The Congress government has denotified more than 500 educational institutions in Himachal Pradesh since it came to power six months back. Over 400 of these, opened in the past eight to 10 years, had zero enrolment. The remaining 100-odd denotified institutions (the order to denotify many of these has been temporarily put on hold) are among the “320 institutions opened/upgraded by the previous BJP government in the past six months of its tenure”. The Congress claims that most of these were opened with an eye on elections, without budgetary provisions and any real requirement. The denotification has triggered a slugfest between the government and the BJP.
Sharp Drop in learning abilities of children, mainly due to the outbreak of Covid-19
- As per the latest Annual Status of Education Report, the basic reading ability of children has reduced significantly in the state.
- The percentage of children in Class III who can read Class II-level text has dropped from 47.7 per cent in 2018 to 23 per cent in govt schools in rural areas. A drop from 74.5 per cent to 60.2 per cent has been recorded in the reading abilities of Class V children.
- There has been a sharp drop in basic arithmetic skills as well. The percentage of Class III children who can do subtraction has dropped from 42.4 to 31.3 per cent.
- Even as the decline has been recorded across the country, mainly due to the outbreak of Covid-19, the drop in learning abilities is sharp enough to ring alarm bells for all concerned.
Number of govt schools: 15,380
Number of teachers: 67,254
Enrolment in govt schools: 8,75,843
While the BJP attributes the move to political vendetta, the government cites negligible enrolment in these schools, the shortage of staff in various schools with good enrolment and the precarious financial condition of the state to justify the move. “There’s 50 to 80 per cent shortage of teaching staff in several schools, mainly in Chamba, Sirmaur and Kullu districts as well as upper Shimla. How are we going to offer quality education if we keep opening new schools, especially in places where there is no reasonable need?” questions Rohit Thakur, Education Minister. “The idea behind denotifying institutions with negligible enrolment and other decisions we are taking is to strengthen the existing institutes to ensure quality education,” he says.
Shortage of teachers
There’s an overall shortage of 12,000 teachers. As many as 3,145 schools are running with a single teacher, and there are no teachers in 455 schools. This shortage has started to reflect in our performance. The state has slipped from top three to 11th spot in the Performance Grading Index. —Rohit Thakur, Education minister
Incidentally, only those institutes are being denotified which do not meet the minimum enrolment criteria fixed by the government. “In view of the tough terrain of the state, we have even relaxed the criteria to ensure that most schools meet the condition,” says Thakur. As per the criteria laid down by the government, a primary school must have 10 students, a middle school 15, a high school 20, a secondary school 25 and a college 65 to remain operational.
Many teachers, too, seem to be on the same page as the government regarding the minimum enrolment criteria and denotification of institutions with negligible enrolment. “Having schools with just five to six students makes little sense. Such low strength is detrimental to learning. There’s more competition and better learning if there is optimum strength in a classroom. Even the teachers could lose interest without adequate strength,” says Ashwani Kumar, president of the All India Federation of Teachers’ Organisation. “I don’t think there is any scope left for expansion of schools in our state now. It’s high time the government focused on consolidation, especially of the senior secondary schools. A proper survey must be conducted to ascertain the requirement of a new school or upgradation,” he says.
Some teachers, however, have issues with the implementation of the denotification process. “The government denotified 90 schools on May 26. A few days later, the denotification order for many of these schools was put on hold. This shows lack of clarity and communication between the Education Directorate and the government. It will cause uncertainty and anxiety among the students in these schools,” says a school principal, requesting anonymity. “Also, how and where will the government accommodate the students of the schools that will eventually be denotified?” he asks.
The opposition within
Applying the minimum enrolment criteria to schools in tribal areas would not be easy. The opposition to denotifying schools in the tribal areas has started emerging from within the Congress — party state president Pratibha Singh has advised the government to not denotify schools in the tribal areas in view of the difficult geographical and climatic conditions.
“No school has been denotified in tribal areas. The connectivity in tribal areas, though, is much better now compared to the time when schools had to be opened after every 1 or 2 km to ensure education to all children,” says the minister. While agreeing that every child should get elementary education close to home, several teachers feel the government could look to offer a dedicated transport facility to the students where the enrolment is very low. “Running a dedicated bus or cab for these children would cost much less than running a school in close proximity. And studying in a classroom with a greater number of children will enhance their learning experience,” says a principal, on condition of anonymity.
Meanwhile, the Education Minister feels the shortage of staff and providing quality education to the students are much bigger issues facing the government and the department than denotification of some schools. “There’s an overall shortage of 12,000 teachers. As many as 3,145 schools are running with a single teacher, and there are no teachers in 455 schools,” reveals the Education Minister. “This shortage has started to reflect in our performance. The state has slipped from top three to the 11th spot in the Performance Grading Index,” says Thakur.
It’s vendetta politics and nothing else, counters BJP spokesperson Karan Nanda. “Most of the educational institutions that have been denotified are in Mandi district, where the Congress fared badly in the Assembly elections. Also, there is no clear criteria and cut-off date to check enrolment. Their own leaders like Pratibha Singh and Asha Kumari have started speaking against the closure of these institutions,” he says.
Much of the staff shortage in several institutions is also because of uneven distribution of teachers. Several institutions, mostly in urban areas, are over-staffed as teachers do not want to go to rural or tribal areas. “Rationalisation of staff is the need of the hour to impart quality education to all students. We found a school where there were two students and five teachers. And there are several other schools with such a skewed teacher-pupil ratio,” says Thakur.
The minister claims the government has started taking steps for the rational distribution of teachers. “We have already cancelled the deputation of 400 teachers. They were posted somewhere else, but were working elsewhere on deputation,” he says. “Besides, we have taken approval from the Cabinet for the appointment of more than 5,000 teachers in various categories to address the overall shortfall. Filling all these posts will take some time as recruitment is quite a cumbersome and time-consuming process,” says the minister. Besides, he says, massive litigation in the Education Department is a big stumbling block. “The litigation rate is very high. The cases related to six to seven categories of teachers and officials are in the courts.”
The other huge challenge that affects students the most is the lack of a transparent transfer policy. Right through the year, teachers keep getting transferred for one reason or the other. Suresh Bhardwaj, Education Minister in the previous BJP government, tried to bring in a transfer policy but the idea was shelved at the last moment. “We will try to build a consensus on bringing a clear and transparent transfer policy in the Congress Legislature Party and the Cabinet. Personally speaking, I am all for it,” says Thakur.
Most teachers, too, feel the need for a transparent transfer policy. “Many teachers are reluctant to join tribal or rural areas because of lack of a clear transfer policy. A person transferred to the tribal area is not sure when he would be transferred back, so he does all he can to stop the transfer. If he knows for sure that he would be transferred back automatically after spending a fixed time in the tribal area, there won’t be such reluctance,” says Ashwani Kumar.
Interestingly, many teachers feel much of the resistance for a transparent transfer policy comes from the bureaucrats and politicians themselves. “It’s unfair to paint teachers as those who are always looking to get or stop a transfer. The role and interests of bureaucrats and politicians too should be looked into,” says a principal.
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