By Mary Ann Chacko
There is an intense debate between access and quality in education, especially in the developing world. Here, ‘educational access’ is understood as providing children, especially girls and other marginalized segments, entry into schools. ‘Educational quality’, on the other hand, is the improvement of teaching and learning in schools, such as making them more learner-centered and activity-oriented.
By creating a distinction between educational access and educational quality and by suggesting that educational access should come before concerns with improving quality, access and quality are being viewed not only as different but also unequal. It is acknowledged that someone could have access to education, but that need not be quality education. For Indian educationist, Krishna Kumar, one of the most troubling aspects of the dominant discourse about ‘quality’ in education is that, rather than viewing quality as a non-negotiable and essential characteristic of the educational process, educational quality is increasingly being viewed as an add-on and often determined by aspects that are not always integral to schooling.
To demonstrate how this distinction between educational access and educational quality is popularly understood, I would like to discuss two short clips from a Malayalam movie titled ‘Vadhyar’ [School Teacher, 2012], which portrays the struggle of a government school to survive amidst a corrupt bureaucracy, high-fee-seeking English medium private schools, and government-aided schools run by religious organizations. The film ends with the government school being re-instated to its past glory by a young, enterprising, English-speaking, and computer savvy male teacher who himself undergoes a transformation from a negligent to a committed teacher in the course of the film. The first clip shows his initial days in the schools. It is, for me, illustrative of our understanding of educational access. There is a school, with basic infrastructure, teachers, and students – but no guarantees of quality!
The second clip shows the transformation that is coming about in the school – progressing from ‘mere’ educational access to ensuring the ‘quality’ of that access.
The depiction of this qualitative change is extremely thought provoking: a newly painted school building, a newly planted garden (where the plants are bought and planted thereby escaping the hard labor of creating a garden from scratch), a well-equipped library, new posters and paintings in classrooms, rain water harvesting facility, better implements for mid-day meal, introduction of computers, and uniforms for the students. But nowhere in this transformative process do we get a glimpse of explicit teaching and learning, except in the computer class. The only other time we see teaching and learning happening is outside the classroom in what looks like an after-school set-up and even then it is the teacher sitting with the textbook in hand and the children obediently and quietly at work.
This film provided me with an illustration of Krishna Kumar’s concern that quality is increasingly being viewed as an add-on and often determined by aspects that are not always integral to schooling. But the film suggests that the school has become qualitatively different with these add-on so much so that even the middle-class parents are shown as enrolling their children in this Malayalam medium govenrnment school.
[A longer version of this piece was originally published in Esteem: Conversations Between Educators.]
[Mary Ann Chacko is a doctoral student in the Department of Curriculum and Teaching at Teachers College, Columbia University. Her dissertation examines the Student Police Cadet program implemented in government schools across Kerala, India with a focus on adolescent citizenship and school-community relations. She blogs at: Chintavishta.]