Isn’t it puzzling that a country, which has the propensity to produce 19 lakh teachers each year, still has over 14 lakh teacher vacancies in schools? This, despite there being a steady significant reduction in the pupil-teacher ratio (PTR), meant to signal better teacher availability. In fact, at the primary level, the PTR has almost halved from 40:1 to the current 22:1 in just about two decades. Yet, there are still 23 per cent vacant posts in government schools today. At the crux of this confounding context is a familiar tale of poor distribution.

As India powers up to revitalize the education system and battle the learning crisis exacerbated by Covid-19, ensuring adequate teacher availability is pivotal. Rationalizing teachers can help address the mammoth challenge at hand. Over half the children are not reaching minimum standards of learning. The low status of educational outcomes is a consistent picture painted across various learning assessments be it the National Achievement Survey or the Annual Status of Education Report. It is indisputable that teachers are elemental to dismantling this narrative.

The first step to enable good quality teaching is to ensure effective teacher availability. To draw on an economics analogy, learning outcomes can only be optimized with allocational efficiency. The Right to Education (RTE) Act lays out norms for PTR – 30:1 for primary schools and 35:1 for upper-primary schools. A look at state-wise averages shows that almost every state is adhering to these norms. But the riddles get uncovered as the data gets sliced. There are sharp differences between and within states, resulting in over one-lakh single teacher schools.

At the primary level, the PTR ranges from 4 in Sikkim to 36 in Bihar – one of the few states violating RTE norms. Six states report PTRs under 10 and 14 states report PTRs below 15, less than half the mandate. At the upper-primary level, the ratio ranges from 3 in Andaman to 45 in Bihar. However, zooming in, a further disaggregation reveals that one-third of India’s elementary schools do not have teachers as per RTE norms. Bihar has the highest number of inadequately staffed schools with 70 per cent at the elementary level not having enough teachers, followed by Jharkhand at 57 per cent and Karnataka at 47 per cent.

What isn’t surprising is that the state with the lowest PTR, Sikkim, also has the least number of schools without RTE-mandated teachers at 1.3 per cent. So what exactly is driving this distortion? One, an urban bias. Typically, a greater proportion of teachers are available in urban regions while a greater proportion of students are in rural areas. This is evident in states like Bihar, home to about 11 per cent of India’s primary students, for instance, where the primary PTR in rural areas is 37 and in urban regions is 25.

The state also accounts for 18 per cent of the total elementary vacancies, second to Uttar Pradesh, which reports 40 per cent of the total. This is in stark contrast to states like Goa, Himachal Pradesh, Odisha, Punjab and Sikkim, which do not have any unfilled teaching positions at the elementary level. Another noteworthy correlation is that almost all states that report higher primary urban PTRs actually have a surplus of teachers in the state. Second, is a skew in terms of subjects and levels. At higher stages of education like in secondary schools, standard PTRs are less relevant as students opt for subject- specific streams, which necessitate a degree of teacher specialization.

Here, the statistics are harrowing. In descending order, the five states of Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Uttar Pradesh account for almost 60 per cent of the total subject teacher vacancies. The PTR exceeds 500 for mathematics and science in Haryana, Bihar, Jharkhand and Chandigarh; and even crosses an appalling 1000 mark for social studies in Odisha. It is imperative that PTR norms are adhered to at the school and even subject level. NITI Aayog’s project, Sustainable Action for Transforming Human Capital in Education (SATHE), was founded on a detailed in-depth diagnostic covering about one-fifth of India’s government schools, driving tailored contextualized solutions.

This exercise established a compelling case for teacher rationalization in Madhya Pradesh. In terms of RTE norms, on one hand, there were about 18,000 schools, reporting a cumulative shortage of 24,000-odd teachers. Concurrently, there were about 15,000 schools reporting approximately 33,500 surplus teachers. In net terms, the state actually had an excess of primary teachers. Similarly, at the middle school level, in terms of aggregate PTR, the state was reporting surplus teachers but in terms of subjects, there was a deficit of math and English teachers and an abundance of social science and science teachers.

To enable an efficient teacher allocation, the state redeployed over 10,000 teachers from surplus areas to deficient and remote areas within the same district post online counseling. As a result, Madhya Pradesh has reported significant improvements in learning outcomes. Though the issue of teacher transfers and rationalisation tends to be complicated and contentious, all states in the country stand to benefit from following the SATH-E template.

First, a detailed diagnostic can help assess the current context and extent of inefficient allocation. While PTR at a school level is a reasonably good indicator to assess teacher distribution, it has its own drawbacks especially in low-enrolment or single-teacher schools. For example if a primary school has only 1 teacher and 30 students spread across grades 1-5, the PTR at the school level would match mandated norms.

But as a single- teacher teacher school, one teacher has to simultaneously manage children across different classes. In such a scenario, using grade/class-teacher ratios may be more suitable. Alternatively, school consolidation, mergers or complexes may be considered to pool teaching resources. As with every intervention, context is critical. A good PTR is therefore, a necessary but not sufficient condition. Second, different states have multiple teacher cadres and various redeployment or transfer policies. If rationalization needs to be undertaken, states should work towards simplifying, modifying and augmenting existing policy frameworks.

Third, transparent online transfer systems need to be established to counter unionisation and political influence. As per NITI Aayog’s School Education Quality Index, in 2016-17, only eight states reported the use of digital systems for transfers. Two years hence, the Ministry of Human Resource Development’s Performance Grading Index reveals that 18 states are yet to institute or utilize such a mechanism. These systems can easily streamline and facilitate the calibration and filling up of vacancies. Fourth, states may need to establish incentives for teachers to move to rural or remote regions.

For instance, Rajasthan, transferred promoted teachers to rural regions. Since teachers were keen on promotions, such transfers faced limited resistance. Finally, the entire process must be enabled through clear channels of communication, a rigorous grievance redressal system and thorough counseling. Following the diagnosis and rationalization of teachers, if vacancies still exist, the states can consider undertaking requisite recruitment as well as even mapping the supply and demand of teachers. Warranting the right teachers in the right schools is a right for every child. Without this, a resilient post-Covid education system will remain far-fetched.

(The writer specializes in education policy at NITI Aayog. The views expressed are personal)