The Oxford dictionary defines Inclusion as the practice or policy of providing equal access to opportunities and resources for people who might otherwise be excluded or marginalized, such as those who have physical or intellectual disabilities and members of other minority groups.
What is then Inclusive Education all about? It simply means that no student is left behind due to a lack of opportunities to succeed. An Inclusive education system ensures that all students irrespective of where they come from and who they are, are given equal opportunities to succeed, by providing level playing fields through equitable policies and measures.
Diversity in student population is a default in a country like India where there are 22 languages recognized by the constitution in addition to hundreds of other languages and dialects.
If India has to reap the benefits of being the most populous country, it is incumbent on both the Government and India Inc. to ensure that quality education is accessible to all students irrespective of their socio-economic status and abilities. By providing educational opportunities in an inclusive atmosphere, students will be better prepared to be citizens of the world. It helps create future leaders who display leadership traits of empathy, understanding, and inclusivity which is a very important currency to create a just and equitable world where everybody can thrive.
How can our educational institutes create diverse, equitable, and inclusive spaces where the students feel safe to be themselves and where their full potential is realized? How can schools and colleges play a role in moulding minds to be accepting of differences?
Policies – To ensure that no child is left behind the Government has enacted the Right to Free and Compulsory Education (RTE) Act which mandates free and compulsory elementary education to all children including Children with Special Needs. The National Education Policy (NEP) provides a comprehensive framework for elementary to higher education in addition to vocational training in both rural and urban India. It addresses the barriers that students face who are from economically stressed households, vulnerable communities and geographically disadvantaged. Since the NEP is just a guideline, the onus of implementing this policy in letter and spirit rests on educational institutions.
Business Model – One of the most critical aspects of making educational institutions inclusive is to stop looking at education as just a lucrative business proposition. Elitism in education where only certain socioeconomic groups have access to quality education needs to be curbed and controlled. Create inclusive enrolment processes where all students are given a fair chance to secure admission.
Curriculum – The curriculum across educational institutions needs to be inclusive with adequate representation across the various dimensions of diversity. For example – is there enough pictorial representation of women in textbooks reflecting them in non-stereotypical roles as well as in case studies of higher education?
Equity measures – Educational institutions have to create equity measures to level the playing field for all students to access opportunities and succeed. To increase enrolments, representation, and participation of the historically excluded groups, educational institutions can consider scholarships & reservations; conditional cash transfers to incentivise parents to send their wards to school; English speaking classes; providing bicycles/mode of transport to students who need to commute long distances so that they do not drop out of schools.
Teachers’ capacity building – In addition to regular upskilling, teachers must be trained in subjects like Unconscious Bias, Blind spots, Stereotyping, Micro inequities, and Microaggressions to name a few. In addition, they must be sensitized on handling students with physical and learning disabilities, and on helping students build empathy towards their classmates with special needs and who do not necessarily look like them.
DEI Sensitization – Students need to be sensitized about differences and stereotypes in an age-appropriate manner so that they can welcome all classmates into their fold and give them a sense of belonging. Helping break stereotypes around gender, age, ability, socioeconomic status, religion, caste, etc will enable students with ‘learning moments’ where they learn from classmates who are different from them. When done at an impressionable age, the spirit of acceptance and inclusion is stronger. The curriculum must be developed by experts in the field with inputs from the academic community on the pedagogy to be followed.
Partnerships – educational institutions will benefit immensely by having partnerships with the corporate world to fund programs as part of their CSR initiatives, for example, to bridge the gap in employable skills of marginalized students. India Inc. can strengthen its commitment to the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of Quality Education, Gender Equality, and Reduced Inequalities through such partnerships.
Digital literacy – Schools need to ensure that all their students irrespective of their socioeconomic status are supported in embracing technology which will become a decisive factor for their empowerment.
Gender sensitization – Schools can play a role in helping students appreciate discrimination based on gender and sexual identification. In addition, students across levels have to be sensitized about the concept of consent and boundaries to ensure that students do not experience a normalized behaviour of sexual harassment.
Parental support – educational institutes will need to collaborate with parents to ensure the
success of all the Diversity, Equity, Inclusive (DEI) practices as their unstinted support will be critical for the success of these initiatives. Creating and nurturing parent ambassadors as allies will go a long way in achieving the objectives of a fair and just education delivery.
Mentoring – Provide mentoring to students who are first-generation students as they could be struggling with a lack of role models due to their socio-economic circumstances.
Career Counselling – Provide career counselling services to students especially the ones from
marginalized communities so that they are able to choose streams that they have aptitude in. The
choice of career stream has a huge impact on the outcomes for students at a later stage.
Despite the introduction of the RTE Act and NEP and improvements in student enrolments, the education system continues to be inaccessible for most of the rural population and the vulnerable marginalized groups due to continued inequities and exclusionary practices. With concerted efforts through tripartite partnerships between the Government, Private Institutions, and India Inc., we can be hopeful that the aim of the NEP of transforming India’s education system by 2040 to be inclusive is achieved.