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Inside Government Schools

by Viney Kirpal
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Conducting science activities at a government school

Conducting science activities at a government school


Let me share two scenarios with you. In the first I am teaching a small group of students in IIT Bombay. The year is 1974.These are the first eight students selected under the affirmative action scheme for the undergraduate program in an IIT. They have been admitted to the year-long preparatory course meant to bridge the gap in their subject proficiencies. They are all underprivileged village and small town boys. The class has no girl students. The students, by a committee report mandate, have been selected down to zero marks in the Joint Entrance Examination (JEE). They have rejected the call for admission to college to come to the more prestigious institute. They look happy and work hard.

Next year they are absorbed in the First Year of the regular B.Tech course. Now the pace of teaching has accelerated.They are competing with JEE entrants who are toppers from different institutions. Soon they are feeling lost, lagging behind, doing badly in the tests, getting melancholic. As this pattern repeats itself the next year and the next, they come to be known as “backloggers”, some carrying a baggage of as many as 10 uncleared courses. Three years later, they are asked to leave the institute. For no fault other than the kind of schools they have studied in, they quit, broken in spirit, not knowing how to face their families, armed with no more than their Std. X passing certificate. What they lacked was the sound foundation needed in Science, Maths and English to do well in IIT. The story remains unchanged even today, barring a few exceptions.

Now cut to the second scenario. The year is 2010. GREAT Foundation, the NGO I had founded in 2002,has been working to empower and develop less privileged children studying in government schools by providing educational materials including notebooks and sending volunteers to teach English and Maths to Std. X students. The volunteers report that the concepts of the students are very weak. They try their best to teach the students. The job is hard. The students are to face their Board exams three months later. It is a challenge to get the students to master Std. X Maths and English when they can neither read nor understand the language, nor do they know how to multiply, divide, add or subtract. The harm has already been done, except in a few countable cases who are comparatively better. The SSC exam is taken.The results are declared. Ten students across three government schools actually score above 80%. One of them tops with 84%. He aspires to join an IIT after completing Junior College. GREAT Foundation supports the ten students with college scholarships sponsored by a company which assures them of continued monetary assistance if they get 60%. Only one girl student, who was studying Arts, returns to collect the second installment. The rest, who had taken Science, have plummeted to less than 50% in six months, less than 40% at the end of the year. Including the IIT aspirant. What has gone wrong? For one they didn’t know English despite having passed the SSC Exam. Secondly, their concepts in Maths and Science were too shaky to help them do well in Junior College. Their performance fails to get them into degree college.

It is a challenge to get the students to master Std. X Maths and English when they can neither read nor understand the language, nor do they know how to multiply, divide, add or subtract. The harm has already been done.

The government schools that GREAT Foundation supports are at least 60 years old. Yet not a single engineer, doctor or architect has been produced by them. They are an analogy for most government schools across India.The budget of the nine or ten schools is over 100 crore.Most of it goes towards maintenance and teacher salaries which are substantial after the sixth Pay Commission. Unfortunately, majority of the teachers have not been selected on merit. Their teaching methods are archaic — the chalk and talk method, text book and rote-learning based pedagogy. The subject knowledge of the teachers leaves much to be desired. Given a test, most would fail. There is no accountability, only indifference and protection, typical of government set ups.

What compounds the problem is the background of the students. All of them belong to low income communities comprising rural laborers who have migrated to Pune in search of jobs. They live in slums close to the schools. Their parents are illiterate.The fathers are raddi wallas, drivers, rickshawallas, daily wage earners, and so on. The mothers are house maids. Over 70% mothers are the sole earning members. Here too the fathers snatch away their earnings to get their daily drink. Wife and child beating is rampant. The children lack economic and emotional security.

There is no rapport between the parents and the school. The schools do nothing to build a relationship with them. On their part, having sent their children to school, parents believe they have done their duty. They expect high returns from this decision. Their involvement in most school matters is absent. On the one hand is fear of the school authorities, on the other are compulsions of earning a livelihood which discourages them from absenting themselves from work to attend Parent-Teacher or School Management Committee (SMC) meetings. They cannot challenge teachers who do not teach well. Being uneducated they are diffident. In a rare case, where a parent very politely informs the SMC that students are unable to understand the Std. VII Science teacher, they are told that the matter will be looked into. Even if it is examined, nothing much comes out of it because there is little that the Principal can do to improve the teacher or her teaching. Having been Chairman of the SMC of three government schools, I have seen the pattern repeat itself.

Despite several representations by government schools and teacher associations not to send teachers on election and census duty, state governments and local bodies do not pay heed.Teachers are regularly sent out of school to collect, verify and compile data for long durations unmindful of the damage it does to the students.

