Baishali Mukherjee (Kolkata)
At a time when kolkata’s dailies were headlining the Hamburg-based Institute for Lifelong Learning (UIL) — one of UNESCO’s key education-related institutes and the only organisational unit in the UN family that holds a global mandate for lifelong learning — expressing interest in West Bengal’s education system, smaller news items disclosed that the state government has decided to shut down 6,845 primary and 1,362 higher primary schools.
Government and government-aided schools located in the backward districts of Purulia, Bankura, Birbhum, Jhargram, Murshidabad and West Midnapore are downing shutters after an education ministry report revealed that they have less than 30 students on their muster rolls. On average, these schools have 17-20 students, while the total number of full-time teachers in these schools is 19,083, plus 1,181 ad hoc teachers.
Student enrolments in these schools have plunged after the 99-week pandemic lockdown of education institutions in the state which was way above the national average of 82 weeks. According to the education ministry report, during the pandemic, 28 percent of pupils in government-run primary schools in West Bengal became “totally disconnected from academic activities” as many low-income families could not afford smartphones. The one-time grant of Rs.25,000 (for class C qualifiers) and Rs.30,000 (for class XII qualifiers) awarded to BPL (below poverty line) households was largely used to get daughters married.
Although government spokespersons attribute this sharp fall in enrolment to the Covid pandemic disruption, according to a report published by the state education ministry in 2022, the decline in primary school enrolments in Bengal started long before the pandemic. In the past ten years, 7,018 primary schools mostly located in economically distressed areas have been closed down. This corresponds with a decline in enrolment as well — from 7.8 million children in 2012 to 7.19 million in 2022 despite rising population. The total number of primary, junior and high schools also declined from 97,428 in 2019 to 95,755 in 2020, and 94,744 in 2022.
The consensus of academia and middle-class opinion is that enrolment of children in government and aided schools has continued to fall even after the pandemic because of their pathetic infrastructure and scant attention to remedial education. This situation has been exacerbated by the ruling TMC government’s ill-advised Utshoshree (‘origin’) teacher transfer policy launched by chief minister Mamata Banerjee on August 2, 2021, during the height of the pandemic.
Under this policy, teachers can request transfers to serve in their home towns. With a large number of teachers having opted for their urban home towns, the average teacher-pupil ratio in rural government schools has risen to 1:59 against the 1:35 prescribed by the Right of Children to Free & Compulsory Education (RTE) Act, 2009.
If the government goes ahead with its plan to close under-populated schools — with 25 students enrolled in each school on average — about 2 lakh students will have to suffer the inconvenience of transferring to the nearest government school. Also, teaching and non-teaching staff will be transferred to nearby schools. Redeployment of teachers is likely to reduce recruitment of new teachers in the state when a multi-crore teacher recruitment scandal has stayed the employment prospects of 1.2 million aspirant teachers statewide who have B.Ed degrees and are waiting to write the next TET (Teacher Eligibility Test) scheduled for January 2024.
Comments Pabitra Sarkar, a renowned academic, former vice chancellor of Rabindra Bharati University and former vice chairman of the West Bengal State Council of Higher Education: “No single intervention will be sufficient to place the state’s derailed school education system back on track. A comprehensive education policy that engages all stakeholders in the education system needs to be formulated with teachers trained to improve pedagogy and classroom management skills. Moreover, local communities and administrators must provide better monitoring and support to the school system. But as yet, there are no signs of this concerted effort in the education sector.”
In a state where education including co-curricular education, is highly prized, the chaos and confusion that is evident in school education doesn’t bode well for the ruling TMC and chief minister Mamata Banerjee, who is trying to cobble a multi-party coalition to stop the BJP juggernaut in General Election 2024.