Improving the sorry state of education in Jammu & Kashmir is a slippery slope - Firstpost
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Improving the sorry state of education in Jammu & Kashmir is a slippery slope

The sorry condition of education in Jammu and Kashmir is under the spotlight. A district deputy commissioner found in a random `education audit’ that school teachers did not know their subjects well enough. So, he has ordered a larger check. Reports of that came close on the heels of a public spat in which a teachers’ forum head used objectionable language about the director of education.

The spat caused a public furore, for it not only indicated that transfers and postings are a bit of an industry, it also showed that the misplaced value-systems of some professional teachers can even at times be feudal. Some of the social media comments on it showed how widespread such uncivil values are. One comment dwelt on the `backward mentality’ of the teachers’ leader’s village. For his part, the latter had abusively boasted that the director did not know that he had taken on the son of a landlord.

The sad fact is that many teachers seem to pass on societal gradation, contempt and exclusion. Blinkered mindsets seem to have become more common than egalitarian values and mutual respect among fellow citizens, and across religions and genders.

Militancy impact:

The decline in standards was partly caused by militancy. Many of today’s teachers were educated during the 1990s, when blasts, encounters, curfews and hartals disrupted life on an almost daily basis. More than 5,000 schools were destroyed in arson attacks. Students and teachers often could not reach school or college, or had to rush out suddenly. The exodus of Pandits had further affected teaching.

Students in Kashmir. Naresh Sharma/Firstpost

Students in Kashmir. Naresh Sharma/Firstpost

Examinations too became a major casualty of militancy in the early 1990s. In that period, there were reported instances of grey-bearded men writing school or college exams. Nobody dared question their identity, for they often carried a pistol or some other weapon. Cheating became almost the norm. Even now, passing exams is often more about purchasing a degree than imbibing knowledge or values.

The late Mufti Sayeed tried hard to expand the reach of education when he was chief minister from 2002 to 2005. His government built several new universities, and colleges in more or less every district. However, the then education minister, Harsh Dev Singh, acknowledged to me that the state did not have enough quality faculty for these institutions.

Some have just given up on the task – if they can get away with it. In 2011, the principal and a couple of the staff were the only ones present at a government higher secondary school when I happened to walk in. This, it turned out, was normal at that school. The principal offered to summon students if I informed him before my next visit. One wonders if that sort of attitude to schooling is related to the emergence of that particular town as a major hotbed of militancy since then.

Over the past decade, there has been a rash of new private schools and even a few private colleges (mainly education, engineering and technical). Some of them provide excellent education. However, if government schools allow sloppy attendance and performance, many private schools pay teachers peanuts. Earlier this decade, one prominent private school in uptown Srinagar used to pay its bus drivers Rs 7,000 a month, and its teachers Rs 4,000.

Respectability and conservatism

Such a lack of respect and value for teachers is a major problem. Some teachers do not feel confident enough about their command over the subject to encourage students’ questions. So, unwilling to expose the limits of their knowledge, they shout down questions in the classroom.

Other teachers reach for the respectability of religious conservatism to cover academic inadequacies. Even the best reputed private schools in today’s Kashmir are not entirely immune to such trends. According to a student, one teacher told his class that evolution was against his religion and so he had nothing more to say about that chapter in the curriculum.

Some parents objected to a teacher explaining the ideas of different religions. That sort of attitude does not augur well for peace and communal harmony. For, it allows misinformed hate propaganda about other religions and ethnicities to spread. It promotes religion-based exclusivity, which willy-nilly tears apart the various parts of this ethnically diverse state.

Resistance to understanding alternative ideas and traditions extends seamlessly to dress and behaviour codes. Students say one teacher called a student in the classroom shameless for not following a religious dress code. Another asked a student how many times his father prayed daily. Many teachers reflexively call for `good’ behaviour or values on the basis of religion, saying things like `as our God-given religion teaches us, …’

To be sure, not all teachers take this sort of attitude. Some point out that the Prophet of Islam urged people to go as far as China for education.

On the other hand, the trend of spreading conservatism is similar to what is happening elsewhere – based on conservative interpretations of various religious traditions. It pushes society towards hidebound rules, patriarchal attitudes and the force of power rather than of logic, debate and interaction.
For example, the principal of a prominent government college made a rule that only women students could enter by the front gate, males from the back gate – and the opposite sexes must not be seen together on campus. He was soon promoted to a very senior university post.

Power clash

Reforming the education system is a tough nut to crack, anywhere. In troubled Jammu and Kashmir, it can be a little like climbing a slippery mountain while it rains. Both recent incidents that exposed the shortfalls of the system pitted two kinds of power – that of the administration and of teachers – against each other.

Teachers’ representatives came off badly, looking almost like mafia outfits. Public support turned towards administrators, not least because the teachers’ representative’s anger was directed at Shah Faesal, the popular young director of school education. The officer has become an icon ever since he topped the Union civil services exam a few years ago. `Chocolate boy’ was the least offensive term that the teachers’ forum leader used against him.

A recording of his offensive speech went viral. Resultant public ire allowed the Governor’s administration to cancel all `attachment’ orders, which allowed a teacher to be at an administrative desk – even be part of the annual `durbar move’ between the state’s two capitals.

The one who expressed belligerence against Faesal has consequently been posted to a school in his home village. (This of course does not augur well for the education of students there – given the values he has displayed.) Faesal’s mentor, former education minister Naeem Akhtar, first stirred the hornet’s nest last year by transferring a teachers’ association leader of his native Bandipora back to a teaching job. The strategy apparently was to improve accountability by breaking the stranglehold of such representatives on teachers’ transfers and postings.

However, the power of teachers and administrators had combined about a decade ago to scuttle a grassroots movement in Ladakh to make school teachers accountable to village education committees. Sonam Wangchuk, who led that movement, fled the state under threat of arrest after the deputy commissioner of Leh backed the teachers’ associations against his movement.

The outpouring of support for top-down education reform by Akhtar and Faesal gives it a much better chance of success than any grassroots movement. However, the effort should be at least two-pronged: to make teachers feel included in the reform process, even as a carefully thought out scheme to improve education training for the long term is gradually and cautiously put in place.

The latter process will have to grapple with the power of B.Ed. colleges, which have mushroomed in Kashmir. Since B.Ed. is a one-year degree in this state, some B.Ed. colleges allow distance learning. Some are little more than degree shops.

Primary school teachers shape the next generation. To train them is a key challenge, an investment in peaceful coexistence and social harmony. An extended, comprehensive programme is required. It could teach pedagogy, child psychology and expression skills, along with a gamut of social sciences, general knowledge and one subject specialization over a six year programme beginning from Class 11. That would be the same number of years teachers spend in higher secondary school, college, and B.Ed. college.

Another critical challenge of education in this state is to cater to the aspirations of very different social groups. For example, one of Wangchuk’s demands was that Ladakhi children should be taught their culture, and in their language. (The state’s official language is Urdu.) That is only one example of the challenges of designing an adequate education system. It is, as I said, like climbing a slippery slope in the rain.

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