Sangeeta Shirname's interview appeared in Yliopisto-lehti

[Yliopisto, Helsingin yliopiston tiedelehti numero 2/2008 (22.02.2008) pages 44-46]

(English translation)

Sangeeta Shirname, a researcher with INSEED visited Helsinki and spoke about the improvement of the Indian school system - and about its inequality. "You have to ask what you want from your life and how education could help you to gain it", she says.

India learns to ask

In some parts of India, private, high-quality research centres produce international "top-experts", while others have difficulties in getting literate. Sangeeta Shirname, researcher, says that education should be understood and executed as a whole; "education must be understood as a part of a person's life, a way of living, not as an absolute value", she says.

Indian school system takes many forms like India herself. State's own schools, private schools and informal education do all follow state's or federal state's own curriculum. International curriculum became available a few years ago. However, the international study programme is very expensive and only few can afford it, says Sangeeta.

In her doctoral thesis, Shirname studied the quality of Indian basic schools. After that she was part of a research team which developed an experimental school. Researchers emphasise the value of interaction between teachers, students and parents.

Not even with money

Even though the state campaigns for the literacy for the whole nation - about 65% of Indians over 15-years were literate in 2001 - the quality of higher education is doubtful at best. "We should invest in the quality of education at all levels" says Shirname. Statistics reveal that basic education is already available for most, but still too many children drop out of schools. Most of the children go to the state-run schools and the richer ones choose private schools where the medium of instruction is english.

It is not easy to get into the best private schools - not even with money. One father in Mumbai got angry because his child did not get admission too a certain school and he estabished a school of his own. Now this is one of the most preferred schools in Mumbai. A certificate from a respected school is a child's best reference.

For girls the situation is not very good

In the past decades the school system has become egalitarian. Since 1950-60, when only 10% of pupils were girls, a radical improvement has taken place, at least in cities. But still today in rural areas girls do not often get education. Poverty is one reason, but also the fact that the journey to the school is not always safe, says Shirname. Quite often the schooling of Indian teenaged girls get interrupted because of early marriages.

Philosophy of the mid-day meal

Since 2004 all students of primary schools have the right to a mid-day meal - a revolutionary improvement, people say. Because of Indian caste system this common meal has also a big symbolic meaning - people from different castes are not used to eat together. The free meal also encourages parents to send their children, also girls, to school.

"With a full stomach it is also easier to study but the reality is different", says Shirname, "school meals has also led to new problems like corruption".

There is also a continuous debate about the quality of the meal. In some states businesses have started to sponsor school meals and other plans have been made to improve the quality of the food. Some states have employed casteless women to cook the food but this has led to contradictions. Some upper caste people do not want to let their children eat the food made by a lower caste woman. Education is one way to get rid of caste system but changes happen slowly.

Silence and hierarchy

Shirname says that in India, the attitude towards education is narrow. Education itself can not be a destination but an aspiration which leads a person to a meaningful life. Literacy changes the way of thinking, perhaps a person's entire attitude towards life. Lok Jumbish - People's Movement in Rajastan is an example of a succesful education programme. Local women learn to read and get over their phobias and taboos, and also learn to know their rights.

Sangeeta Shirname encourages all young Indians to question everything, even if it was not taught at school or by parents. Questioning attitudes may not be easy in India - but is very important.

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