First, fix the teacher-pupil ratio
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Prem Singh Rawat, an unsung hero among rural India's government school functionaries, has been fighting for equitable resources for the education of children in his remote district, Mori, in Uttarakhand. He is still trying to ensure an effective teacher-pupil ratio, which is completely awry in Mori District. It has 129 government schools, but only 164 teachers. Mori needs at least twice as many teachers, but Rawat's entreaties have not worked because the authorities are unable to persuade teachers to go to Mori. Who wants to go to Mori? It is an inhospitable, remote corner of the country and far from all the amenities that teachers need for their own families. Some months ago, Rawat, frustrated with the lack of aid coming from the government, used a NREGA approach to solve his problems. He identified around 100 unemployed educated people in his district (persons who have a class X qualification) and gave them a 100-day assignment as temporary teachers in his schools. His desperate measures are a seething indictment of the ineffective governance of our school education system.
Many miles south, in a small village in the Gulbarga district of northeast Karnataka, is a small school that is representative of over 30 per cent of our rural government schools. There is just one bus to this village in the morning, and then a bus that goes back from the village in the evening. The primary school runs only because the headmistress and her colleagues are committed and devoted. They work without supervision. There is no assurance of what will happen if they are transferred and a new set of people come in.
Cut to Uttara Kannada, a district whose socio-economic indicators are much better than the northeast Karnataka district. India has placed a government school in virtually every hamlet of the country, and so in Uttara Kannada you will find a number of schools with less than 10 to 15 children between the ages of six and 11 with a teacher. Thus, many schools have a teacher-pupil ratio of less than 1:15, raising doubts about whether we have approached the issue of access to schools in the best possible way, and whether we are ignoring some obvious alternatives.
At the Azim Premji Foundation, we ran a programme called Namma Shaale in one cluster of Uttara Kannada to understand and demonstrate the power of community participation in schooling. An overwhelming number of parents were insistent their children be enrolled in a larger government school, even if that school was some three miles further away, rather than study in the small, insular schools in their hamlets. They saw the benefits of better infrastructure, a larger pool of teachers, and the opportunity for their children to learn better in a vibrant community of students and teachers.
There is also empirical evidence and research to show that very small schools are sub-optimal. A study by the Azim Premji Foundation in 2006-07 showed that learning levels are at their best at a teacher-pupil ratio of around 1:30. Anything beyond that has a sharply negative effect on school quality and student learning outcomes. The study also showed that when the teacher-pupil ratio fell below 1:15, learning outcomes again deteriorated. What the community members of Uttara Kannada signalled via preferential enrollment in larger schools seems to be vindicated by the research.
Why have I presented these contrasting scenarios? Because lopsided teacher-pupil ratios are the result of a combination of factors: our policy to have a school in every habitation; the nature of teacher recruitments; imbalance in the perceived quality of life between urban, semi-urban and rural postings; the rent-seeking in postings and transfers; and the political power of teachers. This issue cannot be adequately addressed with one brushstroke.
There have to be multiple approaches. Illustratively, in Uttarakhand, the government has to find a way to transfer some teachers from towns like Dehradun to the impoverished and orphaned schools of districts like Mori. On the other hand, in Uttara Kannada, the government has to ensure access to larger, better endowed schools. In northeast Karnataka, the challenge is to persuade teachers and functionaries to work in those regions.
Right now all the talk is about how the government will implement the RTE. Actions that seek to improve the quality of education in India's government schools will directly benefit a majority of our children. Much needs to be done. I have merely presented one immediate actionable item within the government's control — rationalise the distribution of teachers as a way of addressing the teacher-pupil ratio problem. Demonstrating something as doable as this is critical, because for most of our children, government schools are still their only hope.
The writer is registrar of Azim Premji University, Bangalore, and the head of its resource centre
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