Archive for September, 2011

The Other Side of the Picture – 1

September 26, 2011

On many issues, we are often fed with one side of the picture that becomes the reality for us for two reasons: anything that is repeated again and again assumes the face of truth over a period of time and in any case we do not ever get to hear the other side of it. This is a series on such contradictions in the Public Education System.

Case of the Missing Teacher

It is quite common to find people complaining about the irregular attendance of the teachers in Government schools. I have personally visited hundreds of schools and interacted with thousands of teachers; barring the marginal 10% in any sampling exercise, I found most of them to be reasonably sincere about their work. They did not appear to be the type who would deliberately shirk work; yet late arrivals and early departures were not uncommon even during my cursory inspection. I wanted to get to the bottom of this strange behavior and accordingly started a dialog with a cross section of them. What emerged threw a very different light on the whole issue; the complexity of it and the systemic fault lines can best be brought out by citing a test case, involving Ms R.

R always wanted to be a teacher and studied to become one. When she graduated, she found that it was not all that easy; the competition was intense. She could get a job with one of the local private schools but the salary they offered was too meagre to live a modest life; the good ones elsewhere would have offered her better terms but they will not have her due to her inadequate lingual skill – in English. Getting a job with the Government school is a tedious process and one needed a lot more than merit to get it; still she was willing to go through it.

The way the system works is that the vacancies are announced once in a year on  a district wise basis; the selection is done by zonal committees from candidates within that area. It is a good idea in principle. However competition being intense, as always with Government jobs, each candidate tries to find out where he/she stands the best chance and applies accordingly. R was  from North Karnataka where applicants were few but the available slots were far fewer. She found that the erstwhile Bangalore Rural District offered the best scope and went for it. The residential criterion was easy to meet ; all that was needed was to get the address of a friend or relative who lived here and give it as hers. Her calculation was correct ; she got selected and was posted to the village A in Kanakapura Taluk.

She was elated but this joy was short-lived. To reach A, she has to take a bus first from the City to Kanakapura; this itself is a 90 minute ride.  She had to take another connecting bus from there after a wait of 30 minutes which took 30 more to get to A. It needed a 15 minute walk to reach the school. If everything went off smoothly, which was rare, it took nearly three hours to commute to the school from home. The problem does not end there; the bus from KP runs infrequently making half a dozen trip in a day. The nearest she can get to reach the school  was at 1030. This means that even if she was willing to accommodate a three hour commute starting at 7AM, she would be reaching the school late since it starts at 10. You can easily imagine how the reverse in the evening would be; she needed to get out by 345 to be able to reach home by 7PM. The next bus from A will delay this up to 930 PM.

R is a conscientious girl who wants to give her best to the school; how much of it she can really do in practice can easily be seen from the above. She had since induction been trying to get herself shifted to another school nearer City- which is next to impossible- or in the North of the State nearer home. With similar applicants flooding the system and transfers becoming a ‘lucrative business’ , the State came with an annual computerized counseling session which reduced the scope for such interventions  but removed whatever width was available  to try and match a demand with a  need.

There are many ways by which this anomaly could have been avoided; the school committee or the Panchayath could have been empowered and kept in the loop during induction. A teacher from within the community or the neighborhood would have been the ideal choice – not just in ensuring proper attendance but also the level of commitment and empathy needed between the teacher and the taught. Compare this with a private school: every teacher is selected for the specific school by the Management out of applicants who have opted for it.

If you now find an ‘irregular’ teacher in a school, whose fault is it? In any case, how fair is it to compare the ‘attendance’ patterns of teachers in public and private schools- to the disadvantage of the former? The Jury should be out on both.

Ramamurthy

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On the same Wavelength as Anna

September 1, 2011

I was delighted to hear Anna Hazare yesterday saying that the root cause of corruption is unwarranted concentration of power; and that the solution lies in decentralization and empowerment of communities. Does it look familiar? It has been the focal theme of Sikshana right from its inception. I hope that this amazing movement of Anna which has just had its first taste of success will eventually get round to the necessary reforms in other fields too.

It is sad that in our country the term ‘reform’ has become synonymous with the agenda of Industry and Big Business. Presently, it seems to cover only ideas like FDI in retail and opening up the Insurance sector; even in Education it is about the entry of foreign institutions and investments from abroad. The political classes- and a good part of the intelligentsia and media too- are almost totally engaged about the progress or lack of reforms in these sectors.  We see no meaningful debate or dialog on the essential changes in areas such as social services. It is because of this skewed approach that we are ranked 122 in Human Development Index among 170 countries – below Nicaragua and Equatorial Guinea- in spite of the fact that  we have an admirable  GDP growth second only to China.

One of the two core fields that contribute to this miserable performance in HDI is Education. We have been tinkering with the problem for decades.  Starting with a miserly 2% of GDP we have come a part of the way allotting 4.1% of GDP for this sector now. But allocation of more money alone does not make the problem go away; we need an effective system to administer the funds.  The much needed reforms in Education is not about entry of Institutions from abroad; it is not even about the pedagogy or the way we conduct examinations.  It is about the process of delivering this essential service to the communities and the students. It is here that the centralization – corruption nexus referred to above becomes apparent and relevant.

A few progressive States like Karnataka have done a great job in taking the first step towards reducing excessive centralization; they have made it an official policy that the schools belong to the communities. Unfortunately they have not backed it up yet with commensurate devolution of powers; after all, responsibility without power makes little sense. This step does not come easy for those who are accustomed to wielding power for a long time; distrust of the lower levels in the hierarchy is genetically coded into them.

I will take two instances of this mindset that prove the point. The first is with respect to the induction of teachers into the schools. It comes naturally to those in the system to say that they know how to select good teachers and post them to the schools. They dare not delegate this power or responsibility to the PRI’s (Panchayath Raj Institutions) who are the de-facto ‘owners’ of the schools and hence closer to ground realities.  Reason: they are likely to misuse this power. The fact that the centralized mechanisms have done no better has not deterred the application of this logic. Appointments, postings and transfers are perhaps the single largest source of corruption in this sector. Besides bringing in corruption, they also affect adversely the performance of the Education System. The centralized process of recruitment results in induction of teachers in places which are far from their own. These teachers do not move in and live closer to the school, as they expect to get a transfer nearer home sooner or later and keep trying for it. The daily commute involved as a result often makes it impossible for them to attend school on time. I have seen teachers who spend two hours or more either way, given the infrequent bus schedules in rural areas. This makes it difficult for them to focus on their work. Further hailing from a different part of the State, they find it difficult to empathize with the communities where they are required to work. Consequently, whatever appears as teacher indifference can be traced back to a systemic fault in the process of selection. If only the local communities were empowered to recruit the best local talent within prescribed guidelines, you will be having teachers, who not only attend the school on time, but also take a lot more interest in the education of the students.

 

Similarly, we have a system in which text books are prepared and distributed centrally.  This monopoly has opened up a major channel of corruption; the print order for an accepted book running into hundreds of thousands is too good an opportunity to miss. The State could as well have announced a syllabus and allowed different authors to come up with competing versions of a text book, leaving the schools to decide which one they would like to adopt in theirs. That a State like Tamilnadu has at last come forward  with a scheme on these lines shows that such initiatives are entirely feasible.

These two steps, which would possibly have reduced the corruption in the system by half, are great examples of what Anna was trying to convey in his message. The churning that has been initiated by his movement will hopefully result in such reforms too over a period of time.

E S Ramamurthy