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India's Small Schools are Failing to Provide Equal Education to Rural Children

Image for representation.

Image for representation.

The country needs school consolidation and busing revolution to transform its rural government schools and ensure equitable quality education for all.

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Tanoj Meshram

The new National Education Policy 2020 (NEP 2020 hereafter) has rekindled the debate on the various kinds of problems in Indian education. One of the problems which has bothered me is the need for reforms in rural government elementary schools, more specifically the need for addressing the problem of sub-optimal schooling experiences and poor learning outcomes of poor rural children. The Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) 2014 brought out that the learning outcomes measured in terms of reading and arithmetic have been declining across the country from 2006 to 2014.

This was a surprising revelation. After formulating Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA) in 2000, a policy for providing quality education for all in keeping with the global movement for Education for All, bringing landmark constitutional amendment to make education as a fundamental right in 2002, enacting a Right to Education Act, 2009, promising free and compulsory education for all the children from age six to fourteen, levying 2% education cess to boost investment in public education in 2010-11 and finally publicly bringing out an SSA framework for systematic implementation of RTE why were learning outcomes coming down? Either we should have done better or at worst should have remained where we were before these landmark policies and initiatives.

This paradox of high on policy and low on implementation and outcomes became the concern of my doctoral dissertation research. Drawing on the theoretical and methodological understanding from the field of implementation science or studies I tried to answer why there is a gap between policy, implementation, and outcomes. The insights in this article are based on the findings from this qualitative comparative case study of the government elementary school system (Zilla Parishad or ZP schools as they are popularly called) in the two districts in the state of Maharashtra besides drawing on my experience inside and outside the government.

The general impression is that government schools do not do well either because there is less than optimal investment in public education or because teachers do not do their (teaching) job well (see for example the article by Kingdon and Panagariya in Times of India on September 3, 2020, implicating teachers’ accountability). Implementation theorists would say this is true but only partly (Honig, 2006). There are three broad clusters of reasons why policies do not get implemented well and or do not give intended outcomes: 1) There is a problem in policy design, 2) Implementing officials, teachers included, lack capacity and willingness to implement or construe policies different from policymakers (Spillane, Reiser, & Reimer, 2002) and 3) The structure, capacity, and resources of the implementing agencies are inadequate or not tuned to the intentions of policy in question (Cohen, Moffitt, & Goldin, 2007). Critical theorists (Anyon, 2009; Dumas & Anyon, 2006) argue that policy is the product of and shapes social forces (such as caste, religion, class, and gender in the case of India) and its implementation is a social process taking place in a social terrain. Therefore, if the dominating actors in the society do not intend an equitable and quality education for all, the policy for fundamentally transforming the education may not find the light of the day and even if it does, its implementation may not be successful unless a social coalition of affected actors exercise their power to get what they want from the state.

It is in this context we need to understand what is wrong with the rural government school system in India. My research tells me that the major reason why rural government elementary schools (ZP schools hereafter) do not deliver desired learning outcomes is because of the deficiencies in the policy and the (school) system design. People were happy that SSA and RTE gave every village a primary (classes 1 to 4 or 5) school within 1 km and upper primary school (classes 1 to 7 or 8) within 3 km. However, the policy of providing a school in every habitation contributes significantly to setting the system up for failure that has resulted in poor learning outcomes and sub-optimal schooling experience. Far too often, what we have in the name of schools are 2 or 5-room dilapidated buildings in every village where multi-grade teaching is the norm. Multi-grade teaching means one teacher has to teach students from two or more grades in the same classroom on the same school day. The multi-grade teaching emanates from “The Schedule on Norms and Standards For a School” under Sections 19 and 25 of the RTE Act, 2009. The provision related to the number of teachers states that for classes 1 to 5 up to the enrolment of 60 children, there shall be two teachers. Thus, the number of teachers is based not on the number of grades a school has, but on a school’s gross enrolment for classes 1 to 5. For classes 6 to 8, RTE norms require three teachers for each grade which also has to satisfy the norm of one teacher each for language, social science, and math & science.

All the schools I visited during my fieldwork had multi-grade teaching. For the three primary schools, I studied intensively each had only 2 teachers for teaching classes 1 to 4 because the number of students was 11, 27, and 37 respectively (i.e. less than 60). The fourth school was an upper primary school with an enrolment of 108 students in classes 1-8 taught by six teachers. Multi-grade teaching was not the exception or limited to these schools but a norm. I studied two clusters in two separate districts in Maharashtra. The average enrolment per school in the first cluster in the first district was quite low, at 71 for classes 1-8 and 25 for classes 1-5 school. Consequently, all 14 government ZP schools in this cluster had to adopt a multi-grade teaching method. For the second cluster in the second district I studied, the situation was similar. For the tribal block in which the second cluster was situated, only 396 teachers were teaching in 144 schools, with an average of two teachers for the grades 1-4 school and 5 teachers for the grades 1-7 school.

