Last week, Ranjitsinh Disale, a teacher from rural government Zilla Parishad (ZP) school in Solapur district, received Global Teacher Prize from Varkey Foundation. The prize which carries a very attractive cash prize of one million US dollars (about seven crore Indian rupees) and gets endorsements from famous political personalities, media & film celebrities and even the Prince Harry, Prince Williams and Pope Francis (see the video here) , naturally made huge headlines across the country. Disale Sir (Guruji in Marathi) was selected from over 12,000 nominations and applications from over 140 countries around the world.
As expected Disale Sir received praise from all the quarters for bringing laurels not just to his home state Maharashtra but India as well. Some even saw it as evidence that government schools in India do not lack talent while others considered it as the milestone in raising the status of the teachers as the award claims, “The Global Teacher Prize was set up to recognize one exceptional teacher who has made an outstanding contribution to the profession as well as to shine a spotlight on the important role teachers play in society.”
To the people like me who have been working on the reforms of rural government schools for years, the award springs a surprise for multiple reasons explained below. Whereas it is important that good work done by public officials-teachers included- should be recognized and the status of teachers more so of those working in the rural government (called ZP schools in Maharashtra) and urban municipal schools need to be raised, it is also important to ask questions such as who has given the award, why the award was given and what could be the possible implications in future. And if the award carries a huge cash prize and makes huge media buzz it becomes more important to ask such questions besides understanding the historical, political, economic, and social context of the award and the work for which such award is given.
It is in this context that we need to understand that Global Teacher Prize is instituted (in 2015) and given by Varkey Foundation headquartered at Windlesham, Surrey, England, a philanthropic arm of GEMS Education , a multinational private schools company initiated by Varkey family- a native of the south Indian state of Kerala- and headquartered at Dubai. The extent of penetration of GEMS Education in school education space could be understood from the fact that it runs 250 schools across the world (11 in five states in India) and enrolls 270, 000 students and aims to become the “most valued education company in the world” (See GEMS Heritage on their website and the image below).
For those of us who are against the commodification and privatization of education, it appears to be an irony that an innovative teacher from a decaying public (government) school system has been handsomely awarded by such profit-making multinational company commodifying education and in some way contributing to the decay of government schools by encouraging private school choice for the vocal middle class who otherwise would have put pressure on the state to reform the public schools for good of all. Varkey Foundation states that the jury (called The Global Teacher Prize Judging Academy) includes public officials, headteachers, academics, journalists, entrepreneurs, company directors, scientists, and entertainment industry figures from around the world. However, what is also surprising is that of the 177 numbers of members of the jury from across the world about 10% appear to be of Indian origin and none of them are teachers, educationists, or those having significant experience in the education field in which the award tries to intervene; almost all of them come from technology, business management, and entrepreneurship background.
It is also important to note that fairness and transparency in the awardee selection process is overseen by the reputed international corporate consultants-PwC. It is unfortunate that UNESCO has partnered with such school education MNC and corporate dominated selection process to award a public school teacher giving legitimacy to private interests in education. It might be argued that there are no (direct) private interests as award is given by the philanthropic organization but since it is an arm of the private company in the same sector, there are problems in this model of philanthropy. Scholars have suggested that such philanthropy “functions as a tool to maintain elite domination of [education in this case] politics by consensus rather than force”. For more details on this please refer the work of Morvaridi (2012) on Capitalist philanthropy and hegemonic partnerships and Saifer (2020) on Racial neoliberal philanthropy.
The award needs to be seen in the background of the policy led decay of government schools in India-both rural and urban. As can be seen in Figure 1 and 2 it is worrisome that almost 50% of the school students in India study in private schools and in Disale Sir’s and my home state Maharashtra 74 % students study in private schools (Source: Central Square Foundation. 2020. State of the Sector Report on Private Schools in India.). This same report on private schools recommends amendments in the private school regulations to enable larger investment in private schools to improve learning. There are other influential voices that argue for the provision of school vouchers so that parents can exercise their choice for private schools as according to these analysts government schools appear to be beyond reforms due to problems in addressing teacher accountability (See Kingdon and Panagariya’s argument). Seen in this context, the proponents of public schools need to be cautious while celebrating this award which might provide legitimacy to the company commodifying the one of the most essential public good.
Coming back to the work of the awardee teacher Disle Sir, according to the award citation, he made three important contributions: 1) Motivated parents to improve the attendance of their children especially girls, thereby reducing the prevalence of child marriages 2) Brought global perspective in his working and teaching 3) Deployed technology in his teaching, especially QR code. The first contribution definitely needs commendation but then there are many others who made a tremendous contribution to the education of girl children and reduction of child marriages. I am not very sure how much noteworthy difference the global perspective in teaching would make to the education of children of the rural primary schools though it sounds attractive to the parents and children to talk to the children or watch the things across the borders. The third contribution, his idea of inserting QR code in the books is definitely pedagogically interesting and in my opinion, it is this contribution which fetched Disle Guruji this cash-rich award. Definitely, the QR code in the school books could have important implications in the future but in the current Indian context, it is inequitable because the majority of the Indians (mostly Bahujans) do not have either access to a smartphone, or uninterrupted access to the internet and electricity (See this WEF Op-Ed on the digital divide in education).
