Bitter lessons

Print edition : December 30, 2005

Schoolchildren at a rally in June this year in Chennai to mark the Sarva Siksha Abhiyan Total Enrolment Day. - M. MOORTHY

After five years of Sarva Siksha Abhiyan, government-run and aided schools in both rural and urban areas exhibit largely the same old deficiency diseases, if one goes by the Tamil Nadu experience.

"SSA good morning!" A shrill yell from young voices in indistinct English greets visitors to government schools in Katankulathur block in Kanchipuram district of Tamil Nadu. Field observers of the Tamil Nadu Primary School Improvement Campaign (TANPIC), a non-governmental organisation (NGO), report that this morale-boosting chorus is an accepted feature of the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (`Education for All' campaign), first introduced in 2001 in Tamil Nadu. The TANPIC study of 78 elementary schools, done under the Department of Anthropology, University of Madras, records that few children had any idea what the letters SSA stood for. Nor did they know the official Tamil translation of Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (Education for All), which is not `education for all' but merely `primary education for all' - `anaivarukkum aarambak kalvi'.

The emphasis on five years of primary schooling for all (aarambak kalvi) appears to have eclipsed the earlier goal of eight years of Universal Elementary Education (UEE) - five years of primary school plus three years of middle school. In Tamil Nadu, SSA spokesmen hasten to explain that `anaivarukkum aarambak kalvi' is not a dilution, but merely a focussing on the primary sector until the goal of universal enrolment and retention is reached at this level. All Tamil Nadu children, they say, will be in (some form of) school by 2010. The Constitutional (86th) Amendment was passed in November 2001, making education a fundamental right for children between six and 14 years of age - elementary, not just primary, education. No age has been stipulated in the Indian Constitution as the start of the elementary education process, giving rise to the opinion of many educationists that early childhood care and education are implicitly included. The 86th Amendment has yet to be crystallised as law. A Bill is expected to be introduced in the winter session of Parliament.

Meanwhile, as in schools across the country, the SSA logo can be seen in Katankulathur: a little girl and a little boy riding astride a pencil. This tender, if naive, image of a society on the move is often embellished locally with sundry frescoes of happy school-going children, the national flag and the national bird. Plus a scroll of SSA goals and exhortations on the fundamental duty of parents to educate their children.

The Katankulathur schools are housed in untidy, dilapidated buildings with asbestos roofs. Poky classrooms double as noon-meal godowns storing provisions and firewood, and there is no furniture except for a rickety chair and a table for the teacher. No clean water; no toilets, or just filthy ones. Faded blackboards and jaded teachers complete the picture.

Yet, whatever the shortcomings of the actual school environment, schooling for all is an idea whose time has definitely arrived. Tamil Nadu's educational establishment has been sedulously projecting a picture of success in increasing enrolment. Official enrolment statistics are accompanied by many rhetorical flourishes. But while one corporation school reports that 100 children enrolled this June, bringing the total up to 340, Balakrishnan of TANPIC points out that the figures are not double-checked at the end of the school year.

In Tamil Nadu, SSA appears to be riding piggyback on ongoing State Education Department programmes. Dr. Aruna Rathnam, a senior educationist now with United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), feels that the relative success of the National Literacy Mission in the early 1990s, at least measured by the yardstick of parental motivation to send children to school, is now paying dividends.

"The State's bureaucracy has been relatively sensitised to meet people's aspirations," she says. "SSA gives room for almost any kind of innovation, if the political will is there. Land and support are available for free aided schools, and some have done very well. And as for government schools, in rural areas they have good teachers and better infrastructure. School buildings are already in place."

It is true that some individual officials show concern for social goals, and there is evidence of synergy between the bureaucracy and civil society - most significantly, in the form of educational material and methods for the primary classes. Chennai Corporation Commissioner M.P. Vijaya Kumar has promoted activity-based methods developed in rural experimental schools in Andhra Pradesh, which are run by the Krishnamurti Foundation of India (KFI). In Chennai's government-run primary schools, clusters of five and six children between seven and 10 years of age are learning mathematics and language skills (including English) with attractive cards, games, beads, and self-evaluating "ladder" charts. Children's drawings have been strung up, and children eagerly demonstrate their bilingual reading skills. SSA Director T.K. Ramachandran says that some 4,000 schools across the State have now adopted these methods for primary classes. Some school principals and teachers say these new methods and SSA's in-service teacher training have injected some life into the classroom. Charts and teaching aids produced at the SSA block resource centres show that some thought is being spent on making teaching and learning enjoyable.

Yet, after five years of SSA, school is still far from being a fun place. Both rural and urban government-run and aided schools exhibit largely the same old deficiency diseases. Activity-based teaching is glaringly conspicuous by its absence from the fifth class onwards. Dismally burdensome curricula and abysmally unimaginative teaching are all too common, with the cane prominently displayed if not actually used.

In one corporation school, down the corridor from busy tiny tots solving language and maths puzzles, 55 11-year olds sit blank-faced and bolt upright bawling out rote answers to rote questions: "Who is the President of India? The Prime Minister of India? The Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu?" Swift reprimands follow if the appropriate honorifics are omitted. The message is clear: in the eyes of the system, these youngsters are too old for "joyful learning through play" and must get down to the serious business of mugging up their lessons. If they want to stay in school, that is.

