Six Months India – Blank Faces and Crowded Classrooms

This blog was originally published in German on as part of my capstone project – you can read it here.

Hundreds of children in uniform stand on a gravel field in front of a dreary concrete block and sing the Indian national anthem. They are pupils of a public school in the midst of the 7 million metropolis of Pune, three hours’ drive from Mumbai. The morning ritual’s peaceful atmosphere is deceptive. As soon as the students enter the building, loud chaos arises. Despite being named after Maharashtrian resistance fighter Lahuji Salve, things at the school rarely go heroically. And the addition of the name "E-learning School" refers to some malfunctioning computers and televisions that stand here and there in the classrooms. This is where I spend my days as an overwhelmed teaching assistant.

Meanwhile, inside the building, the daily struggle for attention is raging. Some teachers speak with threatening voices to their protégés, others have already given up and leave the students to their fate. Productive work is rarely done. The reasons are numerous – and run deeper than the dilapidated infrastructure or the with up to 50 students overcrowded classrooms would suggest at first glance.

India is young. More than half of the inhabitants of the world’s second most populous country are under 25 years of age, more than a quarter 14. Of the more than 170 million school children, more than a third attend a private school. The ones who can afford it. A veritable industry has emerged, which sells access to quality education at a high price. The children at the end of the socio-economic ladder are left behind in a hopelessly underfunded public education system that is still based on the colonial heritage of the British.

English mastery is a prerequisite for professional success – the well-paid jobs are only to be found in international corporations. Thus, the public school system is also completely geared to the colonial language: Language of instruction, textbooks, examinations; everything is in English. And yet: the majority of pupils will only have beginner’s knowledge by the end of their compulsory schooling. Half of the fifth graders can’t understand a text for second graders nor are they able to solve a simple subtraction calculation. A look at a typical lesson shows why. The teacher, often only possessing limited English knowledge himself, writes on the blackboard, the pupils copy into their notebooks without understanding the material, let alone analysing it.

But the state prefers to look away. A teacher recounts how she regularly forges the results of state examinations in order to meet the requirements of the Ministry of Education. She has no other choice – the school would lose its fundings otherwise. And: Due to the focus on English, most students have only a limited command of their own writing system, Devanagari, and thus of India’s official language, Hindi, which means that a large part of India’s cultural heritage is in danger of being forgotten, while the children exit the school system, not properly knowing English or their own language.

If you leave the school area and walk for a few minutes along the main street and its never-ending traffic, you will notice the numerous poor barracks that stand next to luxurious buildings of western corporations. A short distance away is one of the largest high-security prisons in South Asia, whose "shadow casts a gloomy atmosphere over the entire district", as a teacher at the school says. Most of the students live in this environment of stark contrasts. Most of them live with numerous members of the extended family in the smallest of spaces, without any privacy. No place to study. They look after their younger siblings, while the parents slave away in the wealthy neighbourhoods for a pittance. Homework is no longer a priority. 

They talk about violent fathers in a drunken frenzy, the parents’ financial ruin, the death of family members. The family problems weigh heavily on the childrens narrow shoulders, making learning difficult. Faced with the hopelessness of their homes, they often lack the confidence in their own abilities and the belief in a better future.

As desperate as the situation may seem, there is hope. For some years now, more and more non-governmental organisations have been stepping into the state’s breach, trying to improve access to education for those in need. Teach for India, for instance, brings university graduates to India’s public schools for two years. There, they not only give the children the support they need to succeed at school, but also gain valuable experience that will help them in later projects. Graduates start their own NGOs and schools or start working for the government.

In the first ten years, TFI has impacted tens of thousands of pupils, which is no more than a drop in the ocean considering Indian dimensions. But each fellow has the firm belief that quality education can change the life of every single child, and thus an entire society. And that’s what they fight for – every day.