According to a recent study by the researchers from Azim Premji University during the Covid pandemic:
60% of students in public schools weren’t able to access online education and also that 70% of the parents were dissatisfied with the quality of online education being made available…While 80% of teachers said they were unable to develop a connect with the students via online teaching, 90% said that it was impossible to assess how much students were learning.
There is also some worrying news for the proponents of private schools we should take note of. The Financial Express story while citing APU study states, “With the pandemic impacting incomes and livelihoods, the trend of increasing enrolments to private schools seen over the past few years is already reversing; ASER 2020 showed there have been higher government school admissions this year.” The question therefore is, is such high pitch award a way to make space for private providers in school education and take forward the neoliberal project of promoting technology in the schools without addressing fundamental structural and policy problems in government schools? For example, see (in image below) the hope in technology-driven home-based curriculum by the leader of the second richest (after Azim Premji Foundation) foundation in school education sector in India and its contrast with what APU study tells.
It is not surprising that neoliberal voices have influenced the Government of India in including a separate chapter on (promotion of) online education in NEP 2020. The critique of which you can see in the voice of Rohit Dhankar, professor of philosophy of education at APU. It is interesting to note that Anurag Behar, Vice-Chancellor of same APU was part of the NEP drafting process. Readers are also advised to see the critique of online education in NEP 2020 by Anil Sadgopal, one of the most passionate proponents of equal education and common schooling in India.
I would now come to the issue on which Disale Sir has commented in his multiple interviews after receiving this award. In my opinion, his observation about parents’ indifference (पालकांचि उदासीनता)about their children’s education (see BBC Marathi news and ABP Majha interview) is very regressive and not supported by the evidence. This is like “blaming the victim” (See the book by the same title by William Ryan, 1976). And he is not making a specific observation about some parents in his village but is, unfortunately, repeating a generic myth of parents’ indifference created by teachers, officials, and elite researchers. What is unfortunate is such a globally celebrated teacher is not able to appreciate the historical, social, and economic context in which his students and their parents live and is propagating the stereotype. In my dissertation, I have tried to investigate this allegation in detail, and based on the evidence refuted it. To give an example, during my dissertation fieldwork in Maharashtra when I asked the mothers of one rural (ZP) school-going children during one of the focus group discussions, “People say that rural parents are not interested in education, is it true?” There was an uproar and some of them posed a counter-question to me:
What do you think based on your interaction with us? There are no parents who are not interested in their children’s education, even if they are poor or less educated. All parents are interested in and serious about it. They want their children to rise. Urban people have this myth, they think that rural people are idiots because we can’t speak their language. Whatever you do in the future, education is important. All mothers participating in this discussion are literate. Even if illiterate parents are there, they want their children to study.
Similar was the response of poor less educated parents from a remote tribal village who turned around their school making it one of the best in the district with the help of passionate teachers and no official assistance (in fact discouragement on the contrary). For those tribal parents, education was important because it can make their children “great” (motha manus in Marathi). In fact, Disale Sir would be surprised by the observation of the headteacher of that transformed remote school I studied, “The entire village was with us, from the eldest to the young boy. That created enthusiasm. They are forcing educated people to reflect”. And these are not isolated testimonies, having worked in the anti-caste movements for about two decades, I can safely say that activists who work closely with the oppressed parents would attest that parents are willing to go the extra mile if the education providers comply with their constitutional obligation.
I understand that my critique of the award and the awardee may make some people uncomfortable. But my purpose here is not to belittle the achievements of the awardee. What I am saying is we need to understand the context and implication of such awards from powerful forces in education. Teachers’ achievements need to be celebrated and their status needs to improve in society but that cannot be done by the neoliberal actors trying to make education a private good. As I have written in detail in my News18 Op-Ed on October 5, 2020 (here). India needs radical restructuring of its school education system to make it equal for all as per the constitutional promise of equality and justice. If public schools thrive, provide quality and equal education, and contribute to the making of just and democratic India, the vast majority of public school teachers will be respected and their status will improve. And as claimed often, it is not (only, if you may) those teachers’ fault that we are not able to achieve those noble aims of education. In the absence of radical restructuring of the public school system, such isolated awards by multinational neoliberal education enterprises will remain only symbolic gestures, if not harmful, making us wonder should we celebrate or not.
Tanoj Meshram, a former civil servant, started working on school education reforms a decade ago while working with Azim Premji Foundation. He is currently a Ph.D. candidate in Social Policy in The Heller School for Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University, USA researching why is there a gap between education policy, its implementation and outcomes in rural government (ZP) schools in Maharashtra. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org