The Grey Shades of Schools: Formation and Reproduction of Social Class Identities

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Ms. Sharmila Rathee

The contested terrain of school education in India is entering into new levels of contradictions along with the Corona crisis. As the schools are closed physically, online classes are getting propagated by tech gurus, and school managements are complementing their advice by starting such virtual classrooms. All levels of governments are also wholeheartedly incorporating it into their state responsibilities. Students are expected to join these online classes, which are often expensive. All those little benefits after realising the right to education are getting faded in this course. But it is not an unexpected result of whatever happened around us for a long time as Ms. Sharmila Rathee observed. She pointed out that the hierarchical social system of India, with the aid of the market, continuously invented tools to ensure social bifurcation. Ms. Sharmila is a faculty of Delhi University and a Delhi based researcher in the field of school education. She was interviewed by Dr. Razeena K.I. for Indian Ruminations through a video call.

Dr. Razeena: What is the distinct nature of classrooms in 21st century India from your point of view?
Ms. Sharmila: Even in 2020, the Indian education system is very hierarchical in its nature, where the poorest of the poor are going to the government schools, the middle classes mostly prefer private English medium schools, and the upper-middle-class and elites are going to the so-called elite international schools. There exists a range within private schools as well. There are high-fee/budget elite private schools at the higher end and low-fee/budget unrecognised schools at the lower end. The seeker’s socio-economic capacity often determines choice and accessibility to these schools. Also, there are alternative schools which are not very popular. These schools range in their social-class demography; some are very elite while others are moderate in their fee charges. Affiliated to various education boards, these alternative schools are often based on the vision of particular philosophers and conceptualise education in an alternative manner rather than traditional.

Dr. Razeena: So, the Indian education system is like a carnival. There are stalls for everyone, right?
Ms. Sharmila: Yes, unfortunately, it is like that. At present every school is branded with a socio-economic character. Every school is proportional to one or the other social class. A child who is higher on that social ladder will go to a higher sort of school.

Dr. Razeena: In such a hierarchical structure within the education system, the concept of inclusion becomes very relevant, and that was one of the mottos behind the Right to Education too. How do you evaluate inclusion in the context of RTE?
Ms. Sharmila: First of all, the concept of inclusion is not new here. ‘Common School System’ proposed by Kothari Commission presented a vision which pressed for heterogeneous classrooms with inclusion being in its core structure. Almost a decade ago, the Right to Education gave the provision of 25% of reservation of seats because of which the private schools are comparatively heterogeneous in nature at present. Without this clause, it would not have been possible at all for the pupil from the lower socio-economic status to reach these high-fee elite private schools. Yet, I would say that diversity is not on the spectrum of these elite private schools because only those children who belong to less than one lakh annual income can avail admission through this clause. Still, in a metropolitan city like Delhi, people who are earning a yearly income of one lakh are very few. They would find even challenging to survive the everyday expenses with such a meagre income. Also, most of these parents who are really very poor are often not aware of these provisions. Parents who avail of these quotas are sometimes using fake income certificates; however, it can’t be denied that they are poor; definitely and couldn’t have afforded these schools without the provision. So, either the students admitted to these schools are very rich or very poor. Still, these schools are not in reach of lower-middle and middle social classes. So, it can be said that still there is no spectrum. To the maximum what we can argue is our classrooms have received some diversity because of RTE, but it is either very rich or very poor but no spectrum.

Dr. Razeena: For the sake of time, we can keep the financial and infrastructural aspects of education to the end and consider social factors first. Do you believe that participation of all sections of the society is a precondition for vibrant knowledge creation in the classrooms?
Ms. Sharmila: Definitely diversity and participation of all sections are essential for vibrant knowledge creation. Knowledge is more comprehensive when we get more viewpoints and hence, diversity serves important purposes. Heterogeneity or diversity is often considered as a constraint or a barrier to the functioning of education, but then education is for a particular perspective and particular group of people only. If you want to be more understandable and contextualised, diversity must be there in the classrooms. Several psychological applications in the field of education also emphasise the significance of heterogeneity and diversity in the school and classrooms. Kids learn more through peer collaboration. More than that, being on different levels help them to respect these diversities.
Similarly, as society is heterogeneous, if we do not bring heterogeneity into the classroom, the social, as well as economic mobility, is not possible. As Bourdieu observed, if the rich are going to the sound quality elite schools and the poor are going to the low-quality government schools only, it will result in the reproduction of social class and further to economic inequality. What I am trying to argue is that along with enhancing the learning levels and creating a comprehensive knowledge system, the heterogeneity in the classroom will bring social and economic mobility in the society.

