For a whole year before he started school, Raman Kumar dreamed of learning to read and write. The little boy had a grand plan: Finish school, go to college, then move to a big city and get a good job.
He was thrilled when his father finally signed him up, at age seven, at the government school in his village of Pure Gosai in Rae Bareilly, Uttar Pradesh.
"But day after day,” says the 12-year-old, “Masterji wouldn’t come to school.”
When he did come to class, he would often order one of the boys to fetch him tea and bidis (hand-rolled cigarettes), then doze off — or leave.
“When the exams came around, he would write the answers on the blackboard,” says Kumar. “That’s how we cleared primary school.”
Like nearly half (47 per cent) of all primary government school students, Raman cannot read fluently or do complex math.
He’s now working with non-governmental organisation Lokmitra (Friend of the People) to try and catch up.
<b1>For most of his classmates, though, the rampant teacher absenteeism in government schools has cost them their dreams. Sixty per cent of all students enrolled, a World Bank study found, drop out by Class 5.
So here’s what we suggest: Make the government teacher accountable to the community, ideally the gram sabha or village council.
Improve infrastructure around government schools, perhaps even including it in the budget for the building itself. Do the same with accommodation for teachers — a 2004 World Bank study found teacher absenteeism rates were lower in schools with better infrastructure and proximity to a paved road.
And link increments and pay hikes to both teachers’ attendance and students’ performance, putting further pressure on teachers to attend school and teach.
Community as watchdog
In Delhi, the government says it has successfully lowered teacher absenteeism rates by roping in the local community and improving dialogue between parents and teachers.
The Education Department here has set up a School Watch Committee for every government school in Delhi.
“Each council comprises the principal, a few teachers, some parents, four students, a local Resident Welfare Association member and an activist,” says Reena Ray, former Delhi education secretary and now director of the Delhi Tourism and Transport Development Corporation.
“Regular interaction helps keep teachers accountable to the community and helps address the teachers’ problems too.”
Across the country, such initiatives could help tackle the rampant absenteeism — Bangladesh, Peru and Papua New Guinea have much lower teacher absenteeism rates than India.
Here, the 2004 World Bank study found 25 per cent of teachers missing and another 25 to 30 per cent not teaching at the time of three unannounced inspections at 3,700 schools across 20 states in India.
The only country that fared worse on the survey was Uganda, with a teacher absenteeism rate of 27 per cent.
Lessons to be learnt
NGO Lokmitra has launched a battle against teacher absenteeism in Rae Bareilly, and is drafting parents and even grandparents as warriors.
Sixty-five-year-old farmer Shyam Lal is among a growing number of villagers who walk their wards to school every day to make sure a teacher is present.
If the teacher isn’t there, they hold a meeting to discuss her attendance record and then take the issue up with the teacher the following day.
If the staff don’t mend their ways, protest marches follow. Parents even conduct surprise inspections of village schools.
“Only parents have genuine interest in the education of their children,” says Rajesh Kumar, director of Lokmitra. “Making teachers accountable to parents and the community is the most effective way of addressing teacher absenteeism.”
Local school and education management committees — made up of the sarpanch, headmaster, teachers and parents — have helped, says Kumar, but not enough.
“These committees deal with several issues and can’t consistently pursue teacher absenteeism, which needs focused attention,” he says. “The government must put in place special local bodies, consisting of parents, panchayat members and schoolteachers, to monitor teachers’ attendance. Parents should make up 75 per cent of the members of these bodies.”
Karthik Muralitharan, who was part of the team that conducted the World Bank survey and is now assistant professor at University of San Diego, agrees.
“If the teachers were answerable to the village councils, these councils could also oversee the hiring, retention, performance-based bonuses and personnel policies for teachers,” he says.
There is no time to lose. At Raman Kumar’s school, many of his batchmates are already contemplating dropping out.
“They’ve lost interest,” he says. “Also, now that they are in the senior classes, they are feeling the effects of those early years of neglect. They don’t understand anything even when a teacher is around.”
Sam Pitroda: Chairman, National Knowledge Commission
To help tackle teacher absenteeism, measures should be instituted to provide greater accountability not only to superiors but also to students, parents and the local community.
There are extraneous pressures such as non-teaching duties, which should be done away with or at least shared with other government officials. An important feedback mechanism would be to measure learning outcomes for students. Meaningless and formal inspections cannot be the sole factor.
Platforms must be made available for promoting innovative teaching methods, sharing them and publicising them. Further, residential arrangements must be made for teachers near their schools.
The cost of building such quarters should be factored into the cost of the school buildings.
Kapil Sibal: Union HRD Minister
'There is continuous dialogue to improve teacher accountability'
What, according to the government, are the reasons for teacher absenteeism in government schools?
A study undertaken in 2005-06 in three states — Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Andhra Pradesh — revealed that lack of transport facilities and long commutes were among the main reasons. Another study completed in 2004 found that teachers are less likely to be absent in schools that have been inspected recently, have better infrastructure and are closer to paved roads.
What is the government planning to do to deal with the problem?
There is continuous dialogue with state governments to improve teacher accountability systems. In some states, state governments have empowered local bodies to pay teacher salaries and monitor their attendance.
Many students don't even get to secondary school. How can the dropout rate be lowered?
SSA [Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan or Education for All Initiative] is the flagship programme for universal elementary education. Dropout rates at the primary level have halved since its inception. The government has also approved the Rashtriya Madhyamik Shiksha Abhiyan [National Middle School Initiative], to ensure universal access to secondary education.
No child left behind?
Government teachers across rural India are accountable to the local district magistrate, who they know is too far away to monitor them. The teachers also know that, even if they are caught skipping class — or dozing when they should be teaching — the most they will get is a rap on the knuckles. As a result, studies have found that one out of every four government teachers is missing on any given day — and another 25 to 30 per cent are not actually teaching while in class.
n Make the government teacher accountable to the community. In rural India, this would mean that the gram sabha could monitor attendance and report to the district magistrate if a teacher is absent without leave or found to be turning up at the school but not teaching.
n In Delhi, absenteeism rates have dropped after the state set up a School Watch Committee for every government school. Each council is made up of the principal, a few teachers, some parents, four students, a local Resident Welfare Association member and an activist.
n Regular meetings between teachers and parents also help improve
dialogue and address the teachers’ problems.
n Improve infrastructure around government schools, perhaps even including it in the budget for the building itself. Build accommodation for teachers close to the school, including this too in the budget.
n Link increments and pay hikes to students' performance, putting further pressure on teachers to attend school and teach.