Education News

Education News

Tamil Nadu

Education investment fallout

Tsunami orphans: counselling antidote
The first casualties of the gigantic tsunami which hit the coast of Tamil Nadu (pop. 62.1 million) on December 26, were children playing on beaches, in fishing hamlets and seaside homes on that fateful Sunday morning. Within minutes, the towering waves had swept away their small, yielding bodies into watery graves only to wash the lifeless forms back ashore. According to estimates of the social welfare department of the Tamil Nadu government, 2,023 children lost their lives in the disaster, accounting for over 25 percent of the total death count of 7,951 in the state.

A particularly poignant aspect of the post-Christmas tragedy is the huge numbers of children lost, orphaned or separated from their families. While official estimates indicate that 785 children in the state are missing and 338 orphaned, NGOs involved in relief and rehabilitation work in the 412 relief camps, claim that actual numbers are several times higher.

The United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (Unicef) which has dubbed the child survivors of the December 26 tragedy the ‘tsunami generation’, has recom-mended several measures to rehabilitate them. First, all relief plans must focus on provision of clean water, sanitation, basic nutrition, and routine medical care. Secondly, in the case of separated children, high priority should be given to uniting them with their siblings and families. Thirdly, while providing care and relief, special measures must be taken to protect them against exploitation by child traffickers. Finally, relief campaigns must help getting children into school as quickly as possible.

However, schoolteachers and volunteers are discovering that getting traumatised children back into classrooms is easier said than done. When the Chennai corporation primary schools in Dooming Street and Nochikuppam, the Santhome Middle School, Odaikuppam, and Tiruvanmiyurkuppam Corporation primary schools in Chennai, whose students were from fishing hamlets nearby reopened two weeks after the tsunami disaster, only half the students answered the roll call. According to teachers who visited fishing villages to persuade the children to come back, most of them are still traumatised and cowering in relief camps.

"The state government has accorded top priority to counselling children to overcome their trauma and return to school. The state’s social welfare depart-ment, Unicef and the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurological Sciences (NIMHANS), Bangalore, have jointly devised a training programme for volunteers, NGOs, social workers and officials to enable them to handle disturbed children and adults and help them resume their normal activities. Several local organisations are also providing psycho-social counselling to tsunami victims," says C.V. Sankar, the indefati-gable officer on special duty (relief and rehabilitation) of the Tamil Nadu state government.

By common consensus the much-maligned bureaucracy has responded magnificently to rehabilitate traumatised children in particular. Within a month of the tsunami tragedy, all separated or orphaned children are in shelters, well-cared for and most are back in school where they are being counselled to relieve their shock and pain.

TN-Forces, a non-political network working for children in the age group 0-6 years in Tamil Nadu, made a quick assessment of the 412 relief camps in Chennai, Cuddalore, Nagapattinam and Kanyakumari where 3 lakh victims are being housed, and has commended the government machinery which "responded magnificently" to save the state’s child victims. "The state’s bureaucracy has risen to the occasion and especially in the districts of Cuddalore and Nagapattinam, has shown that given able leadership, it has the capability of responding effici-ently to a crisis of this magnitude," says K. Shanmugavelayutham, convenor, TN-Forces.

Inevitably there are complaints that the unprecedentedly generous government compensation is being grabbed by impostors and is not reaching tsunami victims. But the general consensus is that this southern state’s continuous investment in education which has created a knowledgeable public aware of its rights and a bureaucracy aware of its duties in a moment of crisis, is paying off. And fittingly, the beneficiaries of this wisdom are the bruised, battered, and orphaned tsunami children of Tamil Nadu.

