Odisha Middle Class Debates Govt-Private School Divide

A great middle class debate is going on about school education in Odisha at the moment.

Many people have suddenly woken up to their government school roots since a girl student of a private ‘sanskari’ school made some remarks, rather unpleasant indeed, about students of government schools over the Class 10 results declared recently.

Many are criticising the student for her “arrogance”. “Proud to be a government school student” is the new slogan adorning the timelines of thousands of social media users, mostly from the middle class of which I count myself to be a part. Many others, also from the same class, with their perpetual derision for government schools, are justifying her statement.

The girl’s remarks, I feel, are just a reflection of parental disdain for state-run schools.

Well, once upon a time, we all went to government schools. Very few private schools – interestingly called ‘public’ schools – existed even at that time and some ‘reputed’ families sent their kids to those schools. Nonetheless, government schools attracted the major chunk of students; many of our classmates were sons of top government officers, MLAs and ministers.

Things, however, changed over the years with the mushrooming of the private schools, especially after liberalisation of the economy in the early 1990s. The middle class, undoubtedly the main beneficiary of the liberalisation, saw investment in education as an assurance to upward mobility, socially and economically.

Most in the middle class were made to believe that the private schools were better equipped to impart quality education to their children than the government schools and made them battle-ready for competitive examinations that propelled students to top-bracketed, high-salaried jobs.

It was this ‘investment and return’ situation that helped the private ‘public’ schools flourish. Besides, the consideration of status of the parents, rather than genuine concern for quality of education for the ward, also played an important role in choosing a school. So there emerged different private ‘public’ schools for different categories of clients – rich, upper middle class and lower middle class.

In these class divisions, the poor and marginalised parents, without paying capacity, were left with no alternative but to go to government schools. But such schools suffered heavily in terms of monitoring and also status with the complete withdrawal of the middle class, the most vocal in society. An impression gained ground over the years that the government schools and its teachers were worthless.

My experience on the ground tells me that the assumption is not entirely correct. No doubt, several malaise have seeped into the functioning of government schools: infrastructure is bad and there is no accountability.  At the same time, it is also true that there are teachers and there are students, albeit from poorer households, in those schools. The teachers teach and students study.

Many students from such schools, even from dilapidated ones in rural areas, clear their Class 10 exams in flying colours, enrol themselves in government colleges, and, when they get better springboards, take much higher leaps leaving behind students from elite private schools. There have been several instances of teachers from state-owned schools perpetually scouting talents from among the poor and helping them in whatever way to realise their dream to excel in life.

This has been a process despite the proliferation and dominance of private schools in our lives. Only, the middle class fails to notice the contribution of government schools in uplifting students from poorer homes.

Those who have been hurt by the girl student’s remarks must realise that they too are, in one way or another, responsible for the declining status of government schools over the years. Most middle class parents have never questioned the government’s decision to close hundreds of schools as it did not concern them or their children, who study in private schools.

They go for parent-teacher meetings in private schools where their children study but it never occurred to them that they could have organised the same in a government school had they enrolled their wards in them, thereby improving the overall ambience.

The Delhi government has shown how the lot of the government schools can be improved considerably. Besides government action, our public-funded schools in our neighbourhoods may get the required shot in the arm if we put our children in them. Neighbourhood parents’ committees can put in place a monitoring mechanism. It is a better option than forcing children to travel kilometres for hours in packed buses or three-wheelers to go to school.

What is required is a change in perception.

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