Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Education for all?

Teach for America has persuaded a significant number of young, well-educated Americans to take two years to teach in under performing schools serving poor communities in the United States. Thus enthused the high achievers return to their career paths and become advocates for better educational outcomes in the country.

The model has been brought to India - Teach for India - and in Delhi they have 145 Fellows of the programme teaching in both public and low cost private schools.

It was was to one of these private schools I went this morning. In a 'contained' basement (but clean , well lighted and equipped), I attended a class of 7-9 year old children, uniformed, alert and prepared for our arrival.

They sang, and questioned and we questioned back - all in English - a language three months earlier they had little command of. I then went, as a part of a group, to visit the house of one of the parents. It was an illuminating conversation - he had three children and they and their parents lived in a single room (with washroom and kitchen) for which he paid 4,000 rupees (25% of his salary). He was completely committed to his children's education and to all of them - two girls and a boy - equally (which was refreshing and, sadly, not always the case). He was very articulate about the sacrifices he was prepared to make for his children's opportunities, even saying that he wanted to be known as the father of his (named) children. That would be his happiness.

Fascinating too that he was a supporter of the BJP - not for being, noticeably a Hindu nationalist - but because he saw himself as an aspirant member of the middle class (having moved from Bihar to Delhi) and because of Congress' perceived (and indeed actual) corruption. To our eyes this was poverty - five family members in a single room, mainly occupied by a giant bed - but to him both his job (shift manager at a Japanese owned factory), the success of some of his relations and his hopes for his children, made him middle class in the making.

I had concerns.

First Teach for India is very 'American' having high expectations for each and every child. They should/could achieve 'anything'. High expectations are vital but they needs to be realism too and an education system has to be multi-faceted to account for ranges of ability and interest. Going to college in itself is not the only (or the best) aspiration for everyone and tends to skew education towards the academic performer rather than the practically gifted.

Second there is the perennial challenge of private education. Does its existence and its undoubted popularity let the government off the hook from providing good quality education for all? Teach for India works in both kinds yet it was noticeable in our private school boys outnumbered girls. The boys go to the better performing private school, the girls go to the government school because it is free!

However, they were aware of the many difficulties and nothing but good can come from a significant number of highly capable young Indians giving two years to have what can only be a very challenging and inspiring opportunity and continue their careers and lives with a deep passion for quality education for all and being in positions to help influence the terms of that debate.


  1. ... just as the UK has its own, very legitimate debate about the real value of convincing '50% of school-leavers' to go through University; as though that was the only route to fulfilment...

  2. Exactly! I felt a strong bias in our conversation that a doctor is more important than a car mechanic. Their value is simply different and what is important is the person's own self worth - that they are making the best contribution.


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