Hemalatha Raghupathi (Chennai)


Small price

Last July, a citywide survey in Mumbai, covering 2.4 million households, commissioned by the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corpo-ration, (BMC), unearthed the startling information that 78,898 children between the ages of five-15 in India’s commercial capital don’t attend school. As usual municipal corporators made politically correct noises on this disastrous state of affairs. But apart from education NGOs such as Pratham and Akanksha, nobody seemed to dwell upon the larger implications of the survey. Now following the brutal demolition of the shanty homes of 70,000 slum dweller families across Mumbai over three weeks beginning December 7 ordered by the recently elected Democratic Front government, the schooling of children from these 70,000 families has been totally disrupted.

Demolished slum homes in Mumbai: Shanghai pretext
The demolition squads supervised by BMC have ruthlessly discharged their task of razing all post-1995 ‘illegal’ structures in the city as per the orders of chief minister Vilasrao Deshmukh. And though targeted structures included a few high-end restaurants, the brunt of the officially sanctioned demolition enthusiasm has been borne by slum dwellers spread all over the city and suburbs, extending from the posh Cuffe Parade area in South Mumbai to far-flung suburbs in Malad and Dahisar. Under the pretext of transforming Mumbai into another Shanghai, the state government has brutally and illegally (see editorial p.8) targeted an estimated 400,000 slum dwellers for extreme punishment.

"Over the past 20 days, demolition teams of BMC are smashing our huts, forcing us to sleep in the open. They have carried away all our household goods including my children’s school bags. They tell us to go back to our villages, but we only came here because there’s no work there. And if we go back to the village, what of my children’s education? There are no schools in our village which offer decent education. Why didn’t they stop us when we built our huts here years ago? Why are they harassing us now after we have established ourselves here?" asks Sunita Bansode a groceries hawker residing beneath an automobile flyover in Dadar.

While some of those affected have simply dug in their heels and refused to leave their slum habitations, others have melted into neighbouring pre-1995 slums rigging up temporary shelters for themselves. The schooling of children in the targeted households has been endangered. "Eighty percent of children from these households have stopped attending school. They are convinced that if they go to school, they’ll return to find that not only their homes but all their material goods have vanished. In the case of those who have moved to new slums, they don’t have schools in the vicinity to go to and/ or are just not interested in looking for a new one. They don’t even know how long they will be in their new locations. For them BMC is an ogre or demon," says Farida Lambay a senior activist in the well-known education NGO, Pratham.

Pratham’s response to the calamity visited upon an estimated 150,000 children by BMC demolition squads, is to set up mobile and umbrella schools in the affected areas which offer simple games, toys and other distractions to help them overcome the trauma. "We have written to the BMC informing them that we intend to continue our schools in the targeted slums," says Lambay.

The future of the targeted households and their children seems bleak. Given the rash of mass suicides of hugely indebted farmers in Maharashtra last year, there are no takers for the offer of the state government to transport them back to their villages. Comments Debi Goenka, well known environmental activist of the Bombay Environmental Action Group: "Would the slum dwellers be living in the slums in inhuman conditions and paying through their noses for the dubious privilege, if they had a choice to be elsewhere? The fact is that they have nowhere else to go, their villages don’t offer employment, water, food or education. The government, police and politicians have all been receiving their share of cuts from the huge amounts which slumlords extract from these poor people. They conveniently turned a blind eye to the growth and development of unauthorised slums. Now they have gone on a demolition drive and talk about suddenly cleaning up the city which is a highly complicated issue."

In the context of such monumental injustice and threats to the lives and livelihoods of hundred of thousands of underprivileged citizens, the loss of access to substandard education seems a small price to pay.

Gaver Chatterjee (Mumbai)


Ex post facto justification?

Confronted with a barrage of criticism for arbitrary recognition of ill-equipped and under-staffed engineering and B-schools in particular, the Delhi-based All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE) has revised its regulatory framework for according approval to new institutions, study programmes and student intake. Under the new guidelines, all applications by institutions (for undergrad, postgrad) will be evaluated by a screening committee at the AICTE headquarters in New Delhi, comprising heads of bureaus of undergraduate studies, postgraduate studies and research and development. Several modifications have also been made in the application form to assess critical areas of performance of applicant institutions. Henceforward, introduction of new courses will require information on designation, qualifications, mode of recruitment and date of appointment of faculty as also of support staff in critical areas such as library, labs and workshops. Officials of the seven regional offices of AICTE will also be associated with the screening of applications.

