Consolidating small schools without compromising access

Consolidation of schools will require individual attention, an appreciation of the local context and the wisdom to know where to consolidate and where not to consolidate.  

There is a history and trajectory which we must remember. Twenty years ago we did not have a school in every village and children had to walk miles to the nearest school. Enrolment in 2001 was just around 70% and more than 40% children dropped out by Class V. Since those days and with the thrust provided by Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, we have a school in virtually every habitation. Enrolment for the past few years has reached close to 100%. The Right to Education Act 2009 has also played its part. The dropouts at Class V in 2001 was over 40 % but today, even by Class VIII, dropout has reduced to less than 20%.  At the same time, while enrolment and retention issues have been addressed, the issue of children’s learning remains wickedly unresolved. Even as a number of things have been suggested and tried, there is now a consensus that the way forward is only a long haul — one where the country must invest greatly in teacher education, their continuous development while also understanding their situation and challenges. 

In this context, one of the proposals to ensure better quality schooling is the merging of very small strength schools. It is seen as a means of consolidating scattered resources so that issues of multi-grade teaching are addressed, there are teachers for every class and subject and with an optimum pupil-teacher ratio (PTR) etc. One recognises that very small schools with 10 to 12 children across five classes is unviable; one also knows that an ideal school scenario where we have 130 to 150 children in five classes with five teachers is almost utopian. It is between these two extremes, that one must appreciate, lies the proposal to consolidate schools. To begin with, we must view the proposal of merger of very small strength schools not with the knee-jerk fear that they are ‘shutting down schools’ but as a considered plan of ‘consolidation’. Having said that, any such consolidation must ensure that access is never compromised. It is, after all, only the commitment to ensure access that has enabled enrolment reach close to 100%. One sweeping policy will not fit all contexts in a large, complex and diverse country like ours. If in remote locations, hilly terrain, harsh desert etc., primary school children have to walk three kilometres to a school it will certainly compromise access and deny children their schooling. On the other hand, merging schools that are nearby could be an obviously implementable decision. Therefore consolidation will require individual attention, an appreciation of the local context and the wisdom to know where to consolidate and where not to consolidate.  

If such careful consolidation is done, one can reason that while ensuring access, one could also achieve a better quality of education. At a PTR of say 30:1, with teachers who can teach Math, Science, EVS, language etc. for each class, the quality of learning is bound to improve.

The challenge for the single teacher is immense. She or he may manage the children of ages 6 to 11 across five classes very skilfully, but at the end of the day, it is a very stressful and sub-optimal pedagogical situation. Obviously, even among single teachers, one will find 15 to 20% of them are absolute heroes. They work sincerely without supervision, leveraging the autonomy they have, trying to enrich the learning experience of their students as much as possible. But this is not because of the system, it is just an individual’s answer to his or her own conscience.

There is enough evidence in India and other countries that the quality of education in private schools is not better than in government schools. There is a misconception in the community that certain visible symbols such as shoes, ties, computers, learning English indicate better learning for children. Sometimes a migration to the private school is just the social pressure to match a neighbour even if one’s financial resources are strained. Government schools may often have better infrastructure, better-qualified teachers. However, many of the government schools that are doing their job sincerely are not effective in projecting to the parents and the community, their efforts and in demonstrating the learning of the children. If they were to do this, the community would gain a better appreciation and then make informed choices of whether to stay with the government school or migrate. 

At the end of it, the core point is that public education/government schools must be strengthened and supported if we aim to have an equitable society. For more than 50% of India, eking out subsistence livelihoods, government schools are the only road to a better future. Otherwise, we will have only a greater disparity and inequality.  

(The author is Chief Operating Officer, Azim Premji University, Bengaluru)

Also read: Pathetic state of government schools

                 Are we addressing the right problems?

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