Access to Education in India in a Post-Pandemic World: A Panel Discussion with the Experts
India has one of the largest student populations in the world, but unfortunately, access to education remains fraught with many obstacles, especially for the poorest sections of Indian society. What are some of the challenges to accessing education in India? How can the country ensure that even the poorest have access to education or vocational training in order to join the mainstream workforce? Find out what our panel of experts had to say at a recent discussion held at the French embassy in Delhi.
Access to Education in India in a Post-Pandemic World: a Panel Discussion with the Experts
The COVID-19 pandemic has escalated our collective dependence on technology and nowhere has this digital transformation been more keenly felt than in schools and colleges around the world. Almost overnight during the pandemic, brick and mortar classrooms were replaced by virtual spaces. In India, as in many other parts of the world, this shift to online classrooms only served to expose the underlying inequalities in access to education.
India was not ready for the two years of online education. Only 2.7% of India’s poorest households have access to a computer while only 8.9% have access to internet facilities. The question that then arises is what will be the face of education in a post-pandemic world?
TARA organized a panel discussion at the French Embassy, New Delhi on 11th January 2023. In order to address this issue and explore the various facets of education in an evolving world that seems to be more in need of alternative education that goes hand-in-hand with skill development and also accounts for the mental health of the students.
Moderated by Ms. Caroline Roublin, (a.k.a. Basanti), Executive Director of ONYVA (TARA’s Programs), the panel comprised of Dr Anju Chazot, Author, Educator &, and Co-Founder of Mahatma Gandhi International School, Dr Amit Sen, Psychiatrist, Writer, & Director of Children First and Mr. Dev Pratap Singh, CEO/Founder of Voice of Slum, Ms. Meenakshi Yadav, Vahani Scholarship beneficiary and Ms. Noorie, TARA beneficiary.
The panelists brought different perspectives and experiences to the table and the discussion that ensued was insightful and had some very important takeaways for the audience, which too comprised diverse key stakeholders in the field of children’s rights and education, social responsibility and decision makers. This event brought together people from different backgrounds, allowing them to understand each other’s perspectives and have an open discussion on how various stakeholders can come together to ensure better access to holistic education.
Mr. Dev Pratap Singh, co-founder of Voice of Slum, an NGO that helps children from the slums gain access to education recalled his own journey from living in the streets to becoming the founder of the NGO. “Most children living in the slums are first-generation learners, and often, their families fail to recognize the importance of formal education. This is especially true for girls,” he said.
He further threw light on the disguised inaccessibility that the underprivileged have to face due to the long-drawn-out process involved in availing benefits of government schemes and policies. He said, “The complicated process of admissions under Economically Weaker Section / Disadvantaged” is not viable for most families. Further, the inequalities within the classrooms discourage the children and ultimately lead to them dropping out of school.” He suggested that schools should include vocational training and skill-building courses so that the children from disadvantaged backgrounds can also be mainstreamed in society.”
Dr Anju Chazot has always been a strong supporter of alternative education. Working in partnership with the government, she co-founded Mahatma Gandhi International School, a K-12 inclusive and democratic school that offers active and experiential learning to all sections of society.
Describing the structural breakdown in the education system in India, she described several areas where the current education system was failing. According to Dr Chazot, passive, lecture-based methods of teaching and rote-learning of concepts lead to fragmentation of the knowledge body, and lack of understanding of the actual concepts being taught.
Highlighting the class-based division in classrooms, Dr Anju said that in India, children of the poor go to poorly funded schools, children of the middle class go to middle-class schools and children of well-to-do families go to expensive, private schools. She added that even though the Right to Education Act tried to bridge this gap, there was a serious lack of diversity in the classroom. “And so, the children fail to learn how to see things differently,” she added.
When asked if changing the system would ensure better access to education, she replied, “The education system should liberate the children, but the current system is built on a model that subjugates them. Education should be joyful. The learning crisis can change if we remove these ills from the system—which hopefully the New Education Policy 2020 should be able to do.”
Another member of the panel was Ms. Meenakshi Yadav a student at Lady Shri Ram College, University of Delhi.Coming from a disadvantaged background, Ms. Meenakshi had, against all odds, built a successful career in journalism. A beneficiary of the Vahaani Scholarship, she recounted how a merit-based system was her only way out of the vicious cycle of poverty. On the New Education Policy, she said that the abolition of the University Grants Commission and the Higher Education Financing Agency loan model under the New Education Policy would further trap students like her in the cycle of loans which they would never be able to repay. “Loans can never be a substitute for grants, and these features of the NEP will deprive underprivileged children of higher education. Policies should cater to the have-nots of society and not be written from the vantage points of the power holders of the system”, she said.
When a learning system fails to cater to the needs of children and there is a lot of pressure to stay ahead of the competition, the effects can lead to deteriorating mental health. According to the survey conducted by the NCERT, 81% of the respondents reported academics as the cause of their anxiety.
Also on the panel was Dr Amit Sen, founder of Children First, an organisation that offers mental health services for children and adolescents. Dr Sen, a child and adolescent psychiatrist recounted how when he first started Children First, most people told him that there was no need for specialized services for children in the area of mental health. “But, over the years, there has been a shift and people are more understanding of the need for mental health counselling,” he said. “The pandemic has also played a major role in this. Pre-pandemic, there was an other-ing that happened in cases of mental health problems, but since the pandemic, people have realized that anybody can get affected he added. His experience in how the education system affects the mental health of children was very insightful and he called for the stakeholders of children’s rights to hold policymakers accountable for creating more inclusive and diverse policies. “, The change cannot happen overnight, but we should all come together and work towards it,” concluded Dr Sen.
While talking about her life at TARA, Noorie, 13, shared how the inclusive environment at TARA Girls and her day school helped her develop critical thinking and gave her a safe space to express her opinions. Stressing the importance of having more such safe spaces, especially for girls, she said that she wished for a world where every girl and every child had a platform to share their opinions and have a free dialogue with those responsible for shaping the education system.
The panel discussion came to a close, leaving the audience with key insights. The discussion highlighted the need for an alternative education system that integrates skills development and mental health support while also addressing the current inequalities in access to education. Traditional education systems often prioritize academic achievements over personal growth and development. This can have negative consequences on mental health and overall well-being. In contrast, alternative education models focus on developing life skills, critical thinking, problem-solving abilities, and emotional intelligence, which are essential for success in both personal and professional life. Education plays a crucial role in shaping an individual’s future and is essential for the overall development of society. Therefore, it is important to prioritize education and work towards creating a system that is inclusive, accessible, and effective in developing an individual’s skills and abilities.Posted on 08 May 2023