Corporal punishment is part of India’s “learning crisis”

Bill Gates recently said that his biggest disappointment in India was its education sector. He added  though that he was glad that Indian philanthropists were picking up education with high priority. I am not as optimistic as Bill Gates that leaving education to wealthy individuals is a sustainable solution. Blame it on my background in political science, but I feel quite strongly that this is, in fact, a job for the government. It is also a matter of urgency. India’s economy, despite recent slowdown, is still growing at exceptional rates and the demand for educated and qualified people follows suit. The Government’s initiative “Skill India” is trying to fill the gap between educational outcomes and industry demand, but is hardly able to keep up. It is also treating symptoms instead of the cause: the poor quality of Indian schools, particularly government schools.

Schooling instead of teaching

Shortly after I took up my new role with an NGO that, among other things, provides education to disadvantaged children, I visited a government school in Gurgaon. Government schools are typically attended by children of disadvantaged backgrounds, such as migrant workers communities, because their parents cannot afford to send them to a private school. I did not really know what to expect, but what I saw was definitely much worse. The first thing that struck me was how easy it is to get teachers out of their classroom. We showed up unannounced and I was preparing for being kicked out with the instruction to make an appointment after school hours. Instead, we were invited to the principal’s office where we had an hour-long discussion with a group of teachers. After that, we walked around the school campus, although “campus” seems excessively euphemistic given the sad state of facilities. The school is basically an assembly of empty concrete structures, some of which nearly collapsing, where the children sit on the floor, either in a circle or in rows, and study on their own or, if teachers dare to make an appearance, have to chant and repeat after them. Child-centred and development-appropriate pedagogy and modern didactics are entirely absent from these classrooms. The teachers’ attitudes add to that. If I was trying to be polite, I would say that government school teachers are from higher social backgrounds and often have a number of caste- or gender-related perceptions about their students, combined with a lack of professionalism. More bluntly, one could say that they are full of prejudice don’t give a damn about their students or their job. When we were doing fieldwork and talking to some of the children attending those schools, we were even more flabbergasted. Instead of teaching children, many teachers would do all kinds of things, such as playing with their phones, taking selfies, or knitting sweaters, provided they would show up at all. While government schools may be particularly bad, it is not only about them. Private schools are better-resourced and delivering slightly better outcomes, they too are falling way behind their objectives. This has led to a “learning crisis” in India, as the ASER report and the World Bank recently said, where half of the children in fifth grade are unable to solve two-digit subtraction and cannot read one sentence fluently. However, the worst part of the crisis in India’s education sector is corporal punishment. This is hardly acknowledged, partly because it has been normalised by everyone and partly because it is not bad enough to spark the same headlines as murder and homicide. 

Corporal punishment is a never-ending ordeal for India’s school children

The time that teachers waste on scolding and beating children could in fact be spent on teaching children something useful, which might be worth considering in light of the poor performance of India’s educational sector. By hampering the education of individual children on a large scale, corporal punishment also undermines India’s educational sector and its aspiration to deliver the educational outcomes that are required by an ambitious and developing 21st century economy. The extent of India’s current learning crisis has been described by the World Bank recently: 80% of grade 2 students cannot read a single word of a short text. In rural areas, half of grade 5 students are not able to solve “46 minus 17” nor fluently read “There were black clouds in the sky” in local language. In urban areas, the picture is not much different, e.g. in Delhi, the ability of students lacks behind  by three or four grades, with a widening gap for the lowest-performing children over time. While this sad state of affairs is not caused by corporal punishment alone, it makes clear that India’s schools need to change their approaches and methodologies. Eliminating the practice of corporal punishment must be part of that change process.

Schools should be a safe place for our children (especially as so many other places are not safe for them)

With corporal punishment prevailing India’s schools cannot deliver the outcomes required in a 21st century developing economy

Corporal punishment is typical of an authoritarian (school) culture – being taught not questioning elders rather than evaluating their actions (with the possibility to reject them), no one should be surprised that children follow strangers into cars

Subjecting children to permanent violation of their human rights and dignity by their teachers puts them at higher risk for abuse by others – if children are not to question violent and abusive acts by teachers, how should they be able to question bad intentions by abusive relatives