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HomeFeaturedWhat does social distance tell us about the inefficiency of government schools?

What does social distance tell us about the inefficiency of government schools?

Social distance in education

By Ankit Vyas

Preeti Vora (name changed) is a Principal in a government school in rural Gandhinagar. She speaks immaculate English, understands pedagogy and is intimidatingly well-qualified. Her son studies in the same government school she manages.

The teacher in her finely pressed, expensive salwar suit with manicured nails, looked and was worlds apart from the children she was given the responsibility to teach. This is a phenomenon known as ‘social distance’.

When I visited a government school on the outskirts of Lucknow, I saw a sleek car standing outside. It belonged to a teacher. The school was surrounded by fields. The smell of cow dung was in the air. Most students were in their uniform but they appeared unwashed. I wanted to understand from the teacher, the challenges she faced. Gesturing to the children around her, she said, “Kitne gande hain” (Look how dirty they are). The teacher in her finely pressed, expensive salwar suit with manicured nails, looked and was worlds apart from the children she was given the responsibility to teach. This is a phenomenon known as ‘social distance’. Often, the teachers travel long distances from their gated communities in the city to the squalor of the village.

Implications of Social Distance

It is intimidating for the parents to connect with them because of the vast social gulf separates; a gulf that has only widened with time. In an interesting turn of events, teacher salaries have widened but their prestige has declined.

From an era, where the village ‘Masterji’ was respected as a man/woman of learning, teachers have developed a reputation of being lazy and uninterested in the children’s learning.

Teachers now don’t trust the quality of education offered in the very school that they are teaching. For this purpose, they send their children to the air-conditioned isolation of a private school where they can interact with ‘others of their kind’.

The idea of teach-ability relates to social distance. In various conversations with teachers, I have come across the phrase ‘Ye seekh nahi sakte’ (They can’t learn). Basically, the defense behind which ineffective teachers hide, is that children belonging to the most underprivileged classes are not teachable.

Social distance in the education sector

Social distance is being veiled behind the defense that children belonging to the most underprivileged classes are not teachable. | Photo courtesy : http://tompietrasik.photoshelter.com/

How does it affect student achievements?

Research in India shows that student achievement is inversely related to social distance. When a student shares the same gender, caste and religion with the teacher of a specific subject, her achievement is a quarter higher than the same child taught by a teacher not sharing these characteristics (Rawal & Kindon, 2010). Interestingly, a study in Pakistan shows that achievement for lower-caste boys increased when taught by high-caste teachers. It was argued that these teachers increased their aspiration levels (Karachiwalla, 2013). However, it must be understood that this is only likely to happen when the teacher creates an environment of high expectations.

The teachers have an image of an ‘ideal’ pupil with certain characteristics, given which they would be effective in the classroom.

In various studies, Indian teachers list the students’ family background as the main obstacle in improving learning (Namrata, 2011; PROBE, 1999). This implies that teachers have an image of an ‘ideal’ pupil with certain characteristics, given which they would be effective in the classroom.

How do the parents react?

“The teacher is great. The fault is with my son.”

This was a sentiment echoed by various parents in a cultural psychological study to understand attitudes of parents towards teachers (Ganapathy-Coleman, 2014). In fact, the same parents believed that their own education was rendered incomplete not because of the quality of education they received but because of their own inadequacy as students. Even now, parents refer to teachers as ‘Guru’, a term of reverence that dates back to ancient times. This entrenched social distance could help explain the failure of policy initiatives such as School Management Committees in holding teachers accountable.

This entrenched social distance could help explain the failure of policy initiatives such as School Management Committees in holding teachers accountable.

A while back, the Allahabad High Court suggested that all government servants should send their children to government schools. The intent was to improve the quality of education through increased accountability. While it is unlikely that these measures will actually come to pass, there is an urgent need to sensitize teachers to the fact that all children can learn, regardless of the state of their uniform and the education level of their parents.


Ankit Vyas is a Chevening scholar at University of Cambridge. He is also the Senior Program Manager, STIR Education and Co-Founder at Videos for Knowledge. 
Featured Image : International Business Times
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