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Hanging by a thread

india Updated: Sep 14, 2009 00:32 IST
Chitrangada Choudhury
Chitrangada Choudhury
Hindustan Times
Highlight Story

The only ‘school’ in south Chhattisgarh’s Pottenar village, over 400 km south of state capital Raipur, is a single room, with one temporary teacher.

The state pays Standard XII graduate Sunil Shukla Rs 6,000 a month — a third of a full-time teacher’s salary. Shukla, 29, is not here because he wants to teach, but because he still has not found a better job. “I am studying for the state’s competitive exams,” he said, as his wards meandered around a broken hand-pump outside

The best of teachers would find it hard to teach four levels at once, as Shukla must do, but he is not even trained for the job.

“Quality, as mentioned in the new Right to Education law, can be summed up as a good teacher,” argued educationist Krishna Kumar, director, National Centre for Educational Training & Research.

Teachers in villages like Pottenar in Dantewara district are critical because 7 to 15 per cent of India’s 190 million children in the school-going age study in such government or government-aided schools. Their capabilities are the bedrock on which rests the empowerment of Indians, and our country’s sustained economic growth.

The problem: One in every 10 schools — with anything from 25 to 250 students each — operates with a single teacher. The government says a school needs at least two teachers if students are to have a fair chance of learning to add and subtract, and understanding what C-A-T means.

Official estimates say India has over 1 million government schools, which mostly cater to children of the disadvantaged: They are short of 500,000 teachers. The centrally funded Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA or Education for All) programme, now in its eighth year, still runs short of almost 250,000 teachers, with alarming concentrations of shortages (see graphic). The effect: about 47 per cent of children drop out.

Last week, as the Human Resources Development Ministry basked in a list of ‘100-day Achievements’, these statistics pointed to a big hole in India’s school system — finding and retaining quality teachers.

Asked what we must do, minister Kapil Sibal said: “I am concerned not just about vacancies, but also the capability of existing teachers in the system...we are brainstorming…there is nothing concrete yet.”

But time is crucial. A new law making education a constitutional right, to be enforced within three years, will only increase the demand for teachers.

Days ago, as Sibal met state education ministers, two fears loomed large in Ashoka hotel’s chandelier-lit hall — how to find funds to implement the Right to Education law, and where to find quality teachers, particularly for India’s villages?

Jammu and Kashmir’s minister Abdul Gani Malik, a bearded man with a creased forehead who cannot fill one of every four teacher posts, worried, “We are particularly hard-pressed to get teachers in rural areas. We began the SSA but did not plan for this.”

In 2001, as the SSA targeted universal elementary education by 2010, the state greatly increased investment in school education, which stands at over Rs 13,000 crore (Rs 130 billion) today. The SSA has over 900,000 teachers but the massive recruitment effort masks deeper problems of quality.

August’s SSA review observed, “The term ‘teacher’ now encompasses wide variations in qualifications, service conditions and remunerations…”

So 47 per cent of Jharkhand’s teachers are para teachers — temporary recruits without any graduate training in teaching, who are propping up the state’s school system. Madhya Pradesh is phasing out the cadre of the career teacher, relying mainly on contract appointments.

Educationists say this risky shortcut makes investing in training the recruits difficult, because the temporary recruits can leave the public school system anytime.

Worse, we care little about how teachers perform, and the challenges they face. The SSA review observed, “Most states have no mechanisms in place to assess teacher quality, or to implement stage-specific training.”