The Coronavirus pandemic has proved catastrophic for our education system. All schools, colleges and universities are closed sine-die. University, Board and entrance examinations have been postponed indefinitely. The primary education system is the worst affected. Small children cannot learn by books alone; they must be taught in innovative ways. On the other hand, children are the most susceptible to infections; they cannot attend school till the pandemic is truly over.

Educated parents can help their children to learn digitally; but the plight of poor children, who do not have access to smartphones or computers, is pathetic. Surprisingly, in such difficult times, an article co-authored by Arvind Panagariya, erstwhile Vice- Chairman of Niti Aayog, which recently appeared in a financial daily, advocates the closing down of most Government schools.

According to the learned authors, Government schools serve little purpose because of poor enrolment but drain resources on account of high teachers’ salaries. This view may appear logical to some but if Government schools, quite a few of which are located in small and distant villages, are really closed down, most of their students would simply drop out, because they would find it difficult to travel long distances daily or to afford the high fees of private schools.

Recognising this problem, the MP Government had launched a campaign to provide elementary schools even at the request of a single person. The authors have calculated the cost of Government schools, much on the higher side, assuming teachers’ salaries at Rs.45,000 month. Even after twenty years of continuous teaching, I wish that I drew a salary of Rs.45,000! Such salaries are paid only in Kendriya Vidyalayas; most States pay a pittance to teachers.

Shiksha Mitras, who do the bulk of teaching, are paid less than Rs.12,000 per month. Apart from saving some money for the Government, Mr Panagariya’s suggestion of closing and merging schools and transferring teachers would deliver a coup-degrace to the Government school system. A far better alternative is to rejuvenate Government schools by providing quality infrastructure and filling up vacant teachers’ posts.

As of now, most Government schools are miserably understaffed, housed in dilapidated buildings and utterly neglected by the administration. 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 manpower.

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 in Government 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. 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. Flawed 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, 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. As such, the education mafia has made teaching irrelevant.

Every State has some schools, established by local strongmen, which function as mass copying centres. One readily recollects scenes from Bihar examinations, where hundreds of persons were helping students in copying. The copying episode had a befitting aftermath, again shown live on TV – Bihar toppers failing to answer simple questions. 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.

Needless to say, the implementation of the RTE Act is being strenuously resisted by private school managements. A decidedly better solution would be to improve Government schools and bring them on par with the best private schools. This should not be exceedingly difficult given the fact that Government school teachers are much better qualified 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.

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. Censuring the callousness of the Government, the Uttarakhand High Court had directed the Uttarakhand 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.

Undoubtedly, there would be a singular improvement in teaching and enrolment if Government schools across India are provided with basic facilities. 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 most 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 western countries; 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 Merkel, 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 retired after teaching English for several years in Government schools of Rajasthan)