The question of learning

Published : Oct 14, 2015 12:31 IST

A protest on October 2, 2014 by girls of the senior secondary school at Bhim village in Rajasthan demanding that teachers be appointed to the school. This and other pictures in the subsequent pages were taken from a video film of the protest.

A protest on October 2, 2014 by girls of the senior secondary school at Bhim village in Rajasthan demanding that teachers be appointed to the school. This and other pictures in the subsequent pages were taken from a video film of the protest.

IT was just over a year ago, on Gandhi Jayanti 2014, that girls of the senior secondary school of the town of Bhim in Rajasthan went on strike. The young, fresh-faced and neatly groomed girls were far removed from anyone’s idea of potentially rowdy protesters. Hundreds of them sat peacefully in rows on the road in front of the gate of the government school building demanding something simple and straightforward: the opportunity to study. They claimed that for the past seven years their school had suffered a major shortage of teachers with no new appointments, to the point that they had only three teachers for 700 students.

They chose October 2 because, as one of them points out in a video recording of some of that protest, Gandhiji had taught them to demand their rights, and they knew the importance of beginning their protest on that special day. “We have the right to education, but no teacher to teach!” they claimed as they marched. No Principal for eight years, no teacher for mathematics, geography, Hindi, computers, Sanskrit, or a host of other subjects that they would be examined on in their Board examinations. According to them, their beleaguered teachers are so harried and overworked that they barely get time to eat during the day, let alone teach the children. They are only able to rush into different classrooms, get the pupils to open their books at a particular page and then rush off to the next class.

Some of them pointed out that they travelled 10 to 12 kilometres every day from surrounding villages, spending about Rs.20 a day, just to attend this school, and yet they were unable to learn anything. They asked why their school was being treated in this way and why it was so much worse off than the boys’ school in the town: Is it because they were girls and so their education did not matter? “We want to learn but there is nobody to teach us.”

The schoolgirls were determined: Until the school got more teachers, they would camp out on the road and hold their “classes” there. They appealed to their parents to congregate outside the tehsil office for that purpose. As the protest stretched on and even expanded, the local administration promised that it would provide three more teachers by October 7. If not, the girls were free to protest again. On October 8, the girls were out on the road again —the promised teachers never came. The authorities hastily arranged for four teachers to be transferred to this school within a few days (no doubt creating shortages somewhere else). The Sub-Divisional Magistrate promised that a maths teacher would arrive the very next day. The staff strength would, therefore, go up to seven for the 700 students, with 14 posts still remaining vacant.

How could things come to such as a pass as this in a country which passed the Right to Education Act nearly a decade ago and in which all governments piously proclaim their interest in education? When our Prime Minister travels abroad he not only celebrates Indian achievers who have gone abroad to succeed as professionals but also promises to export teachers to other countries, such as English teachers to Malaysia? What is happening in Rajasthan may be extreme, but it is symptomatic of a deep and cynical neglect of public education that persists in many parts of the country, which is likely to have devastating consequences not only for children but for the future of Indian society.

As it happens, the State government of Rajasthan has been niggardly in its approach to public spending. The Budget for 2015-16 announces a surplus of Rs.557 crore compared with a deficit of Rs.4,420 crore in the previous year, achieved largely through severe cuts in many crucial areas of public spending. However, Budget allocations themselves are not good indicators because last year the State government actually spent only around 60 per cent of its Budget allocation for the social sector, including on education.

The State government is also remarkable in that, according to reports, it has barely spent any money from the funds allocated under the Centre’s Rashtriya Madhyamik Shiksha Abhiyan (RMSA), a scheme that is designed to make secondary education universal. Indeed, in 2014-15 only six per cent of sanctioned works under the RMSA, which had been cleared in previous financial years, were completed. Nor has the State government utilised fully the money available from other schemes such as the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA), the midday meal programme, special grants for model schools or the Prarambhik Shiksha Fund. So, even as the Union government has slashed allocations for the SSA by 21 per cent and for the midday meal programme by 30 per cent in the Union Budget 2015-16, the government of Rajasthan simply does not use even the money available to it.

