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Government schools can deliver, but only if…

Rashmi Tak |

The exultation on seeing my article (Time to Dismantle the Old Boys’ Club, Statesman, 28 June) in print turned to disappointment once reactions started coming in. It seemed that the old boys of the bureaucracy had adjudged me guilty of les majeste; irked as they were by the audacity of a retired government school teacher to question them.

One particular bureaucrat even doubted the authorship of the article; implying that a Government school teacher would not have the intellectual capacity to write it. This comment appears to be a manifestation of the current trend of vilifying the purveyors of bitter truths; it also exposes the utter contempt for teachers in the minds of the high and mighty notwithstanding their annual ritual obeisance to us on Teachers’ Day.

All champions, Sachin Tendulkar, Roger Federer, Saina Nehwal et al train under coaches and acknowledge their contributions in success. But bureaucrats, who get selected on the basis of a written examination and should be particularly beholden to their schools and teachers seldom exhibit any gratitude towards either. Bureaucrats, even those who have studied in Government schools, would rather wish away such schools to escape their responsibility for bringing the institutions under their charge to this sorry pass.

Despite the lip service every Government makes to education, most government schools are miserably understaffed, housed in dilapidated buildings and utterly neglected by their administrators. If you go to a village primary school you would find a single teacher teaching two or three classes in a single classroom.

The school would probably not have a toilet or a working water tap. Such infrastructural problems are compounded by the apathy of the local administration which calls in government school teachers whenever the Government needs extra man power. You can find government school teachers engaged in census operations, elections of all kinds, spreading awareness about Government schemes etc.

Government school buildings are regularly requisitioned for police deployment, elections and other contingencies. Students are called in to swell crowds at all manner of Government programmes. No one is bothered about the adverse impact on teaching or the teaching hours lost. On the other hand, as parents, the same bureaucrats go into a tizzy when even a single teaching day is lost in a school where their children study.

Instead of reforming education, mainly Government policies are to blame for most of the woes of Government schools. The education minister (who may be a college dropout) decides the syllabus to be followed, the medium of instruction and such other fundamental questions. More often than not the syllabus and teaching policies undergo a change with a change in Government.

Consequently, parents are wary of admitting their children in government schools leading to a mushroom growth of private schools – which have access to funds and a freedom to set their own agenda. The education mafia has made schools and teachers irrelevant in many places. We all watched with horror scenes from Bihar examinations where hundreds of persons were helping students in copying. The aftermath was equally chilling – Bihar toppers failed to answer simple questions. Yet it is a sad reality that in every State strongmen establish schools in far off places where passing is guaranteed by mass copying.

Can there be any respect or even need for teachers in such circumstances? To cover its inability to reform the education system the Government has brought in the Right to Education Act (RTE Act), which mandates admission of poor children against 25 per cent of the available seats in private schools. Implementation of the RTE Act is being strenuously resisted by private school managements. A decidedly better solution would be to pay attention to the needs of government schools and bring them on par with the best in the field.

This should not be very difficult given the fact that government school teachers are much better qualified and much better paid than their private school counterparts. In this respect, the efforts of the much maligned Arvind Kejriwal, who has reformed government schools in Delhi, need to be appreciated and emulated. At the time of independence and till the early seventies government schools were the best in any district in India.

Government schools can certainly regain their lost glory once serious efforts are made to tackle basic manpower and infrastructural problems. Few would realize the plight of government school teachers posted in remote villages. It is difficult to get a house on rent in villages so teachers have to use public transport and walk a few miles to reach their schools. This everyday routine is not only exhausting but kills the will to teach. Then comes the quality of students who are generally first generation literates. Parents of these students are mostly small farmers and daily wage workers who want their children to help them in their day-to-day activities.

Continuity of instruction and the quality of education suffers because sometimes the pupils are absent and sometimes the teachers are missing. Better manpower policies incentivising remote postings are needed.

The practice of drafting teachers for any conceivable Government scheme has to stop. According to the Government ours is a leading economy of the world; surely we can hire ad hoc volunteers to carry forward Government schemes and leave teachers for teaching.

The problem of infrastructure and other essentials can be easily tackled if the State has the will to provide funds for education to the exclusion of its proclivity to construct monuments and statues. Recognizing the callousness of the Government, the Uttarakhand High Court directed the State Government not to purchase any luxury item till it had provided benches, desks, school uniform, mid-day meals, computers, blackboards and a library in all government schools across the state, apart from constructing hygienic toilets separately for boys and girls.

If only Governments in other states would implement this simple direction, most of the problems of government schools across India would be solved. Much more difficult is to motivate the dejected lot of Government teachers. Slowly but steadily teachers have come down to the bottom of the social ladder. I do not say that all teachers are saints. Far from it; we have a good number of work shirkers, time servers and some bad people but Government apathy makes most of us negligent and dispirited.

Our zeal, self esteem and self motivation evaporates once we encounter the dreary environment of our schools and the lack of expectation from us. Realising the enormity of this problem, the Delhi Government sent some school teachers to Cambridge University for a refresher course. The effect on the morale of teachers in Delhi has been palpable. Supplemented with other measures, Government schools in Delhi improved their performance to the extent that this year they secured much better results in Board examinations than their private counterparts.

The statement of the Duke of Wellington that the battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton is relevant even today. The lack of access to quality education to the majority of Indians at school level has ensured that the educational foundation of most of our graduates is weak; many of them are downright unemployable.

Contrast this with the situation prevailing in any western country; all persons educated in their system are ready for the jobs for which they were trained. The difference probably arises because of the importance given to education and teachers in those countries.

In a famous incident, Angela Markel the German Chancellor told judges, doctors, engineers who demanded the same salary as the teachers “How can I compare you to those who taught you?” Sadly, it is the other way round in India.

(The writer is a Jodhpur-based retired Government school teacher.)