Education for all?


The key to successful inclusive education is teacher training. Teaching to a heterogeneous classroom is a skill that has to be taught in teacher training programmes, writes Padma Shastry.

When the word ‘sarva’ was included in the name of the governmental organisation ‘Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan’, a certain high and ambitious ideal was defined for India’s future. How well is it being realised?

It is early days, for sure, but are we on our way to achieving it? Or are personal prejudices, inadequate training, and policies undermining that high ideal?

I believe there is opposition to the recent mandate on including students from the socioeconomically disadvantaged population in schools. I can certainly understand why.

Teachers are used to teaching homogeneous groups of students. Every school caters to a certain demographic, whether it is middle class, economically disadvantaged, or the privileged. All students in a class or school are roughly from the same background. It is easier to teach a group of students with similar backgrounds.

It is also somewhat true that schools not only group along economic lines, but also along cognitive lines. Most private schools are exclusive in nature. I use exclusive in the sense of exclusion — they keep out students who do not fit the mould, either socioeconomically or cognitively.

They interview parents and have students take entrance tests. They take into account the education level of parents. Such checks make the student population at a school even more homogenous.

Class dynamics

Introducing students from socioeconomically disadvantaged populations or with disabilities into such a class changes the dynamic drastically. Such students bring a whole different set of issues into the classroom.

Even if they fit in cognitively (who says students from poorer families or students with special needs cannot be intellectually high achieving?), they might have other needs that the teacher and the school cannot meet.

Is this experiment, then, doomed to failure? Will the RTE experiment raise the quality of education for the disadvantaged? Or will it bring down the quality of education for the high achieving? Is that the fear? What happens when we introduce students with disabilities into the classroom?

I am a special education teacher; I teach students with disabilities. Should I not entertain any hope of seeing my students successfully integrated into mainstream schools? What if one of my students is a potential Stephen Hawking? Would our education system banish him to the hinterlands of segregated special education? Would we as a nation refuse to nurture such potential? Would my students remain as second class citizens?

I taught in the United States, and I did this type of inclusive teaching for a living. I taught in a government funded public school, where we had to educate every student who walked in the door. We had students from all backgrounds and several different types of disabilities in the classroom.

My own daughters attended such public schools and learned with students with disabilities. I only say this to illustrate that this is not a new experiment. It can be done, and it has been done. Of course, it goes without saying that the Indian model of inclusive education will look nothing like the US model, or any other for that matter. India will have to develop a workable model that reflects the realities of our country, our troubles and strengths. But, refusing to deal with it can hardly be the answer.

Specific courses

The Rehabilitation Council of India has designed courses that cater to specific disabilities. However, we do not find a class full of students with one type of disability in a school. Such homogeneous grouping would only be found in a segregated setting. How would such courses help in inclusive education?

The key to successful inclusive education is teacher training. Teaching to a heterogeneous classroom is a skill that has to be taught in teacher training programmes. Learning, achievement and success have to be nurtured and cultivated regardless of the circumstances of the student.

Teaching is a career, a calling even; it is so much more than just a job. Would a teacher, faced with a difficult student, challenge himself or herself to find a solution, or would he or she ask that the student be removed from school for failing to fit in? The latter scenario occurs much more often. That is a crying shame.

That is a teacher accepting failure. That is a teacher saying he or she has nothing more to give. That is a teacher saying that he or she has reached the limit of his or her knowledge. This last, at least, can be remedied by improved teacher education.

The rest of it is a mindset that can only be changed through greater self-confidence, self-worth and self-respect. After all, could I respect myself if I gave up on a student and accepted defeat?

I have also heard from teachers who ask if it is worth it to spend extra time on one or two students at the expense of the rest of the class. It doesn’t have to be so. This is where the skills and strategies of teaching a mixed class help.

Besides, such cost-benefit, or rather, labour-benefit analysis is unbecoming of the teaching profession. How do you like it when your doctor performs a similar mercenary analysis to determine your medical care? Teachers and doctors work with human beings, not iPhones.

The construction site next door could produce a student who might find a cure for cancer. My student with cerebral palsy might be the brilliant scientist who could find an alternate fuel source. Does India really want to pass up on such students?

This article appeared in the Education section of Deccan Herald newspaper on Aug 30th, 2012

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