Indeed, the total education budget outlay for Rajasthan in the current year is only Rs.21,788 crore, which is nowhere near sufficient either to meet the obvious gaps in infrastructure or in the number of teachers, or do anything to improve the quality of teaching and, therefore, learning outcomes. As a result, the state has not filled approved teachers’ posts in government schools in the past two financial years.

Enrolments in government schools have fallen sharply from 75 per cent of all enrolment in 2006 to 58 per cent in 2014. This is not surprising as teacher-student ratios and learning outcomes fall behind in government schools because of the lack of infrastructure and adequate numbers of trained teachers. The sheer numbers of vacancies of teachers are shocking: Of the 4,586 posts for Principal, 2,027 are vacant; of the 9,442 posts for Headmaster, 3,535 have not been filled; of the 69,884 posts for senior teachers, 20,908 are vacant; of 12,583 positions for teachers, 6,451 remain unfilled.

The outcomes are expectedly poor, given such low levels of government investment and apparent lack of interest. Only 69 per cent of girls and 71 per cent of boys passed the Class X Board examinations in 2014, which is lower than most States, including Bihar. The Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) surveys provide bleaker assessments of learning outcomes. In terms of reading, in 2006 only 55 per cent of children in Class V could read a text of Class II level—but this proportion declined to only 47 per cent in 2014. In 2006, only 37 per cent of children in Class V could do simple division, but by 2014 only 24 per cent of them could do so. In terms of comprehension, children in Class V who could read and understand sentences fell from 21 per cent to 15 per cent.

“Shiksha ka Sawaal”

Clearly, something has to be done urgently before another entire generation loses out on educational opportunity. In this context, the “Shiksha ka Sawaal” campaign in Rajasthan provides a ray of hope. The campaign is a joint initiative of the Right to Information Abhiyan and the Right to Education movement, an umbrella of many local groups and organisations that have combined with Rajasthan Patrika newspaper to find out whether the promises of the Right to Education Act have been met even minimally. RTI applications are being filed in every government school in the State, across all districts, in both rural and urban areas.

Six basic questions are asked: How many pupils are enrolled and how many are actually attending the school? What is the number of teaching positions compared with the number of students, and how many are vacant? Does the school have facilities for drinking water? Is there a playground with a boundary wall? Are there separate and functional toilets for boys and girls? Do the school management committee and the school development committee actually function? These are simple questions, easy to understand and to reply to, but they do provide important information about the ability of a school to fulfil the basic conditions required under the Right to Education Act.

The answers are predictably dire, but they will form the basis of the ongoing campaign to improve the conditions of government schools in Rajasthan. Indeed, media coverage has ensured greater public knowledge of the conditions prevailing in schools, and the associated public outcry has forced the government to respond to some extent.

Not all the response has been desirable, though. The story told at the start of the piece does not yet have a happy ending. Of the four new teachers brought in after the protest in Bhim, three have been transferred out again. At the same time, one of the senior teachers who helped the students to protest has been transferred to another district as punishment.

Meanwhile, at Chauru village in Tonk district in Rajasthan, an even more dreadful story is unfolding. The girls of the senior secondary school there had gone on a similar protest demanding more teachers in the face of very large shortages. On September 30, police were sent to lathi-charge the girls at the very time when they were supposed to meet the District Collector and the District Education Officer to discuss their problems. This is shameful and beyond belief. Young girl students who were peacefully demanding their right to quality education and protesting against the dismal situation in their schools have been met not with sympathy, understanding and an official urge to rectify matters as soon as possible, but with physical and psychological violence.

Unfortunately, Rajasthan is not alone among State governments in this cavalier attitude to public education. Even the Central government has indicated in its resource allocation how little it values this most essential item of spending. Obviously, implementing Right to Education in both letter and spirit is going to be a struggle. But the costs of not implementing it are too great for our society, and so it is important for every citizen, not just in Rajasthan but across the country, to be involved actively in securing it.

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