Assam education minister breathes fire to weed out rot, but faces uncomfortable questions in process

Did Assam education minister Himanta Biswa Sarma go overboard while taking on headmasters and principals of government schools over the poor performance of students in state board matriculation examinations? Did he forget who was in charge of the ministry when going after a certain set of schools?

Headmasters and principals of state-run schools in Assam where students fared badly in Class X examinations this year were in for a rude shock, when Sarma took them to task over the results.

 Assam education minister breathes fire to weed out rot, but faces uncomfortable questions in process

Assam education minister Himanta Biswa Sarma talking to one of the participants in the review meeting on Monday. Image courtesy Sarma's Facebook page

Just to avoid confusion , it would do better to clarify that headmasters are those who head high schools while those heading higher secondary schools are called principals.

While the minister's intentions may have been justified, and there is a need to instill accountability among a section of the teachers, the manner in which the whole exercise took place on Monday, with televised images beaming across the state and even outside, surprised many. Officially termed as a review meeting, principals of three different categories of schools — those with 100 percent pass results, those with 1-10 percent pass results, and those where not a single candidate could clear the examination — were called by the minister.

This year, 31 schools in the state did not have a single student who could pass Class X examinations held by the Board of Secondary Education, Assam (SEBA). The numbers of candidates in these schools range from three to 54.

Sarma rebuked heads of these institutions on live TV and demanded an explanation from each one of them individually for the dismal performance by their respective schools. Left at the mercy of the minister in such media glare, many of them were nervous and struggled to answer coherently.

The pace at which the whole thing proceeded reminded one of the Anil Kapoor starrer Nayak. Sniffing a scam in the provincialisation process of 124 schools in 2013, the minister had ordered a reexamination of the process for these schools while the BKB Anchalik High School in Barpeta district lost its provincialisation following the principal's failure to give satisfactory replies during the questioning.

Throughout the review meeting on Monday, it was quite obvious that the schools which were provincialised in 2013 were under the scanner. Ironically, Sarma was the education minister then under the Tarun Gogoi-led Congress government from 2002-14. If there is indeed a scam as the minister assumes, he would probably have a lot of answering to do. He even wanted to know who was the IAS officer who gave nod for the provincialisation of these presently underperforming schools and if any data was fudged.

Surprisingly, as the minister said during the meeting many of these 124 schools had shown relatively better results prior to 2013 when they were in the venture category but their performance deteriorated soon after they started receiving government funds.

"The manner in which the whole thing was conducted did create a shock and awe. It is a sensitive matter and has to be handled in a sensitive and sophisticated manner. But it is also true that impatience is setting in and it is high time the issue is dealt with. For a backward state like Assam, there are some major departments which are in dire need of strong leadership and education is one of them. I think the minister was perhaps too aggressive on Monday, although there is no doubt about his intention. The open bashing led to a controversy," said Dileep Chandan, political commentator and editor of Asam Bani.

Furthermore, the minister also ordered mass transfers of teachers, including punishment postings, and even warned of imposing voluntary retirement schemes for non-performing teachers, and merging of schools.

"There has to be accountability. There is no doubt about it. But blaming the teachers alone is not right. Many teachers are forced to engage in non-teaching work like elections, census and the National Registration (NRC), Assam. A one-day public bashing by the minister is not going to help. These headmasters were soft targets. Having said this, failure of an entire batch of students cannot be justified," said an eminent educationist who did not wish to be identified.

The pass percentage slipped to 47.94 this year, down from last year's 62 percent; only 1,78,656 out of a total of 3,80,733 candidates could clear the exams. While 8,093 candidates were absent, 48 results are withheld for various reasons, and 1,062 students were expelled from examination halls for employing unfair practices.

"The minister is getting involved in an impression game. It seems like an attempt to discredit the state board and the schools under it. Obviously there needs to be accountability since there are schools where no student passed the examination. But what is the need to do that in public? The government is not helping the public schools enough. With such public displays, the minister is possibly trying to send out a subtle message that the credibility of government-run vernacular medium schools and the state board are at stake. It seemed more like a propaganda to discredit both," Samujjal Bhattacharya, advisor to the All Assam Students Union (AASU), told Firstpost.