Reversing its existing policy of keeping the timing of inspection visits a closely-guarded secret, AICTE has decided to advertise the schedule of visits by expert committees well in advance in newspapers and on the internet. According to ministry sources, the regional committees will be disassociated from the administrative and evaluation processes and entrusted with the task of formulating blueprints for coordinated growth of technical education in their regions and of developing perspective plans based on current data and future trends. Under the new system, the regional committees will meet at least twice a year and take stock of the technical education scenario in terms of both quantity and quality in their jurisdictions. "The role and responsibilities envisaged for regional committees have been redrawn for optimum utilisation of expertise and talent available with them," says an HRD ministry spokesperson.

Under the new system, appraisal committees comprising advisors and a representative from each state government and affiliating university have been mooted. A record of complaints against the institution and its accreditation status will be noted during this process. "It is proposed to pass reasoned and transparent orders in all such cases. Under the new regime, it is imperative for state governments to state why an NOC (no objection certificate) is denied to an institution. If valid and cogent reasons are not given, AICTE would be free to accord recognition or approval on merit," says the spokesperson. Student performance, placement record during the past five years, usage of library including internet connectivity, status of utilisation of grants under AICTE schemes for faculty development and research promotion besides institutional development and innovations introduced by the applicant institution will be carefully scrutinised and evaluated.

This burst of activism in AICTE is reportedly at the initiative of H.P. Dixit vice-chancellor of IGNOU (Indira Gandhi National Open University) who has been given additional charge as acting chairman of AICTE following the expiry of the five year term of Dr. R. Natarajan, former director of IIT-Madras. Against all expectation, the tenure of Natarajan — a proven academic and institutional administrator — was not extended in December. The recent HRD ministry activism in AICTE is reportedly ex post facto justification of the widely criticised ministry decision to send Natarajan packing.

Meanwhile Damodar Acharya, a former professor at IIT-Kharagpur and currently vice-chancellor, Biju Patnaik University, has been approved by Union HRD minister Arjun Singh as the next chairman of AICTE. Stand-by for a major modification — if not reversal — of the recently mandated institutional recognition and programme approval processes of AICTE.

Autar Nehru (Delhi)

Poor pressure

Following years of neglect, perennial funding shortfalls and bureaucratic apathy, the national capital’s 1,853 municipal schools — which have one million students and 18,000 teachers on their muster rolls — are about to experience a makeover. At a series of first-ever, high-powered meetings organised in Delhi, school principals, NGOs, education department officials and a smattering of politicians congregated to critique the performance of MCD (Municipal Corporation of Delhi) schools, and suggest ways and means to upgrade their abysmal scholastic standards.

Ironically the most scathing criticism of MCD schools emanated from the most unexpected quarter — the office of the department of education, MCD. "Nearly half the primary school teachers in MCD schools are not fit for their jobs. They are just fit to be policemen!" thundered Indira Yadav director of education, MCD at one meeting. B.L. Joshi, the city’s lieutenant governor, was equally unsparing: "Across the spectrum, teachers in these schools don’t teach even though they are paid better than their counterparts in private schools," he pronounced.

This reappraisal of MCD schools is overdue. For several years, the media, educationists and NGOs have been reporting subhuman conditions in MCD schools where toilets, drinking water and electricity are luxuries and many lack basic infrastructure like pucca buildings and boundary walls. Blatant disregard for infrastructure maintenance has created serious health problems for the majority of students. DOE (department of education) inquiries have also revealed routine misuse of school premises by principals, teachers and local politicians for picnics, parties, and even weddings.

