Reimagining rural public schools for equal and quality education for all

National Education Policy 2020 has rekindled the debate on the various kinds of problems in education. One of the problems which should worry most Indians is the problem of sub-optimal schooling experiences and poor learning outcomes in rural government schools.

Whereas the blame for the poor performance of rural government schools is often put on the negative mentality of teachers, indifference of the parents, and inadequate resources, my research indicates that the problem lies with the education policies and school system design. For example, the policy of providing a school in every habitation contributes significantly to setting the system up for failure. Far too often, what we have in the name of schools is 2 or 5-room dilapidated buildings in every village where multi-grade teaching is the norm. Multi-grade teaching means one teacher teaches students from two or more grades in the same classroom. So, as against large size well-equipped private or central government schools what we have in rural India, where 70 % of the population lives, are tiny ill-equipped schools with often less than 60 (primary) or about 100 (upper-primary) students with about two or five teachers.

Because we have tiny schools, governments do not find it economical to provide full-time headteachers, non-teaching staff to do administrative work, and a peon who can help maintain the school facilities. Teachers frequently go out of classrooms and schools to do non-teaching work leaving the class or school at the disposal of older students or remaining teachers. The academic support infrastructure in such "below poverty line” schools is also poor. The library is often only on paper and there is no laboratory of any kind. A playground or sport facilities are an exception. Teaching aids are in poor shape. Many schools are “declared”? digital with no provision for procuring essential software, course content, internet connection, or even for paying electricity bills.

It appears everything is designed to fail. And that is where the question arises, why did policymakers in India design policies and a system which were likely to give them tiny schools in an inadequately resourced and unmanageable rural public-school system with de-facto multi-grade teaching? When we compare these schools with well managed private or public schools such as Kendriya (KV) and Navodaya (NV) Vidyalaya, one wonders should we call them “schools”?

Rural government schools are not just economically but more importantly, educationally unjustifiable and unsustainable. These result in not only inadequate teaching-learning but more importantly sub-optimal and inequitable schooling experience for most 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.

It was expected that NEP 2020 will address this structural inequality. However, though it acknowledges the problem of small schools (Section 7.2 NEP 2020) it shies away from providing a bold solution. The idea of a school complex in NEP will not drastically improve the academic and infrastructure standards of these 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 academic and infrastructure standards for all kinds of schools necessitating the provision of uniform per child expenditure and adherence 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. To achieve this what the governments can do is to adopt the standards used for KV and incorporate them in the RTE Act.

If we have to transform current schools to the level of KV, it may not be viable to do so because of their tiny size. This means we need consolidation of all 1-8 grade schools at the cluster level. A cluster consists of about 15 schools within a radius of about 5-10 km and could be a feasible unit for consolidation. There we can have an adequate number of students (about 600) and teachers (about 50) not only to ensure mono-grade teaching but also surplus teachers who can be deployed for substitute, co-curricular or academic support activities. With consolidation at the cluster level, all rural children can have access to equal and decent standard schools.

The access to proposed new consolidated schools could be ensured by amending the RTE Act by making it obligatory for the governments to provide school buses or vans for every child. Due to Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana, 91% of villages are connected by all-weather roads and there should not be a problem of last-mile connectivity. For those villages or hamlets which are not connected by all-weather road either road construction can be expedited or at least one residential school of NV kind can be provided in every block. Without equality in school education, the justice and equality envisaged in The Preamble and egalitarian social order envisaged in Article 38 of the Constitution of India cannot be ensured. India needs fundamental restructuring of its public school system and not its abandonment in the favour of the choice of private schools.



Views expressed above are the author’s own.



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