At the district level also, the situation was the same: tiny schools and multi-grade teaching was the norm for ZP schools- I am using the term "tiny" here to distinguish from "small" size schools, which is often used in the West for schools less than 500 enrolment. The average enrolment per government school in rural parts of the first district I studied was much lower than the required enrolment for getting one teacher for every grade. Based on District Information System for Education (DISE) data for the academic year 2014-15 for the entire district, my calculation shows that the average enrolment per school for primary schools (classes 1-4/5) was a mere 33.2 and for upper primary schools (classes 1-7/8) it was just 104.4. Based on the same data, the average number of teachers per primary school (grades 1-4/5) was 2.4 (as against 5, if we take a principle of one grade and one teacher) and 6.1 (as against 8) for upper primary school (grades 1-7/8). For the second district, the corresponding teacher to school ratios were 2.1 and 6.6 respectively.

And it’s not just in the districts I studied but in other districts in Maharashtra and other states too rural government schools are tiny (for example, see Section 7.1 of NEP 2020) resulting in policy (RTE) led multi-grade teaching. However, the catch lies in the fact that RTE provisions related to the pupil-teacher ratio (PTR) do not automatically result in multi-grade teaching because if the number of children in the school with classes 1-4 exceeds 90 the school can get four teachers and therefore for every grade, there can be one teacher and one classroom. However, none of the villages I studied had adequate children in the age group of 6 to 10 years to reach the threshold enrolment of 91 to transition to mono-grade teaching.

The policy led tiny school system doesn’t only create multi-grade teaching which is against the curricular norm of mono-grade teaching or a principle of one grade, one room, and one teacher in use in almost every good school in India and across the world but also creates a number of other obstacles in the teaching-learning process. Because we have tiny schools, governments do not find it economical to provide full-time headteachers, non-teaching staff to do administrative work, and an assisting staff who can take care of school infrastructure and cleanliness. All these works either must be done by the teachers or students or both. Besides, the data I collected from the school records reveals that for a two-teacher school, one teacher was out of the school for official work for one-third of the school calendar year of 220 days either full or part of the day. And that means primary schools were run as a single teacher school for 2/3rd of the year severely affecting the teaching-learning process. In upper primary schools, the situation was similar: a five-teacher school became a four-teacher school. During several visits, I found only one teacher teaching four grades of primary school, and a couple of times only two teachers teaching classes 1 to 8 schools. This is because we do not have a system of substitute teachers. When teachers go on sanctioned leave and training, the remaining teachers have to “manage” the school. When someone goes on childcare leave or retires in the middle of the year, again schools are left on their own. I have heard and witnessed occasions when schools were locked by angry parents because there was no teacher in the school and the Block Education Officer had to intervene and send some teachers from other relatively better staffed schools.

But this is only about the inadequate provisioning of teachers due to this tiny school system. The tiny size of the rural school causes other barriers in the teaching-learning process and results in suboptimal schooling experience. The academic support infrastructure in the schools is very poor. There is a library (a small collection of books) but only on paper and books are locked in the cupboard or box. Compare this with a library in a well-managed unaided private school or public schools like Kendriya Vidyalayas (KV hereafter) or Navodaya Vidyalayas (NV hereafter). This is because in the design of ZP school there is no provision for a separate library room, adequate funds for books, and a librarian. Similarly, there is no laboratory of any kind. A playground is an exception. Sports facilities and accessories are almost non-existent. Teaching aids are in poor shape, in Maharashtra each teacher gets only Rs. 500 a year to make teaching aids. A primary school gets just Rs. 10,000 a year for routine maintenance, painting, stationery, etc. Many schools are "declared" digital, based on the procurement of hardware with the help of donations from parents, community, and teachers but schools have no provision for buying essential software and course content, internet connection or even paying of electricity bills. Disconnection of electricity connection is a common phenomenon due to non-payment of bills. Add this together with the poor accountability system on the part of teachers and poorly resourced supervisory and administrative system there is no surprise that we get poor learning outcomes. It appears everything is designed to fail.