As far back as 1997 Social Jurist, a Delhi-based lawyers’ activist group, had filed a PIL (public interest litigation) in the Delhi high court for a judicial directive to the corporation to improve the pathetic infrastructure and pedagogical processes of MCD schools. Following the PIL, the court issued notices to the Central and state governments "to forthwith improve the situation in these schools".

With little effect. The court’s stern reprimand notwithstanding, teaching-learning conditions have deteriorated further. In particular ill-qualified teachers continue to be recruited. Says D. Mahavira, a maths teacher at an MCD school in East Delhi: "The worth of a school is determined by its teachers who shape the future of students. But here, nobody seems to care. Nepotism is rampant and the formal procedure to hire qualified teachers in an eye wash."

According to P. Bhanu, a DOE official, while earlier the selection procedure for primary teachers in MCD schools mandated formal written and aptitude exams to test a candidate’s "sensitivity and understanding of children", this process has been done away with for the past three years.

Another root cause of their malaise is that the administration and supervision of government schools is the concurrent responsibility of MCD and the state government. "This leads to administrative overlap and conflicting orders. And quick changes of government and officials compound this problem," says the principal of a south Delhi MCD school.

With so many issues to tackle, educationists advocate a total makeover rooted in transparent policy directives, of MCD schools. "There’s no other way out," says Madhav Chavan, the go-getting chief executive of Pratham, a well-known education NGO. "MCD schools need better teachers, more child-centric and child-sensitive pedagogies and a system which promotes education rather than rote learning."

But with the national capital’s power elite including politicians and bureaucrats studiously shunning enrollment of their children in MCD and government schools which are the neglected play-pens of the children of slum dwellers and impoverished rural migrants who flow into this city of gardens and flyovers every day, there’s no real pressure to upgrade their facilities or teaching-learning standards. There’s the rub.

Neeta Lal (Delhi)


Enrollment mirage

The new year has begun on an upbeat note for government schools in Karnataka. According to Children’s Census 2004 released in early January by the state government’s education department, there has been a dramatic increase in the enrollment of children (age group six-14 years) in the 48,000 government primary schools across the state. Currently 64,000 children in this age group are out of school. This statistic obtained through a door-to-door survey by the state’s education department, compares very favourably with the 1.05 million children out of school in 2001; 660,000 in 2002; 400,000 in 2003.

"Our prime objective is to ensure every child in the six-14 age group is in school. To this end we have launched several programmes to achieve 100 percent enrollment and attendance. Among them the most successful are the akshara dasoha or midday meal scheme, free textbooks, uniforms, study material and provision of games facilities," says Sanjeev Kumar, commissioner for public instruction in the state government.

But while the mood in the state government education department is bullish, educationists and education voluntary organisations are less enthused because they are well aware that little learning happens in most government schools where inter alia teacher absenteeism and/ or indifference is a major problem. According to the Azim Premji Foundation (APF), Bangalore which has been working closely with the government of Karnataka to deliver its Learning Guarantee Programme (LGP), more than 40 percent of the 7 million children aged six-14 years in state government schools can’t read and write their own names correctly.

Primary school in Karnataka: little learning
"Following two years of research, LGP was devised by APF (est. 2000) to train teachers to deliver actual learning in classrooms. Most government schools are single teacher multi-grade institutions where teachers don’t have the benefit of pre-service or in-service training. Against this backdrop APF developed its Learning Guarantee Programme in 2002 with the objective of improving standards of learning and teaching in government, especially rural schools. Under this programme we provide study materials and in-service training to government school teachers which is designed to motivate them and to ensure that children in their schools thoroughly learn the three R’s. Currently we are training teachers in 1,900 government schools in seven districts of the state," says S. Giridhar, head (advocacy and research) of the Azim Premji Foundation.

Under the three-year training and assessment programme, teachers’ performance and student achievement levels are continuously monitored and evaluated. At the end of every year APF rewards schools with 90 percent plus enrollment and targeted levels of learning. "Though all the 9,200 government lower and higher primary schools in the seven districts were invited to participate in the LGP, 1,900 schools opted for it, and only 82 qualified for the Rs.5,000-20,000 cash awards this year," adds Giridhar.

