We have always believed that quality education has the power to bring peace and steer progress in any community. Not only is it a shared concern but it is also a shared duty binding a society or a country. That education must be affordable and accessible to every child is a basic right assured by any democratic state to its people, like our own country. And yet, over the past few decades, the government schools in villages have remained the last resort for those unable to spend money on their child’s education.
Therefore, catering to children from caste and class minorities whose parents barely make the ends meet and so are not active players in their child’s education. Since we started working on rural education in Gharaunda block, Karnal district, Haryana, we have closely witnessed the web of complex and often intersecting challenges that government schools face. These challenges according to us can be mapped at three levels: School, Community, and Education department.
The major challenges at the school level are low infrastructure, lack of motivation in teachers due to non-teaching responsibilities and low response from parents, poor learning environment, sub-quality of education delivery, lack of teachers creating extra workload on the staff. A 2010 report by the National Council for Teacher Education estimated that an additional one million teachers are required to be immediately inducted into the elementary school system across the country, to fulfill the RTE Act requirements.
A school-wise analysis based on the data provided by the District Information System for Education of 2009-10 indicates that only 4.8% of government schools have all nine facilities stipulated in the RTE Act. About 40% of primary schools had more than 30 students per classroom, and 60% had no electricity.
The challenges at the community level can be mapped as poor awareness levels, minimal response and interaction with the school, low levels of parental education, local community politics, and an overall negative perception about the government school as compared to a certain aspirational value attached with English-speaking private schools. In such a scenario, the inclusion of mother tongues by the National Education Policy 2020 is a welcoming change especially in a country like ours where diversity of language did not reflect in the education delivery of our mainstream education system.
The NEP 2020 has directed focus on students’ mother tongue as the medium of instruction. Though it continues to sticks to the ‘three-language formula’, it mandates that no specific language would be imposed on anyone. The policy indicates that wherever it is possible, the medium of instruction till at least Grade 5, but preferably up till Grade 8 and beyond, shall be the mother tongue or local language or regional language and both public and private schools are to follow this norm.
A majority of my own intervention villages are located on the Yamuna belt – a very backward location where in some villages not even a single person has been able to attend college. This has been a source of demotivation among the teachers and created a gap between school and community which also negatively impacts other areas pertaining to the overall school environment and children’s behavior. The communities are more interested in government subsidies and aid rather than taking accountability for their child’s performance.
Finally, the challenges at the Education department or government level plays a role of hindrance in creating a high-quality learning space for students at government schools. Policy decisions are often taken at the top-levels without involving the teachers nor considering their perspective, capabilities, or everyday challenges. Most teachers, especially at grassroots levels are not equipped to cope-up with the constant changes and amendments to education policies and deliverables.
Lack of capacity-building training, a dearth of policy-monitoring staff, teachers’ knowledge towards government schemes, low maintenance budget are some of the key challenges at the Education department level. The government often keeps provisions and funds for infrastructure but not for maintenance.
In any target area, one cannot hope to make a tangible change by only trying to impact one or a few components of development indicators. All inter-linked components must be worked on in a complimentary manner. For example – providing good sanitation infrastructure in a school is not enough for improving the health & hygiene of students. We also need to work on behavioral change among these students.
At the same time, improper sanitation facilities often result in low-attendance thereby adversely affecting the learning levels of students. The same goes for a policy or a scheme or a campaign. Once introduced, it is also important that the key stakeholders surrounding a particular policy or guideline are ‘informed ‘and ‘equipped’ to implement it effectively.
Here is a slightly different scenario. Let us talk about NGOs working in government schools. During our previous jobs at TISS, we used to visit NGOs as part of CSR monitoring and evaluation. We observed that the output of a single NGO’s project was visible but the outcome of the entire school was often neither measurable nor sustainable. Why even after several government aids and policies as well as NGO interventions would the outcome of school not be positive in the long-run was a question that stuck with me.
Moreover, multiple NGOs would be working in the same government school and yet, the school performance would not show much improvement. Our discussions with multiple NGOs showed that they worked in silos even after being in the same space. They would pick their specific themes or components and even though they are linked to one another – they are treated as separate fragments.
NGO A would not know what activities or work NGO B or NGO C would be undertaking in the same school they all work in. Similar trends can be seen with government departments or sub-departments on various occasions in terms of staying connected, informed, and posted or even exchange information with one another.
A more recent example is the state of rural education during the pandemic. Since April 2020, there has been so much talk and buzz about digital education in India. In all honesty, the sudden shutdown of schools across the world was really a really complex and helpless situation. What was the journey of a rural school in India been like? The government of Haryana (SCERT) and government of India (NCERT) were switching to ICT and online resources -something that was a novelty for both rural teachers and children for whom “traditional” teaching-learning until now meant a classroom, a textbook, a blackboard and physical presence of one another.
We do need to remember that for a major part of our country, e-learning is a whole new way of teaching-learning process which needs proper intervention when you first introduce it to kids. The teachers especially need support. The first few weeks were clearly a phase of trials and experiments by the rural teachers for whom WhatsApp groups were now classrooms, teaching was capsuled into short videos and homework came through screenshots.
Take rural kids from primary and middle schools. All these years, they have associated learning with a school building, a teacher, and a blackboard. Add to that some books, stationery, and friends. To overnight switch to a phone, a virtual class, using apps they may or may not be familiar with, assigning homework through the phone was a very challenging situation to immediately adapt to. The effectiveness, regularity, and acceptance of e-learning among rural primary students throughout the pandemic remain a big question.
And then there is the subject of accessibility. Stemming up first and foremost from their remote geography itself. We at Varitra work in villages that are primarily agrarian and most govt-school children belong to families of small farmers or daily-wage laborers. Limited data access and signal reception, restricted mobile ownership with just one parent (often the father), unaffordability to pay for data service combined with harvesting seasons substantially rendered the scope and accessibility to any e-learning medium to a very small number of children. Our team took a short survey in July 2020 across 8 of our partner villages and found that approximately 55% of rural children have no access to any form of online education.
Improving the government system at the execution level is the need of the hour and at the same time, policy-making needs a more inclusive and collaborative approach. Civil societies can definitely play a positive role in bridging the gap between policy level and execution level of the government system and imbibe a sense of ownership among the citizens.
Co-written by Ayeshna & Baljeet (Founders, Varitra Foundation)