A state of atrophied human resources

Greg Mortenson is probably to be blamed for my misplaced and unrealistic zeal!

I had been following the work of Greg for a long time for inspiration and ideas as part of my preparation for a visit to the state of Jammu and Kashmir, well more like Kashmir and Ladakh. My 2 week visit to the area was educational, demystifying the prognosis of the paraplegic system of education. I went with solutions to the perceived problems borne out of sympathy for the land, but came back with empathetic questions to which I now seek answers. The lack of will and effort that plagues the political system has rippled into the education there. The two are so intertwined that one feeds into the other; such that lack of educational reform is blamed on political uncertainty and lack of mainstream political participation is largely due to inadequate and unsatisfactory access to uninterrupted education of any substance.

The situation in the Ladakh division of J&K is the same; its manifestations being different. If the pass percentage in government schools (Senior Secondary) in the valley is around 60%, in Leh it is a dismal 25%. These are not exact figures – but for me, unlike a politician or a bureaucrat – approximate is good enough as it clearly indicates the enormity of the increasing number of youngsters who are being branded “failure”. Making all children learn holistically is challenging for any teacher, but teaching them mastery of standardized board examination should be a simple routine task. The teachers at the schools have failed in this routine task, and not surprisingly most of these “failures” find solace and self-actualisation in processions and protest marches in the valley and as trekking guides in Ladakh. It is not only the failure of individual students that is alarming, but the collective failure of the system that is perpetuating such widespread asphyxiation of talent and potential.

There is complete apathy to educational reforms at every level. All believe these are desirable but each passes the buck. The parents blame the teachers, the teachers blame the “system”, the “system” blames the regulators, immediate or distant and so goes on the blame game. Everyone is interested in fixing the blame and hardly anyone talks of fixing the problem, and it seems that everyone is getting accustomed to seeing young lives being wasted with an air of fatalistic indifference with solutions not being sought or being prematurely aborted. So, if in the Kashmir division the glaring problem is the uncertainty for which the buck stops at the administrators, local, regional and national; in Ladakh it is absenteeism and lack of accountability of teachers in government schools. Only a handful of fortunate students have an opportunity of a half decent educational experience mainly because they are packed off to schools outside the province.

The proliferation of new jobs, driven by globalisation at the end of the 20th century, is conspicuous by its absence in Kashmir and Ladakh. This translates into narrowing down of career options for majority of Kashmiris and Ladakhis students. If education is means to an end, the end being a profession, then most of these youngsters are going to take up low paying tourism-centric jobs that are learnt better on-the-job than confined within the four walls of a classroom. Many parents aspire for government jobs for their children, the only constant in uncertain times and insulated environs. Some parents want their children to inherit and expand their businesses, preferably in safer and more trade-friendly lands. None of these ends necessitate innovative educational reforms at pace with a world that is evolving faster than the bat of an eyelid.

At a time when the buzzwords in education are teacher empowerment, performance/merit pay, design thinking and professional development; the teachers in Kashmir come across as disinterested or disempowered. They are polite, well meaning and simple souls cocooned in their world, who are professionally disengaged and untouched by the winds of change. Their repertoire of skills are outdated and their attitude lackadaisical. Human resource, just like natural resource is to be discovered deep within and hydrated by the right circumstances for it to blossom. As early as 1972, The Bhagwan Sahay Committee Report and then later the NCTE Review Committee chaired by Prof Buch, decried the teacher training programmes, yet precious little has been done over the years to address the quality of teacher education and training in the state. Most of the BEd colleges in the state, without appropriate personnel and physical infrastructure, have more students from outside J&K than local students. There is a complete lack of in-service training and support programmes for private school teachers and for government school teachers it’s a mandated requirement requiring no more than a their physical presence. The curriculum of pre-service and in-service programmes is redundant and its delivery half-hearted and dull. The schools in the valley and Ladakh are desperately in need of school administrators who are managers of change and creativity, and who are willing to push forward with a progressive program despite of all mandated restraints.

The state has well thought-out and organised avenues of teacher education and training, in the form of SIE and DIETs, though these seem to be well engineered in form and not content. There is no dearth of training programmes for the teachers but none of the training translates into better school systems and/or classroom practices. In peculiar context of the valley, there is a requirement for more focus on educational psychology based on contemporary research and practices. For instance, at a time when schools elsewhere are buzzing with differentiated learning and inclusive education, teachers in all barring a few schools, are clueless about the learning diversity in their midst. In case of Kargil, they are in the throes of constructing a cultural identity for themselves in the midst of political and geographical insulation. The Autonomous Hill Council is well intentioned and takes cognisance of the issues but lack the experience and the expertise to resolve them. In Leh, the educational system seems to be on a very myopic and tunnel-like path with little or no plans for capacity/capability-building for the benefit of the local students.

Parents, who are the key decision-makers in the educational journey of a child, are so caught up in the uncertain world of work, that they have devised ways of treating the symptoms and not the malaise. Parents would rather send their children to schools outside the province than demand that the non-existent school community find answers to the causes of these symptoms. Parents are not perceived as partners in the child’s learning, but as ill-intentioned and ignorant clients of school services, with no right to seek redressal. Considering that the state is more prone to the vagaries of human and natural upheaval, wouldn’t it make more sense for the frequently closed schools to empower parents and the larger local community to become active partners in their children’s learning?

In this saga of depravity, the protagonist – the students, have a meek or no voice. I am not sure why, but the vision of a child as a curious communicator and collaborator is conspicuously missing. Recently, some initiatives in the form of interactions between university students/staff and international professors have been initiated and a public dialogue has been initiated by the students’ organisation about the future of education in the state. These efforts are few and far between and will yield positive result in a longer term, if not nipped in the bid. This needs foresight and tenacity, guided by a shared vision made tangible into a roadmap with landmarks and checkpoints for reference.

The province is at the crossroads of critical decisions; will it design and indiscriminately create like unsagacious engineers with scant regard for relevance and bequest; or, nurture with the sagacity of the gardener, pollinating, fertilizing and, at the same time, weeding out?

It is a complex decision but one that may determine the course that the state will chart for itself.

Also published in the Kashmir Times on July 22, 2010