Unkept promise

The students of a school in Chandranigahapur had to enforce a chakkajam of their own the other day to draw the government’s attention to their problem — they have been without the teachers of Mathematics and Nepali for several months. They put benches across the highway and sat or stood there, blocking all vehicular traffic. The shortage of teachers characterises almost all government schools. Many other schools, particularly in the remote regions, find themselves in an even more pathetic state. Though 62,000 positions for teachers remain vacant, the government has not done anything concrete to fill them in the past eight years, thus affecting the education of over six million pupils. However, it has started hiring 28,000 teachers as a ‘relief measure’. Though the officially sanctioned teacher-student ratio ranges from 40 to 50 students per teacher depending on region, most schools exceed this norm by far, making the teaching-learning process extremely difficult.

One need not, therefore, go far to seek some of the main reasons for the poor SLC results of the government schools. The slide in quality started when, 35 years ago, the government, in the name of the New Education Plan, took the disastrous step of directly managing the public schools that had been operating, for years, by management committees consisting of local people of some importance who often had something to do with the schools they ran. Nevertheless, the government should fulfil its promises. The post-1990 elected government declared education up to secondary level free, up from the hitherto free primary education. But neither that government nor its successors took that promise seriously enough. As a result, government support to the schools was not prompt and adequate. Nor could the schools charge fees. So, they devised other ways of raising money from the parents.

Now, even people in low-income brackets tend to avoid government schools in favour of private ones, though it would further burden their already strained finances. This trend speaks volumes about the state of affairs. In recent times, the government has been transferring the management of these schools to communities, and these community schools now number over 28,000. It will take several years to get a full measure of the performance of community-managed schools, but the handover proves the government’s admission of its years of failure and also betrays its intention to shift responsibility. For the unfilled vacancies, ministries tend to shift blame, the education ministry pointing at the finance ministry, which, in turn, cites a lack of funds. With the increase in population, the number of students continues to grow. The failure to match this with sufficient teachers marks a worsening situation. The call by some for a regulation requiring government leaders and bureaucrats to enrol their children in government schools reflects public desperation. Billions of aid that came in to improve school education has gone to waste. The question is more of the state’s lack of determination and priority than of funds.