Sunday, 24 August 2014

Chronicles of a Failed State - Part 2

"The redemption of this education system cannot happen," says the gentleman to my left somewhat pontifically, "till the time the children have the katora (bowl) in their hands!"

I am in Hardoi, a district to the west of Lucknow in the heart of Uttar Pradesh, for a new Edulever project. Rains have eluded this part of the state this year, and a disconcerting sultriness hangs in the air. Hardoi town, with a population of 170,000, seems like any one of the numerous small towns that dot the north Indian landscape. Its most recent claim to fame is that the 2012 Bollywood movie Ishaqzaade was shot in the district.

Over two-and-a-half days, we visit a few senior secondary schools - also known as Inter Colleges - in parts of Hardoi. These schools typically run from Classes 9 to 12, and the ones in the villages are usually plain-looking single-storied structures. Enrollments vary - from as low as 50 students in Classes 9 and 10 in some cases, to as high as 750 in others. As we discover during our visit, many of the schools are single-teacher schools: the same teacher is expected to teach all subjects - English, Hindi, Science, Math and Social Sciences - to all the students.

We reach a rural school at around 8:20 am; 10  minutes before it is scheduled to start. A locked iron gate greets us, with a few students waiting outside; their number swells quickly. I start talking to a group of students who tell me that the school has only the principal, and no teachers! Today, even the principal has chosen to be absent, and I'm curious to know how the school would be run.

What happens next is nothing short of miraculous. At 8:30 sharp, a senior student unlocks the gate, and the students start entering the school. Someone rings a gong, and the students - completely on their own - line themselves along the two corridors of the school, boys on one side and girls on the other. Three girls of Class 10 move to the head of this perfect-line formation, and start conducting the morning prayers! They lead the singing of three bhajans one after the other, with all the students joining in chorus. The national anthem, recited rather than sung, marks the end of this morning assembly. I am told that the students are quite used to conducting the prayer-assembly on their own, unimaginable in a regular city school.

The classrooms, with wooden benches and desks, are soon filled up. The room has fans, but there is no electricity. I engage myself with the students of Class 9, who lament the lack of teachers and especially the fact that they are not able to learn English. I decide to conduct an impromptu Spoken English session with them; they are clearly ill-at-ease even in introducing themselves in English.

Another school we visit is in Hardoi city itself - the R.R. Boys' Inter College. It is housed in an imposing building, constructed in the 1920's in the Indo-Saracenic style of architecture. This school has over 2000 students from Classes 6 to 12. The exterior of the school is reasonably well-maintained, but the interiors are a different story altogether. The principal's chamber is a dim-lighted, dreary government office. We interact with a group of teachers, who are ready with their tales of woes - too many students cramped in one classroom, parents' apathy about their children, the poorly thought-out Right to Education Act that compels them to promote all students irrespective of academic performance till Class 8, and most of all, the aforestated "katora" - an allusion to the mid-day meal scheme of the government which has significantly reduced the time available to the school management to focus on academics. There is a grain of truth to this argument against the MDM scheme, as highlighted in another post in this blog.

 One more rural school, and a similarly depressing story about the system's apathy towards students' learning requirements. No electricity in this school as well, and many students are sitting in near-darkness (in more ways than one). Learning levels of students in classes 9 and 10 are abysmal - most students of class 10 are not able to solve Class 6 math problems given to them. The representative of the local NGO accompanying us casually mentions of the rampant cheating - in collusion with the teachers - that happens in these schools during the board examinations. Amazingly, students are known to seek admissions in those schools where this malpractice is more prevalent, so that they can pass exams easily!

The Edulever team with the Sandeela school teachers.
The headmistress is third from right.
The last school we visit offers a glimpse of hope. This is an all-girls' school in a place called Sandeela on the highway connecting Lucknow with Hardoi. The headmistress, Chitra Sonkar, greets us with a bright, warm smile, and is clearly in command of the proceedings at the school. She was earlier a teacher at the same school, and is concerned about the fact that there are only 10 teachers for a school of over 1000 girls. Despite this, she has been working diligently to raise the standards in the school, and her efforts are evident. This is the only school we went to that had a decent Science Lab. The learning assessment we conducted also shows better results here. A clear pointer to the fact that when a system fails, a strong and committed individual can still make a big difference by just doing her work with dedication!

For most parts of U.P., however, the education system is beyond Reform - what is required is nothing short of a complete Reboot. This might sound radical; but knowing that the future of lakhs of children is at stake here, a radical solution is called for. Even if it means completely dismantling the existing system and replacing it with a stronger, more efficient, and most importantly, a more accountable system.