After the RTE Act of 2010, the promotion of every child has been assured up to Std. VIII with negative results in government schools. At the slightest excuse, the parents keep the child back at home. Sometimes, their rickshaw won’t turn up. This is especially so on Saturdays when attendance in the schools is less than 50%. Sometimes, parents send their children away to the village for weeks without realizing the harm it does to the child’s performance. In case the school tries to adopt a disciplinary stance, parents protest saying that the school is unduly making an issue about their ward’s poor performance when there is no such requirement from the government.

The government should re-examine this clause of the RTE now that four years of its implementation are over. It has generated a lack of seriousness about studies both on the part of the students and their parents who are illiterate and don’t understand the value of sending the child to school regularly. As the students are promoted irrespective of their having learnt anything, a large number of them drop out after Std. VIII once it is clear that they are almost as ignorant as when they had enrolled.

Continuous Evaluation, which is supposed to be an inalienable aspect of schooling under the RTE Act, is not followed. Who wants to work more, design active learning exercises and evaluate them? There is no perceivable benefit for the teaching fraternity. So, the status quo continues: One week of unit tests preceded by one week of revision every quarter. Thereby no one really knows how well the students are faring until Std. VIII when the marks scored by the students in the final exam become the basis of promotion to Std. IX or detention in Std. VIII or discontinuation of school.

With few good teachers around, the schools divide the students into sections according to their proficiency levels. Students in Section A are considered the best and are assigned the better teachers. The rest are assigned to the remaining teachers. Everyone understands the meaning of being in a particular section. The students in the low per- forming sections only get more demoralized and demotivated. Although it is a practical arrangement and it might be better to mix students so that they learn from one another, the reality is quite different.

Further, despite several representations by government schools and teacher associations not to send teachers on election and census duty, state governments and local bodies do not pay heed. Teachers are regularly sent out of school to collect, verify and compile data for long duration unmindful of the damage it does to the students. With every teacher who is on sent on such duty, the class ratio of 1:60 (already a big number) goes up to 1:120 as sections are combined. In the absence of adequate teachers, non-subject teachers including computer teachers and lab assistants are sent to teach the students or to keep them occupied. When such conditions persist over long periods, students are known to get psychologically disturbed and instances of spontaneous violence such as brawls among boy students erupt, creating serious problems for the Principal and the teachers.

Parents are sent for every small misdemeanor on the student’s part. Principals are seen loudly telling the parents in public of their ward’s misdeeds in language which would be very humiliating to any child. In response, the parents, especially fathers,in their anxiety to show their support to the school authorities, are known to even remove their chappals and start hitting their grown up son or daughter in full view of everyone. “Isko maro” (Hit them), they tell the Principal. The teachers do that anyway. The banning of corporal punishment holds no meaning. For small mistakes, an arm is twisted, a slap or two lands on a tender check. Caning for more serious instances of indiscipline is resorted to, in order to set an example. “That is the only language these children understand” you are told by parents and teachers alike. There is almost glee in a teacher’s voice when he or she tells another, “Aaj maine inko khub peeta” (I have given them a good beating today) as the causal incident is described.

A joyless life, that’s what it is for the students. Beating at home, beating in school, the narrative is the same from Balwadi to Std. X. An aptitude test that our NGO had organized in one the schools confirmed that the students were in a depressed state of mind. The SCERT which conducted the test revealed that the students were equally unhappy at home and in school. A question that needs to be answered by different bodies is: Can an emotionally discharged child do well academically? What are less privileged school children being subjected to? The aptitude test report also showed that the students were weak in Science and Maths. How does anyone expect the students to do well in a Science College or enter an IIT?

Very little teaching or learning seems to go on in the schools. A large number of extra curricular activities in the name of children’s development take place during class time. Classes are cancelled for the smallest reason, children are pulled out of class for dance or song practice with least concern for the importance of the subject being taught. When actual class is on, children are kept busy writing from the text book so that they don’t make a noise. Teachers pass time by reading from the text books or better still out of guide books. No one teaches them the subject concepts.

Std. X students are taught using ‘Likely Question’ sets. Upto 20 marks in each subject, and marks for Science practicals are awarded by the school for inclusion in the aggregate of the SSC exam. Is it any surprise that a larger percentage of students seems to be passing the SSC exam yearly, with every school awarding the maximum towards internal marks? One need not stretch one’s imagination to know why even those who score in the 80’s in the SSC have weak subject foundations and find it hard to survive college for long. Now and then, an exceptional child escapes through this Kafkaesque system of schooling and achieves good results. Maybe her parents or at least one parent was very supportive. One such is a girl named Komal who has completed her diploma in Computer Science and is now studying in second year Computer Science Engineering. At such times, many may come forward to claim their role in the student’s success. Some of it may well be true, but the fact is that most students do not return to their school after leaving it; the bonds don’t exist.