And that's where the question arises, why did policymakers in India design policy(s) and a system which was likely to give them a tiny inadequately resourced and unmanageable rural public school system with de-facto multi-grade teaching? When we compare these ZP schools with well managed private or public schools such as KV and NV, one wonders should we call them "schools"? Shouldn't we really define what constitutes a school? Was it necessary for governments to provide a tiny "below poverty line school" (a phrase used by one of my respondents) in every village to educate every child? We knew from the census reports of 1981, 1991, and even 2001 (when SSA was just launched) that population growth rates are declining ; we also knew that there is huge rural-urban migration for jobs. Therefore, there was no possibility that the majority of villages in India would be able to have an adequate number of children to ensure mono-grade teaching (30 students per grade) or large enough schools to make it economical to have adequate and decent academic and co-curricular infrastructure comparable to good quality public or private schools. By the time we enacted the RTE Act in 2009 and perpetuated a fragmented tiny school system we also had adequate information about the limitations of tiny schools and multi-grade teaching. For example, see CREATE report Size matters for Education for All, 2008, and School Size Effects Revisited by Luyten, Hendriks, and Scheerens, 2014.

We also knew that in India no good school is of small size, leave of tiny size. The average enrolment in two popular government school systems, in KV catering for grades 1 to 12 is 1063 (Annual Report of KV Sangathan 2018-19) and in NV for classes 6 to 12 it is around 417 (See Report by NV for the academic year 2018-19). In the private sector, for DPS in RK Puram Delhi the enrolment is 9500 for KG to 12th class, for the famous Singhania school in Thane (Maharashtra) it is 6400 for KG to 12th class and for the prestigious residential school Rishi Valley it is 360 for classes 4 to 12. India even has a world record in school size, Lucknow’s City Montessori School claims to have 39,437 students (TIME report by Patrick Boehler on October 15, 2012).

I am not arguing that the rural school education crisis can be solved by having such huge school sizes. There is a debate in educational policy literature over what should be an optimal school size for best student achievements and there appears to be some consensus around school size in terms of enrolment- 300-500 students for elementary and 600-1000 for secondary (Leithwood & Jantzi, 2009) much larger than the average school size I reported for two districts I studied. I argue that current rural government schools are not just economically but more importantly educationally unjustifiable and unsustainable. These are resulting in not only inadequate teaching and poor learning outcomes as confirmed by various surveys but more importantly sub-optimal and inequitable schooling experience for the vast majority of rural children who then either do not get adequately prepared for college admissions or find it difficult to graduate. It is on the criterion of the constitutionally promised principle of equality that rural government school system design fails when it is compared with the well managed private schools and public schools such as KV and NV. Article 21A of the Constitution of India promises elementary education as a fundamental right. If we read this article in conjunction with Article 14 (Equality before law) and Article 15 [Prohibition of discrimination on grounds of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth (emphasis mine)] one tend to conclude that the extant education policy including RTE Act not only violates the constitutional principle of equality but it also results in the discriminatory treatment in the provision of education to rural children who mostly belong to SC, ST, OBC, and minorities. The proponents of equality in education (for example, see (Sadgopal, 2010; Velaskar, 1990) have repeatedly argued that we have a very unequal school system: we have well managed unaided private schools for the rich, well-functioning KVs for government servants, well-functioning NVs for a minuscule minority of rural children who have resources to crack its entrance examination, low fee or aided private schools for less poor and almost all of these schools have mono-grade teaching. Then we have rural government schools with multi-grade teaching for those who cannot afford or are not eligible for any of the above schools.

It was expected that NEP 2020 will address this structural inequality in school education. However, though it acknowledges the problem of small schools by stating:

These small school sizes have rendered it economically suboptimal and operationally complex to run good schools, in terms of deployment of teachers as well as the provision of critical physical resources. Teachers often teach multiple grades at a time, and teach multiple subjects, including subjects in which they may have no prior background; key areas such as music, arts, and sports are too often simply not taught; and physical resources, such as lab and sports equipment and library books, are simply not available across schools. (Section 7.2 NEP 2020)

The policy shies away from providing a bold solution to the problem it acknowledges. Whereas it reluctantly considers school consolidation as one of the options, it favors “grouping” of schools in a 5 to 10 km radius from secondary schools to Anganwadis in a “school complex”- an idea Kothari Commission had put forward almost 60 years ago. In my opinion school complex will not be able to solve the problem of small schools for the following reasons: it cannot change multi-grade teaching to mono-grade teaching, it cannot provide a decent library and laboratory in every school, it cannot provide best digital infrastructure in every school with uninterrupted power supply, it cannot provide a decent playground in every school, it cannot provide full-time non-teaching staff in every school to prevent distraction to teachers. What school complex can do is it can provide shared non-teaching staff to schools for some part of their administrative work, it can provide shared arts, music, physical education, and sports teachers for some part of a week, it can attempt networking and peer learning of teachers and it can at best transfer some administrative powers of the Block Education Officer to the proposed head of the school complexes who will be closer to schools. If allowed, it also can hire and station a pool of substitute teachers at school complex and provide to needy schools when the regular teachers go on leave or training.

