Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Skills and schooling

Recently, I saw a report in the papers about unemployment trends and how it may actually be rising in India (can't find the link), and the lack of relevant skills was one of the main reasons.

Which made me think about vocational training. Which usually makes me slightly angry, becausewhen it comes to young adults, training is often restricted to sewing/tailoring for girls and electrician's/mechanic's work for boys. It bothers me: this acute famine of the imagination. I mean, is this all we can think of? Is this all we want - tailors and electricians?

Then again, I was forced to do a rethink about skills, when I noticed that my bai's daughter wearing a frock with her back exposed. The frock was a rather pretty one; it was just that a few buttons had fallen off. I asked my bai (Raj) why she didn't mend the dress and discovered that she didn't know how!

I was surprised, because I'd assumed that everybody knew how to put a button on a shirt. Later, I discovered that the bai working in my mother's house didn't know either.

This is particularly hurtful, because not only can she not afford too many new clothes, but the ones she does get have to be discarded very quickly. One button or hook falls off and the clothes begin to look shabby. As things stand, Raj cannot imagine using her hands to do anything except cleaning, or at most, cooking. Not only does this limit her work options, she is actually spending more than is necessary, paying other people to get the edge of a saree done or loosening a kurta.

Now, I happily wear decade-old clothes. I even wear mom's clothes, at least thirty years old, if they're in reasonably good shape. (There was one pair of socks that I was especially loathe to throw away since my mom's darning is so exquisite). Which got me thinking about the way I acquired my (admittedly limited) skills.

I can replace buttons, create button-holes and hook-loops, hem, seam, make very basic clothes... (regretfully, can't darn or embroider). Despite being terrible at needlework, I was more or less forced to learn, thanks to my mother who headed the school and made this stuff compulsory - even for the boys (a favourite pink lehenga, cut out of an old chikan saree, was a self-made gift from the nieghbours' son).

Similarly, all students did gardening work - we hefted pickaxes, grew small patches of sugarcane and maize, handled manure and took turns to water potted plants.

The strange thing is, we never thought of it as acquisition of skills. We thought of it as an unnecessary pain, because we were sure that we weren't going to become tailors or gardeners. It is only now, when I see how frighteningly limited Raj's options are, that those lessons in Art&Craft and SUPW (Socially Useful Productive Work) seem to be rather useful.

But the problem is, I don't know if they exist where they're needed. And if they do, then why have separate vocational schools? It would be much simpler to just introduce an extra class focussing entirely on one skill (ideally chosen by the students themselves), let's say, in secondary school. By the time a child clears his secondary level boards, he/she would have at least two sets of additional skills. No?


1conoclast said...

Mother's school running skills were unique. Nowadays you have new fangled schools advertising & overcharging for all the facilities that were available for Rs. 300/- a year! Not to forget the Music & Dance Classes. 2 extra skills that people pay good money to pick up these days. Those schools were way ahead of their time!

Anonymous said... coming across that after a very long time...we used to call them Some Useful Periods Wasted !!! After reading your post, am reminded of the Mark Twain quote - Don't let schooling interfere with your education...

You are so right, we need to have children learn additional skills, which are applicable in real life...but beyond that, people need to be supported to have the courage to have an open mind about learning new skills and doing new jobs, rather than limiting themselves to what they have done earlier only...after all what will happen when technology changes and a certain spectrum of the workforce is no longer needed...

btw, whatever happened to the neighbour's son ? :)

LinZi said...

interesting post... I also came across some similiar revelation in female students..all around 13 or so had similiar frocks.etc with broken zippers or missing hooks. They had sewing class, but forsomereason, such practicalities were kind of ignored... then I asked one girl if I could practice my button holes by fixing her kurta... My mom taught be these basics when I was a kid and I liked to sew clothes for my dolls....

It is interesting to think how much a simply skill as learning to sew buttons and button holes can change a way of living.... and thinking about "education" in skill and how much of it does apply to really life everyday skills that might make life a little easier... it all goes back to the question of how educationwill helpsomeone in the future... your idea of havingskills classes in secondary school is an interesting one... I think the US should learn from this idea too

Annie Zaidi said...

opinionated: these newfangled schools are what the elitization of education is all about. and yeah, there aren't many teachers like mom.
jay: we actually liked supw. actually, we liked most things in my school, as long as it didnt have anything to do with the prescribed curriculum :) the neighbour's son... no clue. the family left the place soon after.
linzi: i agree, secondary-level education ought to be about preparing children for life. which ought to include basic skills - personal skills like fixing buttons and eggs, social skills like being able to talk to all people with respect, gender skills like not being afraid of the opposite sex nor feeling responsible for it, political skills like knowing your rights and demanding that your village/colony gets its due, legal skills like knowing what is/isn't permitted and who to approach for help. That would be a good way to begin.

Anonymous said...

we had many extra optional classes - needlework, weaving, gardening, pottery, cookery etc extending to aeromdelling and western folk dance (!)... but only in secondary school and somehow everything got forgotten. i guess cos they were so unutilised after school.

Anonymous said...

I agree. SUPW in my school were for name only. No one did anything. No one taught anything.

Anonymous said...

I used to live in an apt complex and "bhai" folks were integral of the system! They get plenty of clothes from many of these families and due to lack of care and harsh usage, they are soon worn out. Cant blame them either - not many of these bhai-ladies ever saw a school-(girl child discrimination!). I often felt many of them grew up like wild weeds. I had to visit a village under an NGO support programme - an efflort to rescue them from further decay of life. Provision for water and livestock were given, yet 99% of them never attempted making a kitchen garden -laziness and above all ignorance. Though schools have these SUPW, in most govt schools, these classes are never done properly - shortage of funds. Neither did my mom teach me how to do needle work - she was over protective - but I learned it from my school! Who do we blame?

Anonymous said...

Education provided in government schools is about achieving targets rather than taking care of a generation. No one would believe that a country so loathes itself that it would just let its children have the worst of everything.
How much more can anyone hate one's country and hence oneself that have the kind of schools and health care as we our governments provide for our people.
Sonia gandhi can be pardoned in fact we should be grateful that an Italian lady is so charged up about india.
But what about the other men and women in politics and administration? Our pompous IAS officers?
Visit a school anywhere, be it Gwalior on the way side in some hamlet, or in some hamlet on the way in Chattisgarh. In one school I found a hearing disabled teacher manning a school of 150 children.
He taught all grades simultaneously.
What stitching can these children learn?
I studied in a convent school and basic tailoring and embroidery was cumpulsory till class 8.
I could knit sweaters, etc, make frocks and so on.
'The fee was minimum about 30 rupees a month. Now that state does not charge any fees.
It is certainly not money that makes schools run well.
You need commitment, some amount of affection for humanity. In another school in Chattisgarh I found 200 children being taught by one teacher.
The teachr was a para teacher who was qualified but paid a measly 800 odd rupees.
This is the place for teachers in our society. We have para teachers and not real full teachers.
For a country that treats education and health of its citizens as an ad hoc item on its agenda, the future is not only bleak, the future does not exist.
India RIP

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