India's government schools in disarray: Here's a blueprint to improve quality of education, bring about accountability

In the last week of the May, two news items appeared in the media — one regarding declaration of Class X results by the Board of School Education, Haryana, and the other regarding the announcement made by the state's chief minister to supply books to school children through an e-textbook portal. But neither news item made much of a flutter either way.

A 49 percent passing rate of 49 percent for the state of Haryana is a matter of grave concern. When results of private schools are taken out of the aggregate, this statistic drops even further. More worryingly, it's not happening for the first time, nor is this special to the state of Haryana.

There are news items emanating from the neighbouring states of Punjab, Himachal Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, etc. where the results are again very dismal. In Punjab, there are schools where not a single student passed Class X, and results were poor throughout the state. Himachal Pradesh also indicated poor standards of education in government schools. Even among those who have passed, only one out of 80,000 students was able to find a place in the merit list.

Board results analysed over the last many years would indicate a similar trend. Other than a few statements, authorities and other stakeholders keep giving alibis for poor results and declining standards of school education. The real issues have rarely been touched upon, and parents and students have accepted this as fait accompli.

While launching the digital India programme on 1 July 2015, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had, in the presence of top industrial magnates, talked about bringing digital revolution to the masses. At other platforms as well, Modi has vouched for the strength of the country, where more than 800 million youth under the age of 35 are poised to give a fillip to the economy.

Representational image. Reuters

Representational image. Reuters

India enrols about 59 percent of its students in government schools at primary level and retains 35 percent of them by the time they reach secondary level. Data Information System for Education (DISE), under the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD), highlights the virtues of high enrollment and retention of students up to Class IX, but seldom talks about as to why crossing the Class X barrier has become so difficult.

With such a large population being dependent on the state for providing education to its children, and given such poor standards, it is difficult to fathom as to what would happen to this great dividend of a young population of a country of 1.3 billion people.

The threshold for appearing in a good quality institute for higher education is no different for students coming from government schools versus private schools, and neither are there any bonus or grace marks accorded. The system of public instruction in India, a legacy of the British Raj, has continued for the last 70 years or so with few changes. Education at all levels has been designed with a purpose to seek jobs. But the sector has not been able to get adequate budgetary resources from the government. Subsequently, the important stakeholders in society aren't interested in government school's affairs.

Private schools have been successful to some extent in this regard. They have thrived due to falling standards in the government schools. The rising middle class' continuous demand for soft skills like English proficiency, and business, political and bureaucratic patronage have all helped strengthen the hands of commercial interests to enter this field.

The growth of the private sector with varying degrees of standards has not been able to develop any enabling infrastructure. The sector which was once the preserve of philanthropic and charitable organisations/trusts has, in the absence of any proper and adequate regulatory mechanism, failed to provide a lead role. The time is yet to come when elimination of the inefficient or incompetent would take place automatically.

Private sector has to by and large look up to the government for maintaining its standards for admission to higher education institutes, where benchmarks are laid by the state.

Demand for government schools has continued over the years. New schools have been opened with relaxed norms of distance and availability. Pressures of meeting millennium development goals have kept the pressure on governments, both at the Centre and state, to increase enrollments using incentives like mid-day meals, free books, uniforms etc.

Right to Education has obligated authorities to focus not only on enrollments but also on keeping students in school till the age of 14. The focus has now shifted to increase the enrollments at secondary level. The percentage increase in the literacy rates has really not led to any improvements in the quality of education. Authorities' focus on increased enrollments and their retention in schools has led to a ‘No Detention Policy’ up to Class IX.

Teachers' shortage

Another problem pervasive at all levels of government schools is a shortage of teachers. There are vacancies touching up to 50 percent, even with relaxed norms of teacher-student ratios. There are more than 30,000 vacancies for teachers in Haryana alone. More than 800 schools are without a principal.

The DISE report card gives a glimpse of basic data for all schools — district-wise and state-wise for the whole country.

Having personal knowledge of a few schools in Haryana's Sirsa district, it was thoughtful to peruse data for this district. There are 1,160 schools in Sirsa district, of which 842 are managed by the state government's education department. Of the others, nine are private (aided), 265 private (unaided), and 41 are unrecognised; three are managed by the central government. A total of 979 are located in the rural areas and serve 1,72,189 students with 7,027 teachers; 181 are in the urban areas and serve 80,917 students with 3,000 teachers.

In 2016-17, government schools had 1,38,276 students and 5,256 teachers of all categories on their rolls, while 265 private unaided schools had 4,272 teachers teaching 1,05,882 students. All other parameters — like student-pupil ratio, student-class ratio, total enrollment, facilities like toilets, drinking water, electricity etc — have been clubbed together for all schools, and the real picture of government schools is difficult to discern.

However, visiting some of the schools shows that there are often more than 50 percent vacancies. Some of the schools don't have teachers for important subjects like Math and English for the last five years. These schools are not something remotely connected. In fact, one such school located at sub-divisional headquarters could give only 12 percent results. Another report submitted to district authorities indicates a sanctioned strength of 7,950 teachers in all categories with 3,426 posts vacant as on 31 December, 2016. This picture can be extrapolated for the whole state with minor variations here and there.

Shortcut methods adopted to fill vacancies, like guest teachers and outsourcing, have only killed the quality of education further without serving its purpose. The unqualified lot, which itself was not interested in pursueing its own studies, was tasked to fill the space vacated by highly paid regular teachers.

