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‘Frequent teacher transfers disrupt system’ says Punjab school education minister OP Soni

In an interview to HT, school education minister Om Parkash Soni, a five-time MLA inducted into the cabinet five months ago, was candid in admitting serious deficiencies in the state’s school education system and talked about hard steps needed to bring any meaningful change.

punjab Updated: Sep 27, 2018 10:20 IST
Hindustan Times, Chandigarh
Punjab,Punjab school education minister,Om Parkash Soni
Om Parkash Soni(HT Photo)

Abysmal results, dip in enrolment, lopsided teacher deployment and frequent protests by teachers – these are not just some of the myriad problems that the school education department in Punjab is grappling with. But they are also symptomatic of a deeper rot in the education system. In an interview to HT, school education minister Om Parkash Soni, a five-time MLA inducted into the cabinet five months ago, was candid in admitting serious deficiencies in the state’s school education system and talked about hard steps needed to bring any meaningful change. Excerpts:

What are your focus areas?

In the last 10-12 years, the graph of school education in Punjab has gone down quite a lot. The exam results were 50% to 60% last year. In border areas, these were 20% to 25%. With such poor results, we realised it is time to stem the rot, especially in border districts. And, this has been my first priority in the past five months. When we looked into reasons for such dismal performance, we found teachers were not coming to schools or not paying attention. Another alarming finding was that they had engaged some persons to teach on their behalf or even tied up with fellow teachers to take classes on alternate days. We are making biometric attendance compulsory.

Special teams have been deployed. Another priority is border districts such as Gurdaspur, Tarn Taran, Amritsar, Ferozepur and Fazilka where we plan to open 100 model schools. Also, 3,500 newly recruited teachers have been given postings there.

Student enrolment in government schools has seen a sharp dip in the last 7-8 years. What are you doing to check this exodus?

If there is no quality education, what will the parents do? They want to give quality education to their children and are sending them to private schools. In government schools, most children are from poor families, be it from the Scheduled Castes or general category, because their parents cannot afford private schools. First, it was terrorism and then successive governments did not pay attention to school education. We need to ensure quality. Only then will children come to our schools.

NCERT had recently conducted an assessment of learning achievement of students of classes 3, 5, 8 & 10 in which Punjab fared badly. How do you plan to change this?

Teacher availability is one part, but that alone will not help. We have started making efforts to improve the quality of education, facilities and infrastructure in schools by ensuring timely delivery of books, regular assessment of leaning achievement, healthy classroom environment, proper sitting arrangements, availability of clean drinking water and good quality midday meal.

About 2,100 schools are being upgraded to ‘smart schools’ this year at Rs 64 crore and additional classrooms are being constructed in schools. We are also providing free uniform to 14.43 lakh children at Rs 90 crore, setting up solar system in 880 schools, installing RO systems in 1500 schools and giving library books.

The government had made a similar promise to deliver textbooks on time this year, but failed.

I know books could not be delivered on time. After I took over five months ago, we have reviewed the process. Corrective steps are being taken. Textbooks will be delivered one month in advance next year. They will have good quality paper and proper watermarks. No outside books will be allowed.

Class 12 students are still waiting for their history book. Why the expert committee headed by historian Kirpal Singh is taking so long?

As you know, the book was ready, but some political parties raised a ruckus over its contents. The expert committee is reviewing its contents and the syllabus. They gave three chapters which have been put online. The complete book will be ready in the next one-and-a-half months.

There is serious imbalance in teacher deployment with surplus teachers in urban areas and schools in rural and border areas facing a severe shortage.

How serious is the government about teacher rationalisation?

The policy has been approved. We are posting teachers to rural schools and wherever they are fewer in number. It is an ongoing process. As there is shortage, additional recruitment will be done.

The online transfer policy has worked well in several states. Why has Punjab abandoned the policy after it was cleared by the cabinet?

If someone is teaching well and there is no complaint, why shift him or her after a fixed number of years. If a teacher is sent to a school located 100 km away from home, he or she will not work. What is the logic? If one is teaching well, what is the harm if he or she remains there? The department has allowed transfer of differently abled teachers, those suffering from serious ailments, widows or unmarried ones on compassionate grounds. We are trying to fill up all vacant posts. There will be no mass transfer of teachers during the next three years. Frequent transfers disrupt education and teachers are not able to develop connect with children. We are clear on this.

Teachers’ unions are demanding regularisation of 27,000 contractual and other temporary teachers. What is stopping the government?

Yes, these unions have been holding protests. In democracy, it is their right to protest. Why disrupt classes and waste time of children? I have told them I will not allow this. We have taken stringent action. I will transfer teachers who disturb education 200 kilometres away.

The government is considering their demands. I am meeting union leaders again two-three days later. If someone talks of dharna, I don’t talk to them. As for their demand, the regularisation of services of 8,896 teachers of SSA, RMSA, etc. will be approved shortly.

The department proposes to cut the salary of these teachers to ₹10,300 per month on regularisation from ₹30,000 to ₹35,000 they are currently drawing. This is lower than the minimum wage for semi-skilled labour. Is this fair?

No doubt these teachers have been working for the past 10 years or so, but the government policy is to pay a fixed monthly sum for first three years on regularisation. There are other compulsions too. The government is trying to find a way. We are thinking of giving them an allowance of Rs 5,000 in addition to Rs 10,300 per month.

Chief minister Amarinder Singh is keen on English and foreign languages such as French, Chinese and German in government schools. Any update?

If we don’t teach English to our children, they will not be able to compete. We have introduced English as medium of instruction in several schools and expand it. CM is also keen on foreign languages and wants all this to be done quickly. This can’t be done in one go. We will do this in stages.

First Published: Sep 27, 2018 10:16 IST