Dr. Razeena: But there were many apprehensions raised regarding the scrupulous ways in which clause 12 of RTE (which directs private schools to reserve 25% of their seats for children belonging to Economically Weaker Sections) was implemented, right?
Ms. Sharmila: Yes, it is true. Even though all educational experts will press for diversity as critical for vibrant knowledge creation, unfortunately, we do not have that diversity in our classrooms. In government schools, most of the kids are from a very low socio-economic status, and in elite schools, most of the kids are from a very high socio-economic status. After the implementation of clause 12 of RTE, even if there is diversity in terms of social class, prevalent practices in our schools are not about inclusion; instead, it is more of assimilation or accommodation. Students who are admitted under EWS quota face pressure to behave and act like their affluent counterparts. Culture of EWS students and other marginalised groups is neither recognised nor accepted in the schools, leaving them in the position of devalued beings who often struggle to imitate their valued (affluent) peers to get acceptance. What is happening in most of the schools can be called mere placement or physical integration but not at all inclusion.

Dr. Razeena: Why does this social diversity of communities in India not getting reflected in classrooms in general? Does the social condition of the society dictate the classroom participation of different communities in India even now?
Ms. Sharmila: Education is a public good. It is vital for the overall development of the country, especially elementary education. And it is not the same for all. In fact, I should not even say ‘same’ because also giving the same instruction is against the idea of inclusion. Learning should be contextual, and it should bring diverse pedagogical practices and varied contents. It should address the social issues of all strata of society. That is what it means by inclusive education. It is an education system representing as well as catering to diversity.
The social diversity of communities in India is not reflected in classrooms because of several reasons. For example, due to the absence of economic resources, those in marginalised sections face difficulties in affording high-quality education, which lead to homogenous education systems at different levels. The social conditions of society definitely have an impact on the classroom population even after RTE. We must realise that clauses under RTE are also not enough to bring diversity after a level. The so-called 25% reservation includes social classes as well as other marginalised sections, i.e. all disadvantaged sections of the society together. The concept of a school or common school system was much better in this context. But, again, it is not a blank cheque. A lot of elite schools are in posh areas which don’t have any nearby places where people of lower socio-economic status live. In such a context, the neighbourhood schools will neither ensure a heterogeneous community nor meet the objectives of inclusive education.

Dr. Razeena: In one of our previous conversations, you mentioned that after the implementation of RTE, elite private schools in urban India represent heterogeneity in terms of social class where salience of class may become more prominent. But I heard that these schools are admitting non-elite students but placing them in separate classes. How do you respond to this complaint?
Ms. Sharmila: RTE has definitely led to the heterogeneity in classrooms in terms of social classes which was not there before. But different schools are reacting to this clause differently. Indeed a lot of schools are finding different ways to surpass the provision. The schools are either not guiding the parents properly or not providing a conducive environment in schools which means that those coming from lower socio-economic strata are not feeling confident that they will be included with dignity in these schools. Some of the schools are giving separate classes for them while the government has guidelines that you cannot do this. But the real hurdle is not even there. Even if schools are treating them with dignity, the curriculum and the pedagogies that they use are not contextual and adapted as per the needs and contexts familiar to these students. The hidden curriculum is something that really impacts the educational experiences of students. The kind of examples and discussions that take place in these schools are often not relatable to EWS students who have different economic, social, and cultural contexts. If you are giving examples of airports or malls or drawing examples from foreign trips while teaching a particular concept, it is not an inclusive pedagogy. For students from lower socio-economic status, it will become challenging to relate to that. It gives them a sense that their culture is not a valued one. We expect them to turn into the other, which is simply a one-directional way of inclusion but inclusion is to be bi-directional, i.e. learning from each other and not just accommodating or assimilating to other groups.

