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Many schools of thought

mumbai Updated: Sep 26, 2010 02:01 IST

For the second year in a row, HT Mumbai has produced a survey of the city’s top schools. This ongoing series, running on weekdays, began on September 20 and will go on until October 6. Among the many responses to the series so far was one from Anil Bagarka.

“Your grading of schools in Mumbai is laudable,” he wrote. “You seem to have evolved parameters for judging schools with care and proper deliberation. But you should also have looked into whether schools are paying teachers as per the rules and whether they have effective PTAs. It will also help to know about the members of the management board.”

I am co-ordinating this series for HT, so I have some views on the matter. These suggestions are excellent. We did, however, have parameters for parent participation and governance, which include the effectiveness of PTAs and the reputation of the management respectively. We did not have a parameter that considered whether the schools were paying teachers according to the norms. That is certainly something we could consider next year.

Yet this is a good opportunity for me to say what I think about such surveys. No matter how many parameters one uses to evaluate schools, I don’t believe that one can produce an objective set of rankings because judgements about education are subjective.

It is true that some schools are patently better than others – some have far better student-teacher ratios and more qualified teachers than others. But beyond a certain threshold, one’s opinion of a school depends crucially upon how one defines education.

For some, a good education might include air-conditioned classrooms and fancy computers. For others, it must include an atmosphere that encourages non-conformity and questioning. Yet others might say success in exams is all that matters.

In response to this, some of you might ask, if you can rank management institutes why not schools? I say that the two cannot be compared. There are competitive exams and placements that provide concrete indications of how good a B-school is. Also, it is easier to define what a good B-school is: one of its most important functions is to train students so that they can land high-paying jobs.

A school’s function, however, is — or ought to be — much broader: it is to make them learners for life and instill in them a passion for excellence and enquiry.

“Education is a social process,” said John Dewey, the American educator and philosopher. “Education is growth. Education is, not a preparation for life; education is life itself.”

In a civilised society, every child ought to have access to the same education. This would be a society with a free, comprehensive public education system. What we have, however, is the antithesis of this. (I’ll leave you to deduce what this means about our barbarism).

Given the sorry state of our public education system, one cannot blame individuals who, to paraphrase Bertrand Russell, do not wish to sacrifice civilisation at the altar of egalitarianism. Their dilemma, faced as they are with a massive range in the quality of education, is real.

We therefore realise that we cannot completely shy away from evaluating schools. At the same time, we would like to underline the fact that there can be no monolithic definition of what constitutes a good education.