However, the meeting was not about brickbats alone. Sarma also announced that all teachers of the 19 schools that saw 100 percent pass percentage would be rewarded with a certificate and Rs 10,000 prize money. The minister also sought to know from nine headmasters of these 19 about their teaching methods and asked them to share tips with their counterparts, so that standards of education can be improved across the state.

However, despite the appreciation, it was the scathing — and at times, taunting — criticism that claimed all the headlines. "Why were the headmasters alone targeted? What were the school inspectors in each district doing? If the schools are not doing well, it's the job of the inspectors to find out what was wrong and take steps accordingly. I believe the inspectors have to take the share of the blame as well. They should have also been taken to task. Going after the teachers alone would demoralise those who are honest and sincere. Squarely blaming the teaching community is not the way forward," the educationist said.

Assam education minister Himanta Biswa Sarma during the meet with heads of schools. Image courtesy Sarma's Facebook page

Assam education minister Himanta Biswa Sarma during the meet with heads of schools. Image courtesy Sarma's Facebook page

"For instance, the state is reeling under floods now. There are so many embankments which were not properly made. Are the engineers who were in charge of these confronted in public, as was the case with the principals? The deputy commissioners are not pulled up in public despite so many faults. When other government departments are not admonished in public for poor showing, singling out teachers is not the right way. The minister seeks to instill a a sense of responsibility, but if the teachers feel humiliated, their morale would be affected. Having said that, however, zero pass percentage in a school is also not acceptable," he said.

There is also an increasing feeling, that while attempting to kick off mass reformation in the state's education sector, the government is taking hasty decisions which might end up harming the state's vernacular medium schools. The government had recently announced that only candidates from English-medium schools will be eligible to apply for teaching at the model schools or Adarsh Vidyalayas across the state, triggering a huge uproar.

"Why is the state trying to bring the Adarsh Vidyalayas under CBSE? Why can't they come under SEBA? The government is ignoring vernacular medium schools and the state board in the name of reforming the education sector in Assam. We are not against CBSE or English-medium, but our point is SEBA can also do the same thing. The privately-run Assam Jatiya Bidyalay at Noonmati in Guwahati is a shining example; it's a vernacular-medium school. If there is a debate competition in Guwahati today, not only would its students win in the Assamese section but also in the English section. They also do English plays. Can't the government replicate the same model in its schools?" asked the AASU advisor.

"There should be teacher orientation programmes. In fact, this government was brought in to correct the flaws of the previous Congress government. But instead of making it an ego issue, the future of the students should be improved," Bhattacharya said.

There is a general belief that deep corruption has stymied the growth of the state's education scenario leading to a miserable performance by many students mostly in the government-run schools. "They should have addressed the whole thing in a systematic and structural manner, and not in public. The Directorate of Secondary Education is the nerve centre of corruption. This has to be rooted out. Otherwise, this kind of treatment which the minister meted out is going to symptomatic," the educationist said.

There are other infrastructural issues with the education sector which also cannot be ignored. "During the meeting with the minister, some principals pointed to the lack of adequate facilities in schools — they don't have any protection from floods, they lack adequate roads and transport system, making traveling to the schools difficult, while teachers in far-flung places lack accommodation as well. In some schools, there aren't even sufficient teachers. Although these cannot be excuses for poor results, it cannot be ignored," the academician said.

In course of the discussion, Sarma even went to the extent of asking a principal what his monthly compensation was after the implementation of the seventh pay commission and also advised one to dress in a formal manner to keep the dignity of a teacher. He went on to ask the qualifications of a few of the assembled headmasters. "Probably this was a bit too much. Regular refresher courses for the teachers in subjects like Mathematics and English have to be conducted to keep them sharp, focussed and updated. A simple BEd degree won't help much. It will give only the pedagogy," the educationist said.

But whatever the method of the minister, there is no denying that the education sector in Assam needs a massive overhaul. "The effort of correcting the education system has to start right from the lower primary level, from the grassroots, and it has to be saturated. Probably it would have augured well if the minister had first met with the higher officials of the department, senior academicians and intelligentsia, and then proceeded to the next step. He should also trust various student organisations in the state," Chandan said.

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Updated Date: Jul 12, 2017 21:36:06 IST