West Bengal: Report on education

Problematic report card

Print edition :

Children on their way back home after school in north Bengal, a file photograph. Photo: Ashoke Chakrabarty

A government primary school in the northern part of Kolkata that has only two small classrooms catering to around 50 students of classes I to IV and three teachers, including the headmaster. A November 2011 photograph. Photo: Arunangsu Roy Chowdhury

A DETAILED report brought out recently by the Nobel laureate Amartya Sen’s Pratichi Institute, titled “Primary Education in West Bengal: The Scope for Change”, highlights certain major problems that are coming in the way of the proper functioning of the primary education system in the State. While acknowledging that access to primary education has increased significantly and that there has been a perceptible improvement in the pupil-teacher ratio (PTR), the report reveals that the State’s schools suffer from an insufficient provision of human resources, a lack of quality teachers and a shortage of funds. It says there is a necessity to improve the standard of textbooks and the syllabi to ensure quality education.

The report states that the lack of human resources in government-aided schools is primarily due to an actual shortage of teachers, especially for co-curricular activities, on the one hand, and uneven distribution of existing teachers, on the other. Further, the situation has been aggravated by the lack of trained teachers. 

There has been remarkable improvement in the average PTR: in 2015-16, it stood at 23 as against 49 in 2004-05. However, in spite of this overall improvement, there are a large number of schools with an adverse PTR of 40, while in some cases it is as low as 12. According to the report, at least 20 per cent of the schools in the State suffer from teacher shortage, while others have an excess number of teachers. The problem of shortage of teachers is particularly acute in the districts of Murshidabad, Malda and Uttar Dinajpur. “The distribution of teachers shows a worrying unevenness—it ranges between 14 and 44. Even more disturbing is the fact that the State has not only failed to abolish the phenomenon of single teacher schools, but their proportion has actually increased from 3.3 per cent in 2014-15 to 4 per cent in 2015-16,” the report states. It points out that around 6.5 per cent of the schools have only one classroom for students of various classes.

The data the Pratichi Institute collected reveal a pattern of spatial inequality in the public provision of primary schools. This is also reflected in the Unified- District Information System for Education (U-DISE), 2015-16, which shows that 847 villages in West Bengal do not have government-run primary schools. At the same time, there are a large number of villages that have more schools than actually required.

The report has brought to the fore the fact that schools are severely underfunded. “But it must be noted that many schools need much greater supportive facilities, both of a basic kind (the schools are still underfunded and under-resourced even in terms of very elementary provisions), and in terms of the lack of skilled instructions—and necessary instruments—for music, dance, drawing and sports. This is a substantial resource need, with a deficit that has been estimated to be, on an average, Rs.69,000 per annum per school (in today’s prices),” wrote Amartya Sen in his foreword to the report.

Midday meal

While the report lauds the improvement in the implementation of the State’s Mid-Day Meal Programme, it does not fail to notice the paucity of funds that continue to remain a source of worry for its proper continuation. 

The Mid-Day Meal Programme, alongside the expansion of school infrastructure, has been a key factor in the spread of primary education, but the challenges that schools face in running the programme cannot be overlooked, observes the report. “The approved rates are lower than prevailing market prices. There is no explicit provision for eggs or animal protein, which <FZ,1,0,21>should be a crucially important component of the midday meal,” says the report. It reveals that while a decent meal would require a conversion cost of Rs.7.17 a child a day, the present allocation amounts to Rs.4.13 a child a day. In many cases, the deficit is met through contributions from teachers themselves. “But such an urgent issue cannot be left to voluntary generosity. Moral inspiration cannot and does not always translate into efficiency,” says the report.

Another problem area the report identifies is the deficiency in the training of teachers. “There is a plethora of evidence to show that the poor and inequitable functioning of schools is not only due to the teachers’ much-criticised irregular attendance and discriminatory treatment of children in the classroom, but also, in many cases, owing to pedagogical deficiencies, including neglect of teachers’ education. These problems have led to children helplessly quitting their studies midway,” states the report. The training programmes themselves are often found to be lifeless and uninspiring. Of the 373 teachers who were interviewed as part of research for the report, only 37 had reportedly received their training in full. 

From the data collected in the two districts of North 24 Paraganas and Jhargram, it was seen that only 20 per cent of the total number of schools in the region had been visited by a school inspector in the previous six months and another 20 per cent had not had such a visit in the past one year.

The report also talks about issues that need to be addressed in the areas of academic planning and academic curriculum. “The neglect is everywhere. Be it the evaluation of students or preparation of the syllabus, curriculum, and textbooks, any serious observer can sense the insensibility and unconcern,” says the report. By way of example, it points out the Bengali textbook for class one students, titled “Amar Boi” (My Book). It contains 348 pages; the six-year-olds studying in that class can barely manage to handle it. “The irrational behaviour guiding educational policy can be seen from the textbooks,” says the report.

Shiksha Alochana

According to Sabir Ahamed, Research Coordinator and Fellow, Pratichi Institute, the report is a culmination of its efforts over the years to understand and help overcome some of the problems prevalent in the field of education. Pratichi has been instrumental in creating a platform called “Shiksha Alochana” (Discussing Education), where it, primary school teachers, academics and activists interact to find solutions to them. Its aim is to bring about positive changes through interactions between primary school teachers across the State at one level and through interactions between teachers and the general public at another. 

“The Pratichi Institute undertakes public discussions on education, health, nutrition, and gender inequality on a regular basis—including holding large annual general meetings and smaller forums for regular exchange of views and analyses. The participants include teachers, educational researchers, academic educationists, the interested public, grass root level health workers, and the schoolchildren themselves—and of course their parents and guardians. These collective efforts constitute Shiksha Alochana….” writes Amartya Sen.

The report itself is a product of a unique effort. “What makes this report different from other research papers on education is that it is not a product of just academics and researchers. Primary school teachers working at the ground level themselves have participated in the making of this report, which has been completely based on their experiences and problems. The teachers are fellow participants in the project, and this is what has helped us present a more realistic picture of the education scenario in the state,” Sabir Ahamed told Frontline

Suhrid Sankar Chattopadhyay 

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