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Whither education for children after the pandemic?

Shoma A. Chatterji looks at the disturbing scene through the prism of hard-hitting films screened and discussions organised around them by an independent collective

People’s Film Collective (PFC) is an independent, autonomous, people-funded cultural-political collective based in West Bengal. Formed in 2013, it believes in the power of films to educate the oppressed, and as an alternative media platform. PFC organises monthly documentary screenings and conversations in Kolkata. It travels throughout Bengal with films and videos. Its members document people’s movements, make political documentaries and organise film workshops.

PFC organises the Kolkata People’s Film Festival in January, the Frames of Freedom in August, and travelling documentary festivals around the year. The collective has a campaign called Little Cinema where thought-provoking films for children and young adults are screened and discussed. It also brings out a Bangla journal titled Protirodher Cinema (Films of Resistance), focussing on documentaries, political cinema and counterculture.

The collective often works together with like-minded collectives of the working class and people’s movements. It does not confine itself to an annual film festival but extends its activities to creating awareness among children of slums and very poor families which could lead to their having a dignified life as adults. It brings together filmmakers, students, workers, artists, writers, journalists and a wide cross-section of people to interact and form friendships over films.

PFC recently screened a documentary titled Are You Going to School? directed by Anupama Srinivasan. Children formed part of the audience, and there was a panel discussion following the screening in which eminent scholars, teachers and administrators in education from across the state participated.

The film journeys through rural government schools in the predominantly tribal district of Dungarpur in southern Rajasthan. It showed children from difficult contexts with very limited material resources, absentee fathers and younger siblings to look after. How do teachers respond to this situation? How do they bring children to school and try to create an environment in which they are motivated to learn? The film explores the fragile relationship of children with schools. “Are you going to school today?” is a question that needs to be asked every day.

Delhi-based filmmaker Srinivasan has been making documentaries and short films around gender and education, often shooting and editing her own work. She has also held two solo photography shows in Delhi. Engaged in working with children, she conducts filmmaking workshops with children and youth. Beyond festivals, her films (and films by those she has mentored) have been shown in university and workshop contexts. I Wonder, her documentary with children, is on the syllabus for the Bachelors in Elementary Education programme.

A famous statement of Nelson Mandela is displayed at the entrance of the University of South Africa. It reads:”Destroying any nation does not require the use of atomic bombs or the use of long-range missiles. It only requires lowering the quality of education and allowing cheating in the examinations by the students.” It goes on to foresee a collapse of the nation because of a lack of education or the perpetuation of mis-education. Among the biggest victims of the pandemic were children who could not go to school for two years.

Let us take a closer look at the figures of students who completed Secondary and Higher Secondary education in West Bengal last year. The state had declared that all those eligible to take the Std X or Madhyamik Examinations would be declared to have passed, without sitting for the exams. They did not seem to have taken cognizance of the disaster this could result in, if not immediately, then within a few years.

The Higher Secondary School Examinations followed a similar pattern. Without appearing for a single paper, 98 per cent of those who had filled in the requisite examination forms were declared to have ‘passed’ and 60 per cent obtained a First Class! This defies all logic and breaks all records of examinations throughout the state. The situation in 2022 is scary. Examinations for both Madhyamik and Uchcho Madhyamik were duly held. But the results are shocking. The top ten ranks were shared by 272 candidates who took the exams, 22 of them from the same school.

Neither the merit nor the intelligence of the candidates concerned is being called in question. What is being questioned is the way the media in general has been publicising these results with a sense of great pride, without questioning the absence of ethics, logic and administrative justice. What guarantee is there that these meritorious students will be able to repeat their performance when they step into institutes of higher education within and outside the state, the country and beyond? It’s a classic example of education killing education, and if other states copy the West Bengal model, even in a modified way, the entire nation is likely to go to the dogs in the next few years. 

At the pre-screening discussion on What Did You Learn in School Today, Swati Bhattacharya, who has been researching and writing about education and the effects of the education system on children for years, began with a telling account of her experience in a school in Birbhum, and talked of the controversial no-fail policy and how we have set up our children for failure. She spoke about the lack of connect between the education system and the student.

Manisha Banerjee, head of an institution in Labhpur, Birbhum, shared her extensive experience as an educator and leader. She was brutally honest about the lack of space for expressing differing views, the unbreakable ‘rules’ that someone, somewhere has formulated which actually deprive students of basic necessities, the tendency to extend school holidays for no good reason, and the insistence that exhausted teachers attend numerous ‘training sessions.’

Sudeshna Sinha, a teacher, journalist, and pedagogy researcher, spoke of her experiences with alternative educational pedagogies –including taking Shiksha Mitra to different parts of the city. Shiksha Mitra or ‘friend of education’ refers to those working in basic junior schools run by the Basic Shiksha Parishad before the Uttar Pradesh Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education came into force.

Sinha explained how using the narratives of the children themselves proved an effective pedagogical method, as did cinema. The logic is – why use books written by people far removed from one’s reality? She spoke of cohesive, inclusionary practices, where everyone was involved in all activities and timetables were readjusted to accommodate more effective, joyous learning practices.

(The writer is a senior journalist and film historian based in Kolkata. She was presented the South Asia Laadli Media and Advertising Award for Gender Sensitivity 2017.)

July – September 2022