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Mahesh Vijapurkar

Mahesh Vijapurkar likes to take a worm’s eye-view of issues – that is, from the common man’s perspective. He was a journalist with The Indian Express and then The Hindu and now potters around with human development and urban issues.

Maharashtra: Bad schools don’t want to turn good

It is axiomatic. Good education flows from good schools and such schools have competent teachers on its roster. The students attend school regularly and so do the teachers who first teach them to write, read and do the sums. Then the teachers elevate the child from the simple to the complex and to better things — like developing their skills, stimulating their curiosity, helping acquire skills to match aspirations.

These are apparently simple things, but hard to find in India where education has gone through twists and turns which are grandly called reforms, but with nothing much to show for it.

The same is the case in Maharashtra, a pioneer in starting a girls’ school way back in 1852 – a contribution of Jyotiba Phule and his wife, Savitribai. Another great man from Maharashtra, BR Ambedkar, had also told the backward communities that education would unfetter them from discrimination — but good education in even a ‘progressive’ Maharashtra seems impossible.

While the state government has belatedly set out to clean things up, it has not been easy. Resistance comes easier than compliance when correctives are sought, as school managements frown at new norms which could improve the state's education system.

Good education flows from good schools and such schools have competent teachers on its roster.

School managements (from modest trusts to big politicians) say, the norms – which seek a certain student to classroom ratio and a certain level of academic competence from students to be ensured by the teacher – are just impossible for schools to meet. It just suits schools to maintain status quo.

What are the prescriptions the government seeks? Ensure that there are 30 students to the classroom, as a Maharashtra Times news report on Monday implied. Not by adding classrooms to reduce the number of students but by adding students to raise it from an average of 25 to 30 students per classroom and there are no capital costs or hiring of additional teachers involved.

The other requirement is at least 35 percent of the school's students should secure 60 percent marks in the 10th boards — which is not asking too much. Also, in a laudable effort to cut the high dropout rates among girls, the government wants to ensure that more of them are enrolled and keep the ratio of boys and girls at 1:1.

Each of these parameters carries some marks, but to fulfill these parameters the quality of academics is equally important, if not more. For example, badly equipped schools, say in terms of toilets, can have good teaching — they are unrelated to each other and have everything to do with motivation levels among teachers. Its measure is 35 per cent of students of each school should get 60 per cent in their school boards – the 10th.

In the past few weeks, the government has been administering a kind of online test — asking for responses to questions and assigning marks on each of the parameters. In this evaluation, only a quarter of participating schools met the standards. However, the others, which we can categorise as failed schools, will get two more opportunities to get their act together — presumably, over the next two academic years since results in the 10th boards take place only once a year.

It so happens, that most schools which fail are Marathi schools and those that are ‘permanently unaided’. Being permanently unaided is what a school management agrees to be so they do not burden the government’s treasury for the wages to be paid to the teachers. However, this test has a purpose: if they meet the quality norms, they can get government aid despite earlier stipulation that they won’t be given it.

As many as 5,200-odd schools submitted to the evaluation but when the first flush of results became known, their managements began crying hoarse, their one fear being that it was a ruse to shut down Marathi schools. They want the norms to be less stringent so they can be in the business of running schools and with the new intent to be provided aid, get it.

It is not often that Maharashtra has taken any significant steps to improve the badly run school system. A recent step was detecting bogus students on the rolls. These schools faked the student strength so they could claim more teachers were employed, and in turn larger sums for their salaries. They also mulcted the treasury by showing more students as consuming midday meals provided for by the government.

As many as 2,500 schools are now under threat of closure for the frauds they ran unchecked for years but these are schools which had been detected to have more than half their student strength being bogus. There has been no word yet about the schools which had lower number of bogus students. Even zilla parishad schools are part of this major scam which drained the state exchequer of approximately Rs 1,000 cr per annum.

It is obvious that the schooling system suffers from several grievous faults: poor quality education on one hand and the expensive on the other. Given that children emerging from even so-called good schools have to take to tutorials to fit into the competitive rat race for admissions to professional courses, a big question mark hangs over the utility of the system. It is only now that the government has woken up to the grand scam called education and taking some steps but how long it would be before they translate to good schooling for its children is anybody’s guess.

None, it is now evident, gives a tinker’s curse because everyone wants a school to purposelessly run even if the outcomes are zilch. The standards have to be lowered, the monitoring has to be non-existing except for on the paper, and the assembly line has to keep functioning. The government has to spend, the private trusts have to earn and the students’ be damned. They are simply a digit. It does not matter if the students after several years of schooling cannot read a paragraph nor do simple sums as several reports, including government’s own, have confirmed this reality.

The norms are not from another world but what any reasonable arrangement would consider are not only appropriate but should have been enforced eons ago. They are, however, not stringent enough because anything less than the best in education only plays with the future of the children, robbing them of the ability to make their life’s choices. Upon such ability rests the Human Development. Without that, communities and individuals therein remain or become laggards.