In the absence of a forum or the time for collective reflection on the life at school, governments and society are muddling along. After the shooting of a principal in Yamunanagar, more CCTVs and security guards will be suggested. As it is, in Delhi, the government is reportedly ready with the budget to install CCTVs in classrooms. This is not the first time that someone has thought of this technology as a solution to educational problems. When Sheila Dikshit was the Chief Minister of Delhi, some 300 schools were chosen for installation of CCTVs.
Many private schools have had them for years. I recall meeting a self-confident principal in Gujarat. He had CCTVs in every classroom and marble tiles in the school’s swimming pool. Sitting in his office, he said, he keeps an eye on every child and teacher. To prove the efficacy of his vigilance system, he zoomed in on the blackboard of a Grade 6 classroom. It was a math lesson. With a mixture of excitement and contentment in his voice, he said, “Look, professor, I can check if she is writing the formula correctly.” That’s the thing about CCTVs. They excite us as the means of exercising power, and, of course, they promise hard evidence when things are wrong. In an age of daily outrage of one kind or another, they promise truth and justice.
They are being installed in Delhi’s classrooms for the usual reasons: They will make schools safer, more efficient and accountable. All three promises are worth a separate examination. However, there is a common point in all three. As a device, CCTV calls for institutional efficiency and good maintenance. In the Yamunanagar school where the principal was murdered by a senior student, the CCTVs were reportedly dysfunctional.
This is hardly a surprise, considering how much time CCTVs need for good maintenance and then, on top of it, how much leisure and staff they demand for examining the footage. No school in the country today can possibly spare teaching or other staff to benefit fully from CCTVs. Perhaps the Delhi government expects to make it a duty of the principal to keep an eye on the upkeep of CCTVs. Perhaps the government is also planning to keep an eye on the principals themselves. In the Yamunanagar story, it is hard to argue that the principal’s murder could not have been averted by functional CCTVs. Even in the incident at a Gurgaon school, where a senior student is accused to have killed a small boy in a toilet, CCTVs didn’t help.
Let us now look at efficiency and accountability. Advocates of CCTVs feel that they improve the quality of teaching. This hope is based on the premise that you put in greater effort in your work when you know that someone with more authority and power is watching you. The logic of this expectation denies that teaching is a professional activity best pursued when there is freedom and trust. A common argument against this view is that teachers have lost integrity and worth, that they deserve no autonomy.
Popular proof of these charges comes in every year in the month of January when Pratham publishes its Annual Survey of Education Report (ASER). For well over a decade, this report has been putting out dismal statistics of achievement scores on certain tests given to children across the country. The vast scale on which the survey is conducted, the conditions under which it is carried out, and the tests used are all worth scrutiny. But the results are hungrily swallowed as if the bleak picture they portray is the good news of public victory over bureaucracy and politics.
One suspects that ASER’s annual winter song resonates and reinforces the poor public perception of school teachers. ASER has undermined even the state’s own view of its schools and teachers. A simple black-and white story convinces everyone that bad, unaccountable teachers are the root cause of children’s poor performance. The rest follows: If we install a camera to start recording our teachers’ lacklustre teaching, they will feel scared and improve. Those who take this remarkable line of argument can probably explain why live TV coverage did not improve the behaviour of elected members of our legislative bodies or the quality of their functioning.
How did we, as a society, push ourselves into such a dark and narrow corner? How did we end up hating our teachers so thoroughly? A long series of mistaken perceptions and choices, and general credulity have landed us here. One major choice was to believe that educational problems can be solved by fixing all blame on the teacher. To look at education this way is to take a very narrow view of learning and childhood. Such a view isolates the teacher for unwarranted and unjust social opprobrium. We forget that no school can compensate for society, its economic, cultural ethos and the patterns of upbringing.
We lose all chances of educational reform if we isolate and pillory the teacher. Of course, we have a lot of poorly qualified and badly trained teachers in our system. We also have a number of people in it who never wanted to become teachers. However, the presence of such people need not push us to lose our confidence in the rest. To leave them at the mercy of officials, NGOs or parents will drive the system towards bankruptcy. Many states and cities, including Delhi, have been moving in this dangerous direction for quite some time.
Finally, think about the meaning of growing up and learning under the shining eyes of a CCTV. Parents are watching you in real time. They watch you as you hesitatingly stand up and try to answer a question the teacher has asked. They watch you as you whisper in your deskmate’s ear. You go home and the parents ask you why you didn’t know the right answer, why you talk in class, and so on. You don’t know where to hide, what to do to save your limited, fragile honour.