Aditi Maheshwari (Bhopal)
The BJP government of the state is set to merge all government schools situated within a 15 km radius of each other to reconstitute them into composite K-12 schools. This proposal made under the chief minister’s Rise School programme launched last summer (May 2020), will reduce the number of government schools in 224 development blocks (out of a statewide total of 313) from 34,997 to 15,961.
The stated objective of the merger is that larger schools will derive the benefits of economies of scale and will be able to afford modern infrastructure including smart classrooms, better co-curricular and sports facilities and vocational training enabling them to provide holistic education on a par with upscale private schools affiliated with the pan-India CBSE and CISCE examination boards.
“This initiative will enable government to reduce the expense of inspecting a huge number of schools and streamline admission processes. It will also enable savings (economies of scale) and allow government schools to introduce modern technology,” says Indersingh Parmar, Madhya Pradesh school education minister, explaining the rationale of the merger proposal. Under the proposal, an agreement has also been signed with Peepul (previously Ark India), a non-profit to train 300,000 government school teachers to use new digital technologies.
Although the state government has dressed up the school merger proposal to project a learning-outcomes improvements plan, independent monitors of K-12 education in one of India’s most socio-economically backward BIMARU (Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh) states, believe that a continuous flight of students from malfunctioning state government schools defined by crumbling infrastructure and poor learning outcomes, is the prime factor behind the proposal to merge government schools.
According to the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) 2019, 75 percent of class III children in government schools in Bhopal — the admin capital of Madhya Pradesh (pop.78 million) — cannot read class I textbooks and 45 percent cannot recognise numbers 11-99. Unsurprisingly in the School Education Quality Index 2020 (SEQI) published by NITI Aayog — the Central government’s think tank — Madhya Pradesh is ranked #15 out of 20 states assessed in SEQI 2020.
“The quality of education provided in government schools is so poor that despite their free mid-day meals and tuition, they are experiencing continuous flight of children to low-cost private schools which claim to provide English medium education. With the number of teachers exceeding the number of students in some government schools, the state government had no option but to merge them with neighbouring schools,” says Dr. Rani Dubey, former professor of education at the Dr. Harisingh Gour (Sagar) University.
Although Dr. Nilesh Khare, dean of the faculty of management and commerce at the private sector Jagran Lakecity University, Bhopal, admits that merging small government primaries to transform them into larger composite schools will give them economies of scale and enable their modernisation, merging schools within a 15 km radius will require the majority of children to commute longer distances to get to school. “And given the poor quality of public transport, a large number of primary children — and girl children in particular — may drop out of schooling altogether. Moreover, larger class sizes may reduce individual attention to students,” warns Khare.
Clearly, although the phased merger of government schools plan looks good on paper, its implications need to be reviewed and reconsidered. If not, there’s a possibility that the proposal may accelerate the flight of children to neighbouring private budget schools.