Comment

Jumping the gun in Rajasthan

SPILLOVER: "Schools in Rajasthan are unable to handle more children and an extra level of instruction due to the government's decision." Picture shows students in Jaipur.  

The Human Resource Development Minister Smriti Irani’s act of consulting an astrologer in Rajasthan may be a personal choice, but her mention of possible amendments to the Right to Education (RTE) Act has definitely created a mess in the State. While she has not elaborated on what these amendments might be, proactive Bharatiya Janata Party-ruled States like Rajasthan have taken the leap forward, without waiting for the actual amendments, and initiated changes that run contrary to provisions in the Act. For instance, the Rajasthan government order of August 14, 2014, calling for a merger of small schools with larger ones leading to the closure of 17,000 schools across the State, has raised several issues that bear discussion, not the least of which is the violation of the government’s own rules for RTE.

The reason ostensibly for the merger is to consolidate resources in the larger schools instead of spreading them thinly over several smaller ones. However, the decision and its speedy implementation have taken place without adequate preparations for its consequences, let alone a public consultation on its implications, resulting in a worsening of the situation on the ground. It not only sets a bad precedent in governance; it sends a signal that State governments can assume unrestricted power in pursuing their agendas by side-setting the law and with no thought for the consequences of their actions.

Chaos and confusion

A look at the scale and nature of change being brought about in Rajasthan brings into sharp focus ways in which this action has led to chaos and confusion in scores of habitations across Rajasthan. In Rajsamand district alone, 199 primary schools and 42 upper primary schools have been merged with the existing 227 secondary and senior secondary schools. In other words, a total of 241 primary schools and upper primary schools have now ceased to exist in this area, resulting in the children from these schools having to go beyond the one-kilometre radius of their neighbourhood, violating RTE provisions. Rajasthan rules for RTE state in Section 7 (1)(a) and 1(b) that every child has the right to have a school within 1 km of his or her neighbourhood (for primary schools) and within 2 km (for upper primary schools). In fact, the rules also state in Section 7(3) that in remote areas like “desert areas…and areas with scattered population, the State government or appropriate local authority will set up schools” in the habitations as long as there are a minimum of 20 children in the primary and 30 in the upper-primary. But upper primary school Sarkela, to give just one example, with 98 children, got merged with upper primary school Farara, with 65 children. The fact that the latter school is situated more than 2 km away from Sarkela implies that this action violates not one but two rules.

In Raghunathpura primary school, on the other hand, which has merged with the Ratipati primary school (both in Rajsamand block), children now have to cross a highway to access their school. In the same block, the Rajnagar upper primary school has been merged with Rajnagar senior secondary school, which requires minority and Dalit children to cross the national highway, as their homes lie on the other side of it. With no mention or indication of possible transport options for the reassigned children, it is not unreasonable to assume that many of them, especially the younger ones, will drop out of school, almost before they have even begun their educational lives.

In addition, many small schools which were exclusively for girls (11 in Rajsamand) have, as a result of this order, been merged with larger co-educational schools, as have smaller Urdu-medium schools with larger Hindi-medium ones. For parents who had sent their girls to school because of the existence of girls-only schools are now likely to reconsider their decision. For a State with one of the lowest literacy levels for girls in the country, this is a particularly unsound move.

Similarly, for children in Muslim families for whom Urdu-medium education is an important factor, the merger with Hindi-medium schools is equally unsettling. How are these children expected to cope with a whole new language of instruction?

But it is not just a violation of the distance clause that is cause for concern here. The change that has been implemented with little thought or preparation for what follows has resulted in a situation where schools find themselves having to handle an extra set of children and an extra level of instruction that they are ill-equipped to cope with. This has resulted in chaos in these schools, to the obvious detriment of learning levels which are already poor. For instance, the 80 children of the primary schools in Kadiya Panchayat (Kumbhalgarh block) now have to share space and teachers with 190 other children who were the original students of the secondary school with which their school has been merged. In other words, 270 children are now occupying the same six rooms and being taught by the same six teachers, who now have to teach classes 1-10, as opposed to 6-10 earlier. Similarly, in Atree Panchayat, the merger of the primary school with the secondary school has taken the tally to 235 (65 added) with the same facilities of six rooms and six teachers teaching 10 classes.

It cannot be denied that the existence of small schools with very low enrolments (sometimes less than 50 for the whole school) does pose a problem as teacher appointments are made on the basis of strength of enrolments, based on the RTE Act requirement of a 1:30 teacher-pupil ratio per school. The multi-grade teaching resulting from this flawed clause in the RTE has deleterious effects on learning levels, as the teacher struggles to teach the higher classes of 4 and 5, while simultaneously managing the very different needs of those in classes 1 and 2. This has led to a vicious cycle of low quality and high dropouts leading to falling enrolments in government schools.

Call for change

Such situations, no doubt, call for a change. There are two possible ways of bringing it about. One, as appears to have happened in Rajasthan, is to merge these schools with neighbouring schools. But this solution can work only if accompanied simultaneously by more teachers, more space, and transport to ferry children the larger distance. Without these concomitant changes, the situation is likely to be compounded, not improved, as seen in Rajasthan.

The other way is to make an amendment in the RTE Act, by extending the pupil-teacher ratio requirement to include a teacher per class and avoid the merger option. That way the school could be retained in the neighbourhood and the focus could be on improving the quality of learning. There is much merit in the idea of a neighbourhood school — easily accessible to all children and geared towards the needs of the community it serves. It requires more resources, including teachers, and contradicts the government’s mantra of “minimum government,” but in critical areas such as primary education, the government would do well to consider a less minimalist approach. When it comes to investing in children, “maximum governance” is unlikely to result without more investment in the government school system starting with more trained teachers and greater frontline institutional capacity. Considering the shameful records of learning thrown up year after year, and the resulting high dropout rates, it is time that the government rethought its priorities towards greater investments in public education.

(Kiran Bhatty is senior fellow, Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi.)


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