But this may not solve the learning crisis predominantly created by multi-grade teaching. As some educationists and teacher educators, I spoke with suggested, in multi-grade teaching even the most motivated and capable teacher cannot do justice with the teaching expected under the extant curriculum. CREATE (2008) report highlights this problem: "The National Curriculum in India is predicated on single [mono] grade teaching. At a minimum, five teachers are necessary to deliver a five-grade curriculum in a school offering Grades 1-5.” And mono-grade teaching is the norm for every school where readers of this article might be sending their children. Unless policymakers envisioned multi-grading for public schools and mono-grading for private and privileged public schools, this dichotomy in school design cannot be understood. The school complex idea will also not drastically improve academic and infrastructure standards of rural government schools to the level of well managed private or public schools such as KV or NV. Thus, the problem of inequality in schooling will keep on haunting us.

Therefore, to realize the constitutional project of equality what is needed is equality in schooling experience and equality in teaching-learning processes. For achieving this what we need is uniform standards for design and opening of the schools necessitating provision of uniform per child expenditure and teachers according to the principle of one grade, one room, one teacher whether they are in public or private, whether they are with central, state or local government, whether they are with the state, central or any other board. School design, resource and teacher provision norms must be uniform. What the government should do is adopt the norms or standards for starting the KV as minimum required standards (See the norms and annual report on KVs on its website) and make it mandatory for all kinds of schools to make schooling experience uniform. For example, for starting KV in rural areas 5-10 acre of land well connected by road, other civic facilities, the school-going population of 200 or 30 children per grade whichever is higher, and 15 rooms of 7 metre by 7 metre size in the temporary campus are required for a grades 1-5 school expandable to higher classes. For residential schools- including those ill-managed Ashram Schools for Scheduled Tribes children- in public and private, the norms and standards of Navodaya Vidyalayas (NV) can be adopted.

For rural schools, this means we need consolidation of all the schools at the cluster level which consists of about 15 schools within a radius of 5 to 10 km and appears to be a feasible unit for consolidation. At the cluster level, we can have an adequate number of children. We also have more than adequate teachers at the cluster level not only to ensure mono-grade teaching without additional recruitment but also surplus teachers. This can be understood from the following examples of the two clusters I studied:

Cluster 1 in district 1: The gross enrolment 672, number of teachers 48 in 14 schools, and pupil-teacher ratio (PTR): 672/48=14

Cluster 2 in district 2: The gross enrolment 874, number of teachers 49 in 16 schools, and pupil-teacher ratio: 874/49=18

Thus, we can see that PTR in proposed cluster level consolidated schools is well below the RTE mandated PTR of 30 which means there will be surplus teachers which can be deployed for substitute, co-curricular or academic support activities.

The access to proposed new consolidated schools could be ensured by amending the RTE Act 2009 by making it obligatory for the governments to provide school buses and vans for every child in the age group of 6 to 14 years. The current small school buildings can either be used for pre-schooling of 3 to 6 age group children suggested by NEP 2020 or redeployed to raise the resources for new schools. Due to Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana (PMGSY) started in 2000, 91% of villages are connected by all-weather roads by 2019 and there should not be a problem of last mile connectivity. Incidentally, this was also not a significant constraint in 2009 when RTE was enacted. According to the World Bank (2011) 30% of the Indian population lacked access to roads in 2000 which has gone down significantly by 2010 with the implementation PMGSY. For those villages or hamlets which are not connected by all-weather road for their last-mile connectivity either road construction can be expedited, pick up and drop point can be provided within one KM and or where both are difficult options (in hilly or difficult terrains), at least one residential school of NV kind can be provided in every block. So that the rural school consolidation with school bus connectivity need not wait for 100% rural road connectivity.

Without equality in the school education, the social, economic, and political justice and equality of status and opportunity envisaged in The Preamble and egalitarian social order envisaged in the Article 38 of the Constitution of India cannot be ensured. India needs fundamental restructuring and strengthening of its public school system and not its abandonment in the favour of the choice of private schools. The central government-managed Kendriya Vidyalayas (KV) and Navodaya Vidyalayas (NV) or state government managed schools of Government of Telangana Social Welfare Residential Educational Institutions Society (TSWREIS) have shown that government/public schools can work at par or even better than private if there is a political will. School consolidation and a busing revolution is not only educationally imperative but also economically viable in the long run and can unleash the democratic, social, and economic potential of the well-educated citizens. India will not be the first country to go for consolidation and a busing revolution; there are examples across the world we can learn from (Berry, 2005).

The author is a former civil servant, started working on school education reforms a decade ago while working with Azim Premji Foundation and currently a Ph.D. candidate in Social Policy in The Heller School for Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University, USA. He can be reached at tanojmeshram@brandeis.edu.

Views expressed are personal


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