Purshottam Burman needs to cross the Beki river in Assam’s Baksa district six times a day. That’s the only way he can do his work. He is the teacher, clerk, cashier, and errand boy at the Unnaguri LP School. In addition, he also teaches at another school across the river.
But even if Burman shows the almost inhuman enterprise his job demands, he can’t be at two places at one time. So, the children at the Unnaguri school, who rarely see Burman in class, have their own theory: that he cites his “dual duty” to actually stay at home and avoid being at either school.
The Unnaguri school is a reflection of what many educationists believe is the biggest challenge facing Indian education — a crippling shortage of teachers, coupled with widespread teacher absenteeism. The Right to Education Act lays down strict teacher-pupil ratio that all schools must adhere to. It also requires that all elementary school teachers should have the BEd degree they needed before the law came into force. They should have also cleared a teacher eligibility test within five years of joining. The test is aimed at improving the standard of teaching, but a vacuum in training infrastructure means the task may take significantly longer.
The RTE Act requires that a school with less than 60 students have at least two teachers, with another teacher for every additional 30 students. Even for large schools, with over 200 students, the pupil-teacher ratio must never exceed 40. The norms mean that India needs to hire 6 lakh teachers. The stipulated deadline of September 31, 2010, for hiring these teachers is long gone.
At School No. 1-2 in the Asarwa neighbourhood of Ahmedabad, four teachers are managing the work seven are required to – for Classes 1 to 7. The state of Gujarat needs to hire over 20,000 teachers to meet the RTE Act norms. The state hired 10,000 teachers last year and plans to hire the rest soon, Gujarat principal secretary, education, Hasmukh Adhia said. “Recruitment is underway,” he said.
But recruiting teachers solves only a part of the problem, as Assam is finding out. The state needs to hire 95,000 teachers to meet the norms and, by the end of March, Assam had provisionally hired 28,000 teachers. But a lack of enough BEd and other teacher training colleges means that the state can train only 4,000 of these teachers each year — training all the teachers required in 2012 would take till 2040 with the current infrastructure. A court ban had prevented the state from hiring teachers since 2001, but Assam’s crisis finds resonance across the country.
Only 40% of schools in India meet the pupil-teacher ratios required by the RTE Act. And that number masks the massive differences between states. Only 15% of elementary schools in Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Jharkhand have adequate teachers. The number drops still further to just 5% for Bihar, while states like Kerala, with 94% schools meeting the required ratio, pull up the national average a bit.
The crisis means that devoted teachers often end up absorbing the workload of others, said Assam education minister Himanta Biswa Sarma.
Piku Sarkar of Radha Madhab LP School in Assam’s Barpeta district travels 6 km each day to teach 43 students in seven sections – from kindergarten to Class 5 – simultaneously. Seven blackboards are placed in front of seven clusters of benches.
“Sometimes I get dizzy handling so many classes and controlling seven different sets of children together,” Sarkar said. “So I have taken in an assistant to help me occasionally. I pay her out of my own salary.”
But even with an assistant, Sarkar struggles to take regular classes, because of non-teaching work including block meetings. “Non-teaching work invariably means holidays,” she said.
Teacher absenteeism – because of non-teaching tasks like those that Sarkar is required to perform, because of responsibilities at multiple schools, as is the case with Burman, the Baksa teacher, or simply because of a lack of accountability – means that the challenge won’t end with meeting the pupil-teacher ratio norms.
Absenteeism among teachers increased nationally from 11% in 2009 to 14% in 2011. But because of the dearth of teachers, firing the absentee ones represents a Hobson’s choice — it would cripple even the existing schools.
(With inputs from Rahul Karmakar)