While the data for different schools are not available, enquiries reveal that not all join college after Std. X. Of those who do, the majority drop out after Std. XI or XII for academic, financial and personal reasons. The vicious cycle then continues. Boys take up the professions of their fathers or do not take up jobs at all as they cannot find any, befitting their literate status. Not knowing how to speak English is a major factor. Girls after SSC or Std. XI are married off and usually end up as housemaids, like their mothers.

A good number of corporate houses, under Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) have started short-term sponsored programs in employability skills through NGOs and company volunteers for youths between 18 and 25 years of age. This is definitely a useful initiative for school and college dropouts, more so for the latter as students passing out of school are typically not more than 16 and cannot be employed. The advantage of these projects is that they are measurable by the number of youths who get gainfully employed after the training. However, it is a challenge for the sponsors to get sufficient numbers to train, despite a huge shortage of skilled labor that PM Modi has also talked about along with aggressive plans for skill training as an important developmental agenda. The reason is that, somewhere, the beneficiaries are not motivated to undergo training for a period of 3 to 12 months in a disciplined manner. That mindset has to be shaped in school. Probably, the answer is to link skill development pro- grams with school and increase their duration to 2 to 3 years as was envisioned in the 10+2+3 pattern. Corporate houses could still sponsor and oversee their execution.

Corporates could play yet another important role in the schooling of the underprivileged. Here, a paradigm shift in thinking is called for. One must ask “Why should quality English schools not be set up for less privileged children? Don’t they deserve them? Why is it considered enough to send them to some school and never considered important to monitor or demand quality education for them? Is it only the preserve of the rich? Why should the less privileged become electricians and not electrical engineers? Why must they only become nurses and not doctors?

Science workshop

A science workshop

Corporate houses can actually help NGOs bring about this change by setting up good public schools for low income communities or finance NGOs to run existing schools as institutes of excellence under the PPP model that the RTE Act has recommended both for rural and urban India. A few such schools have been set up by Bharti Airtel, Thermax and Reliance. If more corporate houses could come forward, alone or in conglomeration (since the cost is high),and support this initiative, then a revolution of sorts could be engineered in poor schools. Many such partnerships can ensure measurable results and proper learning outcomes on a big scale. Under such partnerships, selection of the best teachers,curriculum development in context of the children’s socio-economic ecosystem, regular teacher training, setting up of deliverables and measurable performance targets and fulsome engagement with parents can be reasonably ensured.

I want to conclude with a dream. Anand Kumar’s Super 30 is doing a great job by training free of cost 30 bright less privileged children every year for successful entry into the IITs. Dakshana Foundation set up by Canada-based entrepreneur IITian Mohnish Pabrai, taking the cue from Super 30, selects 250-300 students from Navodaya Vidyalayas and sponsors their training for JEE yearly to see them join the IITs. India’s coaching classes are doing that in lakhs for her middle classes because they can pay for their children to be in good schools and for their coaching. However, it is only when thousands and lakhs of less privileged students,trained in quality schools, are available for being coached for the JEE that the dream India of 2020 with thousands and lakhs of scientists, technocrats and other professionals from low income communities will be realized. Only when quality education is offered to India’s less privileged children on a mass scale will it widen the catchment area and impact generations. This brings me to the dream scenario. The year is 2030. Some of the best schools are free schools for the less privileged. The best teachers teach there. They are trained in the latest pedagogical methods. Teaching is concept-based and effort is made to help every child learn. There is a child-friendly atmosphere in the school. Parents and teachers work hand in hand for the development of the children. Children love to come to school. They are given good values and trained to become confident. When they pass the Std. X exam, they are knowledgeable and competent to clear the exam with flying colors. Like middle class children, they too get coached for the JEE and a good number make it on merit. Next they are sitting in the First Year B. Tech class and enjoying their lectures which builds on their earlier knowledge. Everyone has to work hard in IIT. So they too put in the required effort. Four years later, they face the campus interviews and are selected in companies as technologists or scientists. Possible? Yes, very much so if we all work in that direction and express discontentment with the status quo.

This brings me to the dream scenario. The year is 2030. Some of the best schools are free schools for the less privileged. The best teachers teach there. They are trained in the latest pedagogical methods. Teaching is concept-based and effort is made to help every child learn.

What about existing government schools? Can’t they be improved? Of course, they can be transformed provided the following steps are taken. First their teachers should be chosen strictly on merit. Secondly, teachers should be trained in the best teaching and child management methods. Thirdly, teachers must not be sent on census duties to the detriment of the students’ education. Fourthly, targets of performance and learning outcomes must be set by teachers and increments and promotions should be based on their fulfillment. The schools set up by public-private endeavor could become benchmarks in quality for existing government schools till they too become the best.

True democracy, equality of opportunity and justice for all, as enshrined in our Constitution, lies in such schools. Can the Prime Minister, the Minister of Human Resources Development (MHRD) and philanthropic business leaders please step forward and help make this ambitious dream come true?

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