gmail.com.

Related Article

Factors that drive schools

Leave a Reply