There is not much to keep these disenchanted children from playing hookey or dropping out. Grubby compounds with boys urinating against grimy walls, harried teachers shouting themselves hoarse in classes averaging 70 each - these are the rule, even in Chennai's government-run and aided schools. There are no libraries worth the name, and facilities for science lessons, sports and games and music and art are wretched indeed.

"For these activities, more decentralisation is necessary, for which PTAs [parent-teacher associations] and the community have to participate. But how can SSA do better when there is a complete abdication of civic responsibility?" asks Aruna Rathnam. She adds that a government school on an arterial Chennai road closed down recently without a murmur.

Keeping children in school means raising the quality and relevance of the formal school system. Leaving this difficult task to the State Education Department, SSA has come out with low-budget `alternative innovative' education centres. These maatru pallis or "schools with a difference" are virtual ghettoes on the fringes of the formal system, where dropouts of all ages are herded together to study from one or two amalgamated textbooks under a low-paid, part-time teacher, who is all too often absent. Having obtained this `contract' teaching job through an NGO or a PTA, this teacher is simply not accountable to the school authorities.

Dropouts who have been picked up simply drop out again all too often. Eighteen teenaged girls from tsunami-hit Uroor Kuppam in Chennai, although encouraged to resume their studies by a senior social worker, Vasantha Kalidas, never quite made it back to school, as the SSA did not respond to Kalidas' appeal for coordination and assistance under the Education Guarantee Scheme (EGS). Yet the State government has announced its intention of speedily integrating the EGS into the formal school system. How this can be done without addressing the peculiar challenges faced by out-of-school children and without mounting an attack on child labour is unclear. The application of non-formal solutions is half-hearted and non-serious, but educationist Dr. Vasanthi Devi of KALVI is one among many who hold that non-formal education is itself contrary to the spirit of the constitutional commitment to universal free elementary education for all.

In a situation of perceived scarcity, any small improvement is liable to receive an almost embarrassing welcome. Occasionally some impoverished little village body or some group of concerned citizens would make a Herculean effort to improve a government school. In Kumizhi, a headmaster collected donations for building plywood partitions to make separate classrooms out of the available space. A beaming teacher in one Chennai Corporation middle school told this writer that a local pawnbroker had donated notebooks and pencils. In another fortunate school served by several NGOs and civic-minded citizens, this writer was shown plastic mats for the children to sit on, a room full of floor-desks, a row of drinking water containers, and a steel almirah supplied by an anonymous donor.

Generally, however, PTAs, NGOs and village education committees seldom cough up cash for improvements. They look to SSA as a source of employment for `contract' teachers whom they sometimes are able to supply. SSA contributes Rs.500 for one additional teacher in every school. But there are just not enough teachers being employed in the State-run and aided schools. Ironically, SSA exacerbated the teacher shortage between 2001 and 2003, when many government teachers were pulled out of regular classes to collect data for the scheme. With the shrinking of the State budget, thousands of regular teachers' posts have remained unfilled over the past two decades. Headmasters and teachers confirm that the recruitment of trained regular teachers and the replacement of retirees have slowed down.

By now, contract teaching has become the norm in many government-run and aided schools, according to Dr. S.S. Rajagopalan, teacher-educator and policy analyst. The norm of three teachers for each primary school and one teacher for 30 children has apparently been given up. Bureaucrats tend to underplay the need for small classes: Vijaya Kumar, for instance, feels it is quite possible for one teacher to handle 40 children. But teacher-pupil ratios are somewhat misleadingly presented, and in actual fact it is common to see 60 or 70 children under a single teacher.

Qualifications and service conditions are often `negotiable', and several educationists feel the profession itself is being trivialised by the quick-fix in-service training packages. A B.Ed qualification is not being insisted upon. This is not because there are not enough trained teachers in the State, but because they tend to be concentrated in towns and cities. And yet, too few are being appointed even in Chennai. One of the three regular teachers in a corporation school doubles as the substitute `HM' (headmistress), leaving her class unattended from time to time. This is one of 10 `headless' schools among the 26 in this Chennai ward. It has three other teachers on short-term deputation - which means their presence cannot be counted on.

One corporation schoolteacher looks startled when asked for parents' views on the shortage of teachers. "No! Why would they say anything? This is a free school," she explains. She sends her own children to a private school. Would she not object if there were not enough teachers there? I ask her. "Yes, we pay fees... Not like these parents."

Most people feel that government schools are meant for those who cannot afford to send their children anywhere else. A kind of charity, or dole. This is of course a travesty of the constitutional vision of publicly funded elementary education as the state's duty and as a citizen's right. Would the perception change if government schools became really good? Much publicity has been given recently to the `upgradation' of schools, which is supposedly being done with the aid of SSA. Thus, several corporation primary schools have been `promoted' to middle school status. Real upgradation would be to improve all government schools in terms of all qualitative parameters, so that "they become a benchmark for all other schools", as Balakrishnan says.

The activity-based teaching in the Chennai government primary schools - which is far in advance of what the bulk of privately financed schools are offering at present - is a pointer to what can be done, given imagination. But it would take more than just one bright idea to rescue the national objective of equitable, quality, free universal elementary education from being jettisoned by a welfare state on the run.

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