Publicly provided education systems are increasingly being seen as unable to address the specific educational needs of poor and marginalized groups. The emphasis on pluralism in educational provision and alternative schooling systems for such groups hence assumes significance.
This paper focuses on the education of the poor in the city of Calcutta, capital of the state of West Bengal in India. It dwells on initiatives that are underway to bring all children to primary schools both in state funded regular schools as well as in alternative schools that are being run by non-government organisations.
The paper situates these initiatives in the larger context of the state of primary schooling in the city and the perceptions of educational deprivation among policy-makers, teachers and administrators. It points to the fact that primary schools are inadequate in terms of availability and offer education of relatively poor quality. However educational deprivation is seen by school providers to result largely from poverty, particularly child labour and the absence of home and community environments that are conducive to learning. This has provided the rationale for an alternative schooling system to address the specific educational needs of children who are not in regular schools.
The paper acknowledges that poverty is an important constraint in the education of the children of Calcutta’s poor. However it stresses that an emphasis primarily on the linkages between poverty, child labour and non enrolment in school fails to address the magnitude of educational deprivation that results from the institutional context of schooling provided to the poor.
While the alternative schooling system may increase educational opportunities for poor children it is unlikely to provide education of quality. On the other hand it is likely to result in a further stratification of an already iniquitous schooling system.