Ram Prasad Bawari (58), a farm labourer near Devgaon village, about 45 km from Jaipur, always wanted his four children to study in a “big” school but until a couple of years ago he had no idea what that might look like.
There were a couple of private schools in the area, whose fees he could not afford, so the Devgaon Senior Secondary School, a government institution, was the only real option.
However, while it had a building and classrooms this school did not function as a school typically would. “Classes were held under the trees because there were no chairs or benches in the classrooms. The children also didn’t have uniforms and our boys used to go in whatever clothes we could give them but it was not appropriate for attending a school,” Mr. Bawari explained.
Much has changed though, over the past year. Primary and secondary schools were bundled into one compound, ever since the school was converted into an “Adarsh” integrated school under a policy introduced last year by the Rajasthan government.
Mr. Bawari points out that since they started sharing space with secondary school students his children now get to study in classrooms with proper infrastructure. He also points with pride to the fact that his children are now wearing uniforms, many of which have been donated to the school by members of the community.
Adarsh, or “ideal,” schools, such as this one, are part of the state government’s effort to ensure that children have access to one institution that offers education from Classes I to XII. They are the pivot around which several new reforms to the education sector in Rajasthan are based.
In areas such as Devgaon, where over 90 per cent of the population is from scheduled castes or scheduled tribes, they are starting to play an important role in restoring faith in the public school system.
This integration initiative has supplied a long overdue effort toward rationalisation of the number of schools in the area. Despite its daunting spatial spread across desert land, the drive to build more schools under programmes such as Sarva Siksha Abhiyan had left Rajasthan with a curious problem of over-access.
There were too many private schools, about 1.83 per gram panchayat, and close to 30,000 of these had less than 30 children attending. By contrast there were not enough secondary schools, only 0.37 per gram panchayat, and several children were getting lost in transit. Ninety per cent of students made it from Class VIII to X while only 49 per cent made it from Class X to XII. Both were below national averages.
Moreover, while there were a total of 87,000 government schools in Rajasthan they fell into a dizzying array of categories - there were those teaching Classes I to V, those teaching I to VII, VI to X, IX to XII or only XI to XII. The various pieces of a vast system were in place but they acted largely as fissiparous parts, not coming together for a more composite idea of improving outcomes. They were also a management nightmare.
“For secondary schools there is a principal who is in charge but primary schools are supervised by block level officers,” explains Naresh Gangwar, the state’s School Education Secretary. “Each of these block level officers in turn had about 250-300 schools to supervise with the result that there was very little actual monitoring. If a parent had a problem with the primary school it would be difficult for him to go and meet the block officer who would have no time,” he adds.
Integrating schools was also an efficient way to solve teacher shortages. A primary school for instance, had an allocation for only two teachers teaching Classes I to V while an upper primary school had an allocation for six. Combine the two in one institution and you could have one teacher for one grade who could target the specific needs of children in their classes.
For the majority of people who live in far flung rural areas, Mr Gangwar points out that the natural preference is to invest in a government school system that they can trust. At the centre of these reforms then, is a re-imagining of what access to quality education means – one school that provides education from Class I to XII under one principal.
Where some schools lack adequate space and physical infrastructure and they have to be shut down in the process of integration, the state government hopes to provide children with travel vouchers, Rs. 25 per day, so that they may travel to an Adarsh school. The eventual plan is to have one such school in every gram panchayat.
It is evident that the scheme is having an impact on the ground. In two years since the policy has been in place, it has seen about 15 lakh students returning to the public school system, reversing the trend of earlier years. Enrolment in senior secondary grades has also increased by over 2 lakhs while 66 per cent of students in the government system are now transitioning to Class XI as opposed to 50 per cent previously.
Importantly, gender parity has improved across all classes going from 0.70 to 0.84 in secondary grades and 0.71 from 0.63 in senior secondary grades.
The success of the Adarsh schools has meant that the Rajasthan government has been able to improve inclusion outcomes without going the way of privatisation.