A proactive district education officer in Dehradun recently paid a few surprise visits to local government schools. What he discovered was perhaps nothing new to those whose children study there but would horrify those who have only interacted with well-run private (ironically termed “public”) schools. After the startling findings of these visits became public, the Hindi daily Hindustan decided to send a team of journalists to various government schools in Dehradun and not unsurprisingly, their reports corroborated the education officer’s findings (Hindustan is published by HT Media Ltd, which also publishes Mint).
At the government primary school on Rajpur Road, for example, four classes (from class I to IV) were being conducted in one room. The school has a total of three teachers and that includes the principal. Only one teacher was present. Of the 22 children registered, five were absent and the remaining 17, who belonged to four different classes, were all being taught by the only teacher. At another primary school in the Parade Ground area, the reporter learnt that students were also expected to clean and sweep the large building and it is usually noon before they can settle down to the day’s lessons. The teacher’s explanation was that the school could not afford to employ a regular sweeper for the allocated sum of Rs150 per month.
At Banjarawalla, the government runs a school for children from families displaced by the building of the Tehri dam. Here, the children had arrived at the school at 9.30am but their teacher turned up an hour later. There were two other teachers, she said, but one of them turns up rarely because he is getting a house constructed and the other one lives far away, so she is often late. At Mansinghwalla, there were 73 children registered at the primary school but only 15 were present. A teacher, Joginder Kaur, said if she scolds the children for coming in late, chances are they will stop coming altogether, so she lets them file in till noon.
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Government schools in Uttarakhand, as elsewhere in the north, are now almost entirely filled with children from poor families, who cannot afford to send them to a private school. Not surprisingly, the schools have deteriorated into awful shelters for the disempowered and the disaffected. It would be foolhardy to believe that the government system can be tweaked to bring these schools on a par with the public school system. But it is entirely possible to improve conditions and inject a sense of purpose and accountability among the teaching staff, who are not badly paid. Periodically, half-hearted attempts may be made to improve the system by mobilizing sub-channels such as women’s (undertrained and ill-paid) Anganwadi groups that run government-funded mother-care- and childcare centres or asking some reputed non-governmental organizations, or NGOs, to train teachers or design textbooks in local languages. Sometimes eminent writers, theatre artistes or painters may be invited to interact with the children from the underprivileged classes and help “raise their minds”. But first, the caste/class prejudices among the teachers and erosion of hope among parents regarding government schools will have to be firmly addressed.
The question is who will address it? Scan the list of our top policymakers and you will see that most of them are completely out of touch with the real poor. And the workers from well-funded NGOs, whom they often consult and entrust with the task of training and devising ideal textbooks and teaching material, also send their children to posh private schools. The teachers themselves, because they have fought their way up from poverty, will identify upwards, not down. They mostly look upon their unkempt wards with contempt. Talk to them and you’ll uncover not just a dislike for the poor but also traces of casteism, sexism and racism. Most think that extreme deprivation is an illness that blights intelligence. And since these children are unlikely, in their view, to escape the poverty trap, they are often delegated menial jobs such as cleaning and sweeping of the school premises. If the children defy, they are subjected to gross physical violence. Thus, instead of experiencing primary school as a leveller, the average government school student sees it as a bastion of sexist and communal thought. This is the prime reason for an alarmingly large number of dropouts among the children of the poor.
Eventually, like liberty and democracy, the workings of any good school system are built on moral foundations larger than self-interest. But both societal attitudes and classroom interaction in government schools are transmitting beliefs among students, first about the superiority of private schooling over their own and then, giving such beliefs a concrete base through personal experience.
The faithful may cheer when the leadership announces a brand new package to promote education for all and promises that the system will leave no poor child out of its net, but those of us who are aware of the actual state of the government schools can’t help but wonder if this were so, why are things being permitted to sink so low each day?
Mrinal Pande likes to take readers behind the reported news in her fortnightly column. She is chief editor ofHindustan.
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