Dr. Razeena: What do you mean by ‘social class’? Is it based on caste or economic power?
Ms. Sharmila: Social class is a very complex concept. Different people tried to define it differently. The conceptualisation of social class ranges from purely economical to economic as well as social to socio-cultural-economic variables. For me, it is based on the socio-economic contexts of an individual. Social class is about the extent of economic resources that one individual earns as well as spends on cultural capital. French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s concepts are very relevant here. The social class reflects the kind of capital they have in their possession, i.e. the economic capital, social capital, and cultural capital. So objectively social class is measured by the monetary possessions one has, properties one has, levels of education one has, how much their parents are educated, kinds of jobs available to them, and so on. But more than the objective measures, the subjective measures, i.e. their sense and opinion of their social class, makes more sense to me. For example, where an individual rates his/herself on a scale of social class, say on a point scale of 1 to 10 where 1 represents very poor and 10 represents very rich – how does one compare the self with others becomes very decisive in further making the impact of social class. This self-positioning on the social ladder, i.e. how do they feel about themselves within this social ladder appears very important to me.

Dr. Razeena: In the last CESI Conference held at JNU, you mentioned that “exclusion and discrimination with students based on class, caste, gender, and minority status has been well reported in India but have not been explored in terms of identity.” This led to a substantial discussion there. Here what you mean by identity?
Ms. Sharmila: When we discuss identity from a sociological perspective, the discussion on this aspect often centres around the social structures. But those structures are parts of an individual and become parts of the self as well. Here, in this context, I prefer to conceptualise identity from the ways through which individuals imbibe those bifurcations of structures in terms of class, caste, gender, or minority status to frame our own identities. How do these aspects make an impact on the self? Also, the processes through which these aspects become part of identity is significant to understand several social issues. Some approaches in social psychology, mainly Social Identity Approach, offer some critical insights to understand these aspects of self, which includes individual, relational as well as collective self.

Dr. Razeena: How schools are reproducing the identities of students? In heterogeneous classrooms, how is it possible?
Ms. Sharmila: Yes, schools are reproducing identities as well as inequalities. Instead of utilising heterogeneity, ironically they consider diversity as a barrier. The differences among the social classes can be utilised to enlighten students about each other’s struggles and to make sense of growing together. Instead, several practices in the schools generally make those coming from elite classes feel that the economically weaker students are a matter of pity and sympathy. Unfortunately, the prevalent practices of schools do not inculcate a sense of togetherness or a sense of collectiveness among those students from different socio-economic contexts rather a sense of difference prevails and strengthens among them. It often makes economically weaker students feel that they are suitable for nothing, and their culture is devalued. A lot of such students shared that feeling personally with me. After going to school, they started feeling a sort of hatred and devalued feelings for their parents. They began to wonder why they are not like others.

Dr. Razeena: The neighbourhood school system was proposed to address the limitations of the social branding of schools. I hope that concept is relevant even now. Do you agree?
Ms. Sharmila: What concerns me is the relevance of the common school system, more than the presence of neighbourhood schools, because our residential areas are not heterogeneous as they have been divided as posh areas and slums. But the common school system can address the limitations of the social branding of schools because when everybody goes to the same school, then they all are valued, considered, and respected equally as a member of the school. Things will be much different and positive then. Many issues related to social segregation and divisions within our country are related to economic and social gaps between different groups. These issues can be adequately addressed through well-thought inclusive practices. Even if not completely, the common school system can resolve the issue of social branding in a much better manner.