However it is pertinent to note that the much acclaimed LGP covers only 1,900 of the 48,000 government primary schools in Karnataka. Quite obviously the onus is upon the state government to accept the gift of this magic formula from APF (available free of charge) and implement it in government schools statewide to ensure that their estimated 7.1 million primary students receive the benefit of real rather than ritual education.

Gradually — perhaps too gradually — this logic is beginning to impact education department officials in the state. APF managers derive considerable satisfaction from the government’s introduction of LGP in another 4,564 schools last month, taking the total reach of the programme to 6,464 schools across the state.

However educrats in the state government will have real cause for self-congratulation not when enrollment percentages improve, but when children receive real, measurable learning in the state’s 48,000 government primary schools.

Srinidhi Raghavendra (Bangalore)


Historic switchover

More than half a million class X students in Kerala are gearing up for the state board’s Secondary School Leaving Certificate (SSLC) examination in March with a lot of apprehension, as the education department has instituted a grading system in place of the rank system which has been operational in the state for decades.

The transition has not been smooth. The state examination board’s decision to introduce the grades system this academic year without adequate preparation has given rise to confusion and complaints among students and teachers alike. Mounting complaints forced the government to defer its implementation mid-way only to reintroduce it a month later, last September. The re-introduced grading system discards the evaluation of work experience and performance in arts and sports for the current year and reduces the marks for continuous internal evaluation from 20 to ten marks per subject.

Yet the birth pangs are not over. The latest is a controversy over the conduct of the information technology (IT) practical examination. Students have been rattled by the demand made by K. Sureshkumar director of the State Council of Education, Research and Training (SCERT) to cancel the examination on the ground that it’s not in sync with the curricular objectives prescribed.

The state government sought to end the controversy by removing Sureshkumar from the post, but the issues he raised have remained unaddressed. His main objection was that the question bank prepared for the examination covered only Microsoft’s Word, Excel and PowerPoint software programs. This contradicted the pedagogical and philosophical principles of the IT curriculum, argues Sureshkumar.

While the students and parents are worried about the credibility of the examination, political leaders have kicked off a new row by raising questions about the software programs being studied for the examination. The leader of the opposition in the state assembly V.S. Achutanandan alleges that the practical exam has been designed to help Microsoft establish monopoly in the education sector. Achutanandan, who is a strong advocate of free Linux software, has alleged corruption behind the exclusive choice of Microsoft programs for study and has demanded a high level inquiry into the curriculum formulation process.

On the whole students, parents and teachers have welcomed the grading system introduced by the state government with the objective of checking excessive competition. "The grading system will help students to develop their creative faculties. In the ranking system the greater emphasis was on memorisation skills," says Fr. Paul Mangad, principal of the Christ Nagar School in Thiruvananthapuram.

Likewise Rashid Kanicherry secretary of the All Kerala Teachers Association welcomes the grading system because in his opinion it will lead to a qualitative improvement in all round, holistic education. "We have brought out a handbook to help students and teachers to make a smooth transition to the grades system," he says.

However, students and parents are worried about the weightage given to in-school or internal assessment. "Biased teachers can punish students they don’t like by giving them low marks in internal assessment. We don’t know how the state examination will ensure this doesn’t happen," says Gopalakrishnan, father of a student preparing for the class X examination.

Though the government has set up complaint redressal systems at state and district levels to deal with the situation, parents are resigned to accepting an element of partiality in the evaluation system. Nevertheless students are the happiest constituency as most of them feel the new system will reduce the tension they experience as they scramble for high ranks under intensive parental pressure. This had in the past led to increased depression within the student community often culminating in suicides for which Kerala has acquired a national reputation.

T.K. Devasia (Thiruvananthapuram)