The term Non-Performing Schools lacks a scholarly citation. The origin of the term lies in a Niti Aayog report from August 2017 which recommended the handing over of non-performing or hollowed schools to private players under the Public-Private Partnership mode (PPP).
The term has made a comeback in the news with Assam government’s decision to shut down 17 schools with a zero pass percentage in Class X results, which were announced on June 6. The decision to shut down the schools came along with a timeline of 72 hrs within which the teachers of such schools would be transferred to other schools across the state and students allowed to take admissions in the nearest government school. The clock put on the decision, surpassing the recommendation of the Niti Aayog, affirms the government’s commitment to the decision to shut down said schools.
The phrase ‘non-performing school’, derived from the term ‘non-performing asset’ is a reflection upon the problematic approach of policy-makers towards schools and education. NPAs are essentially commercial loans which can no longer pay interest on the principal. However, a policy approach which views public schools/education from commercial lens is predestined to counterproductive results.
The term implies misplaced emphasis upon the objective of public schools and education to secure a return. Seeking return in terms of monetary profit or a cent percent result may be a complementary by-product, but in no way can it be the primary objective. The primary objective of a government school is making quality education accessible for all, especially the marginalized in the lower socio-economic strata.
For many, beyond a medium for education, schools are also safe spaces. The presence of schools may not completely eradicate the prevalence of child labor, but it definitely erodes it by delaying the entry of children into the workforce. For yet others, schools are safe havens away from alcoholic parents and domestic abuse.
Notably, shutting down of these 17 schools will also negatively impact the already disproportional ratio between private and public schools. As per a report sourced from the Government of Assam Secondary Education, there are a total of 4,345 government schools (inclusive of govt/provincialised Secondary, Higher Secondary and Junior Colleges) as against 11,000 private schools according to All Assam Private Schools Association president Mr Pankaj Das.
In the rush to shut these schools and an absence of reports, there is no account of the due procedures followed and the indexing and alternate use of the resources available with these schools in terms of furniture, electronics, lights, fans, library books, etc. This shutdown is also a total scrapping of schools with functional infrastructure as they face total shutdown instead of undertaking correctional measures.
In a top-down approach, the government is pulling up Cotton College’s principal and seeking an explanation on its continued diminishing presence in the top 10 list with only four of its students making it to the arts and science streams toppers’ chart as against six last year and 11 in 2010.
Firstly, the results are as reliable a tool to gauge the worth of schools as of the students. Just as there is more to life for a student, there is more than an exam result to a school. Judging a student’s worth based upon his marks is termed as regressive in today’s day and age; it makes one ponder upon what term to employ when a whole school’s worth is judged solely upon marks?
Further, it also sets off a domino, originating from the Education Minister to the Principal to the teacher until the last domino is knocked down upon the students. It sends the message of ‘marks’ as more important than the learning process to the parents and society at large. It increases the pressure upon students to score, instead of motivating them to learn.
Assam is largely a stranger in regards to mental health. Simultaneously, however, Assam is no stranger to students committing suicide. Not only is the pressure of marks regressive, but in an absence of guidance on how to cope with these pressures, students often take extreme steps to end their lives. According to Assam National Mental Health Survey report (2015-16), suicide rate per 1,00,000 of population for Assam is pegged at 15.90 as compared to 9.52 for India (NCRB).
As per an official, the government’s rationale is that the existence of the colleges and schools which scored a zero pass percentage is meaningless, and teachers there were not at all committed. Thus, the government felt that teachers in these institutions may have taken up the profession by chance and not by choice, and therefore, are not bothered whether the students pass. So, the government has to take initiatives to compel these institutions either to perform or perish.
However, the decision has not taken into consideration all stakeholders. Maybe the decision will in fact be a lesson to non-committal teachers, but it has come at a great expense. Is the punishment of a handful of teachers worth depriving students of a holistic learning experience in schools?
Of the 17 schools to be shut down—five are in Dima Hasao, four in Jorhat, three in Karbi Anglong, two in Cachar, one each in Dhubri, Kamrup (Rural), and Nagaon. Dima Hasao district saw zero pass percentage in 14 schools in 2019 and 6 schools in 2018 as well. According to Dima Hasao Inspector of School Biren Singh Engti, in an interview last year, the schools are suffering due to low appointment of teachers, accruing of the requirement of Teachers Eligibility Test (TET) certificates.
With its annual and biannual floods, Assam is a flood-prone state. As per data furnished to RTI applicant and advocate Irfan Ullah Khandakar by the district project engineer, Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, Dhubri, 19 schools were washed away in 2012, 64 in 2014, 44 in 2015, 34 in 2016, 33 in 2017, 10 in 2018 and 24 till October 2019. No data was recorded for 2013.
In a sorry state of affairs, the damaging floods remain grossly under-reported by mainstream media; and in consonance, the impact of Assam floods on education remains largely ignored.
Thus, steering clear of the iron-fisted one-size-fits-all approach, the government should investigate into the affair of these 17 schools with an aim not just to address the shortcomings, but to progressively improve the education system.
The government should put to good use the data, resources and expertise in its possession to conduct required assessments and analysis of these schools along relevant parameters of geography, infrastructure, teacher training and composition of students, among others. Instead of eliminating the schools altogether, the focus should be on addressing the problems and actively reforming the education system suffering from rote learning of irrelevant syllabus and faulty evaluation methods.