Dr. Razeena: But the concept of schooling is much more than a building or a classroom. Children are often participating in tuition centres, dance or music academies, religious functions, community organisations, etc. How do they reflect and reproduce the concept of social class identity in students?
Ms. Sharmila: Yes, the issue of schooling is much bigger than a school or a classroom. When we talk about RTE and the clause of 25% reservation, will it resolve the issue of social class identity? No, it won’t. These kids are going to elite schools because of fee wavering too. And they get some other facilities like uniforms and all. But it gets restricted there and doesn’t holistically address the issue. A lot of different things happen in these schools which demand too much money like virtual learning, media, internet, sports academy, dance learning, tuitions, and so many things. The schools expect as well as compel their students to go for such additional but so-called ‘relevant’ things. These facilities are usually expensive and often non-affordable by those who are facing economic struggles. There are many outstation tours where these kids cannot participate and feel left out again. Hence the notion of the social class gets reproduced, but unfortunately, it is not explored much. How do these everyday practices of schools make the social class identity salient on these students, and how do the elite students perceive these students when they are not able to participate in it? How often are they not able to be with the other group and feel a sense of left out? Reflecting on these questions can help practitioners to understand the way alienation comes in. Alienation in schooling has an impact on student’s self-esteem. So eventually, in their educational journey, students are learning a lot from schools, but as you said, schools are not isolated places. They have linkages and extensions to the other spaces from where students learn a lot. They bring those learnings to the schooling spaces and share with their peers. But there is a difference again. Those learnings that the students from low socio-economic status bring from their surroundings are not valued so they don’t find the school as a place where they can share their experiences and this in turn hampers their education journey as well.

Dr. Razeena: How toys, children’s magazines, and cartoons shape children’s social identity?
Ms. Sharmila: That is very important, and we often neglect it, or we fall short in realising the potential of these tools. Lev Vygotsky calls these as ‘tools’ and emphasises that these social and cultural tools play a significant role in shaping the experiences of children. Socialisation is happening much beyond schools and families. Bronfenbrenner’s model also talks about different levels of socialisation and various systems of socialisation where toys, magazines, cartoons, and all others play a very important role in shaping the social identity of a child. The kind of toys, magazines, and cartoons that a child from poor socio-economic status and elite status get access to are very different, and most of these elite private schools value only the elite culture. They bring examples from these magazines which mostly show their richness as the valued virtue. Who is again left out here?

Dr. Razeena: In the recent riot in Delhi, there were children of 13 or 14 years as a group supporting violence. It reminds the children’s involvement in attacking Jews in Germany in the past. How is such religious identity getting formed at an early age? Is it anything to do with educational practices?
Ms. Sharmila: Yes, it is unfortunate to see that children being involved in such violent acts and our education system are falling short in tackling these issues. As I said earlier, we are not doing justice to the diversity in the system. If you look into the content of the curriculum that is being delivered is catering to a particular social class in the society, this social class is more or less stretched towards a specific religious identity here. So rather than respecting the diversity, the schools communicate to students which give inferences on questions like which is the valued dominant group and which is the minority group. Hidden curriculum plays a significant role in the kind of assembly and festival celebrations in the schools. By giving prominence to a particular religious identity in comparison to others, a rigid religious identity is getting formed at a small age itself.

Dr. Razeena: Many posts in social media suggest homogeneous classrooms for the downtrodden and heterogeneous classrooms for the middle and upper-class communities. Is it a feasible idea?
Ms. Sharmila: I don’t think it is a feasible idea to have homogeneous classrooms for the downtrodden and heterogeneous classrooms for the middle and upper-class communities. If it is inclusion, it should be a common school system that I don’t see as possible while seeing the kind of commercialised interests in education. Education became quite a domain of commercialisation, especially in the globalised world. The agenda has become more economical rather than social. But if it has to be heterogeneous, it has to be heterogeneous for people from all the social classes. Then only it will bring changes in the social structure.

Dr. Razeena: Nowadays, hi-tech classrooms are becoming a new trend in the school education sector. Such infrastructure facilities are already introduced at the university level to a great extent. Other than spending money, are we getting any qualitative improvement in education out of this quantitative spending?
Ms. Sharmila: I am not against hi-tech classrooms. They complement the teaching-learning process. However, we need to account that hi-tech classrooms require hi-tech learning resources too. Those students from economically weaker backgrounds often do not have access to hi-tech requirements like computers or the internet at home. Students from economically and socially disadvantaged groups get left out in the process of learning. A lot of teaching-learning aspects in many elite schools are based on the e-resources, which make these students lag behind. So, it produces marginalisation again.

Dr. Razeena: Thank you very much for your time and patience. You responded with a passion. All the best.
Ms. Sharmila: Thank you, Dr. Razeena.

Dr. Razeena K. I., faculty of Physical Education, Iqbal College, Peringamala, Thiruvananthapuram is a keen observer of contemporary events. She published several papers/articles on physical education, sports, contemporary political, social and economic issues etc.

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