Important infrastructure like rooms, benches, electricity fans, drinking water and toilets don't match the minimum level of requirement.

Government supplies books to school children. But experience shows that these books do not reach the students on time. Last year, books were not available with the high schools/higher secondary schools till September end. This year, books for Class I to Class VIII have not been printed yet, and the schedule is not known.

It is heartening to know that the government of Haryana, in order to fulfil the wishes of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has come up with a scheme for providing e-books through its e-portal. But to achieve such an enormous task, it would be important to have a look at the basic infrastructure available at the ground level, which has to be compatible with the objectives of the scheme for its successful implementation.

These government schools don't have the adequate number of computers. The ones which are available are mostly non-functional and are like showpieces serving the purpose of maintaining inventory books with schools. Absence of any annual maintenance contracts has led these machines to turn into junk.

Students have not been provided with any iPads, tablets or laptops for downloading or uploading of books, or any other educational material.

Secondly, there aren't enough qualified teachers to provide digital literacy. Computer teachers recruited on contractual basis with a meagre salary are struggling only to renew their own contracts every six months. There are many schools which have no computer teacher at all.

Thirdly, computers would require power supply to operate, but as per the current policy of the state government, electricity supply to rural areas in the state is made available for only two hours during the day. Schools are not exempted from powercuts. As most of the schools fall in rural areas, generators can fill the gap, but the same would need diesel and funds for repairs.

Fourthly, downloading of books would require internet connectivity. This is a big challenge in rural areas, and schools are no exception. Wherever it is available, the speed of 2 mbps is provided in schools, which is grossly inadequate to download any book. With this speed, it will not be possible to download books for all students and make them available in either printed or soft copy.

BSNL's WiFi facility for schools is very expensive, and installation costs will discourage schools from using it. The reason given is that this may be misused, and security breached. If railway stations and airports do not feel these threats despite giving free WiFi, schools would hardly be expected to be a problem, especially given users are already limited and well-known to all.

No big private player has yet come forward in a significant way to offer internet connectivity to government schools on long-term basis free of cost or at reduced rates. Government directives have not made any effect either. Private players are targeting business alone.

In order to see that the government is able to successfully push its digital literacy programme forward and provide books through its e-portal, it would have to take some effective steps.

BSNL has installed optical fibre cables in all Haryana villages. Now it is for the government or other institutions or individuals to take connections from the main point. The government should also connect all government with internet facility with a reasonably good speed. School premises should also be given WiFi for free.

The state government should enter into an arrangement with BSNL for connecting all its schools as a special package. Issues of bandwidth, internet speed and payment mechanisms should be settled at one platform with a uniform policy.

All schools should be provided with required number of functional computers and students be given iPads or tablets. Teachers should also be given laptops or iPads. Schools should be exempted from power cuts in rural as well as urban areas. As an alternative, roof tops of school buildings should be used for solar power generation. The central government has a major programme for generation of solar energy and installation on government buildings is eligible for huge subsidies. This can also take care of operational and maintenance issues.

Supply of books through e-portals will solve many problems. It will take care of the enormous cost of printing of books and logistic arrangements for reaching them to the students. Lectures and other relevant material will be uploaded by the teachers on the tablets of students for their use at home or in the absence of the teacher due to leave or some other duty.

Lectures can be transmitted from a central point, say a district headquarters, to a number of schools. This can tackle the problem of teacher shortage as well. Students would be able to access the material already available in the public domain like YouTube or Google, which would enhance their knowledge.

Expenditure incurred in such a programme can always be set off against expenditure incurred on supply of printed books or such other schemes.

However, till such time the government is fully able to implement its scheme of providing books for all children of all classes through e-portal, providing printed books should be one of the topmost priorities. The schedule should be made in such a way that printed books should reach the schools by February-end for the calendar starting from April.

Teachers' vacancies should be filled up at the earliest. This could be achieved by delegating the powers at the district level. A committee under the chairmanship of district education officer may be constituted with other district level officers as members. JBT and BEd qualified teachers should be asked to qualify NET-like exam, to be conducted by any university or board of school education and only those who qualify should appear for interviews before a district-level committee. This will reduce time and save the authorities several hassles.

District level authorities should also be delegated with powers to make arrangements locally, by recruitments or other adjustments at the district level whenever any vacancy arises. In fact, those who are to retire after 30 September should be given the benefit of session, and be retired after 31 march.

Further, the government should reverse its 'No Detention Policy', so as to make teachers and authorities responsible and accountable. No student should be upgraded to the next level unless s/he deserves it. Board exams should be introduced at Class V and Class VIII levels as well. The Right to Education, being a central legislation, should be amended by the government of India and be not left at the discretion of the state governments.

To put a stop to falling standards of our school education, the society should be made to participate in the functioning of our schools. Village panchayats should be made accountable for development of infrastructure and proper functioning of schools. The neighbourhood school concept, if adopted with uniform standards of curriculum, would help all categories of people to appreciate the problems and will sensitise them from users' point of view. Strengthening our educational system can help in the socio-economic development of the country, which could lead to the making of a great nation.


Published Date: Jun 16, 2017 12:29 pm | Updated Date: Jun 16, 2017 12:29 pm


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