Last year, Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav carried out a surprise inspection of a primary school at Mohanlalganj near Lucknow. After interacting with students, he admitted that the teaching at the school was not up to standard. “In many such schools, teachers are not competent,” he said. “But we cannot take action against them all the time.”
On August 18 this year, the Allahabad High Court took note of the rickety primary education system in Uttar Pradesh. In a historic, and unusual, verdict on a slew of writ petitions challenging the selection process for teachers for government-run schools, the court directed the state government to ensure that elected representatives, government employees, members of the judiciary and any person drawing salary from the public exchequer send their children to government-run schools. “Only then would they be serious enough to look into the requirements of these schools and ensure that they are run in good condition,” said Justice Sudhir Agarwal, who passed the judgment.
The government has been given six months to formulate a policy, implement the order and file a compliance report. “If any government servant continues to send his child to a private school, he would have to deposit with the state exchequer an amount equal to the school fees every month,” said the court. “Besides, the [salary] increment and promotion for such personnel may also be stopped for a limited period of time.”
The court’s strictures have exposed the pitiable condition of primary education in Uttar Pradesh. Government-run schools in the state are short of nearly three lakh teachers. There are just three teachers per primary school on an average. The court held that the only way to improve the situation was to make government servants and legislators send their wards to such schools.
Politicians and bureaucrats have shown more faith in private schools than in schools run by the government. Children of most legislators and officials study in private schools. Yogesh Pratap Singh and Wasim Ahmed, ministers of state for primary education, chose private schools to educate their children. Even those who are on the bottom of the bureaucratic ladder prefer to send their children to private schools. Take, for instance, the case of Surendra, a peon at the district social welfare department in Lucknow. His monthly salary is a meagre Rs6,000, but his children study at a private school.
The High Court order has raised a furore among politicians and bureaucrats in the state. The state government has welcomed it, with Basic Education Minister Ram Govind Chaudhary saying there could not be a better opportunity to improve the standard of primary education. “There have been constant efforts to improve the quality of teaching in government schools. The verdict will improve the conditions and end the discrimination between government and private schools,” said Chaudhary. Some IAS officers who spoke to THE WEEK, however, said their association was pressuring the government to challenge the verdict.
Whatever be the fate of the order, the fact is that conditions at government schools, especially the ones in rural areas, are horrible. A survey conducted last year by an organisation called Asar showed that 91 per cent primary students in government schools in the state could not read one sentence in English correctly. Also, 67 per cent of class four students could not read Hindi lessons for class two, and 44 per cent of class five students could not read books meant for class two students. Mathematics was a nightmare, as many primary students could not even recognise numbers. Around 73 per cent students could not write down numbers from 0 to 99.
The infrastructure in government schools is extremely poor. According to a recent survey by an organisation called Score, more than 26,000 government-run primary schools operated out of just one room, and about 21 per cent teachers there were perennially absent. As many as 4,500 government schools did not have proper drinking water facilities, and about 7,000 schools had no toilets.
This is despite the huge amount the government spends every year on primary education. The 2015-16 state budget allocated Rs32,500 crore for education, while the Union government gave Rs15,000 crore to schools in the state under the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan.
At a recent seminar in Lucknow, school principals unanimously expressed their concern over the extremely poor conditions in government schools. “Government schools are in very bad shape,” said one of them. “Many schools do not have proper furniture, laboratories, libraries or adequate chemicals to conduct chemistry practicals. Conducting cultural programmes and examinations is an uphill task.”
Many government-run primary schools do not have proper buildings—they operate out of community centres or temporary structures with tin roofs. Even schools in urban areas are not better off. Students at a school near the UP assembly building in Lucknow, for instance, study in the suffocating shade of a tin roof. During the rains, the school is flooded as its premises are below road level. There are 226 students and 26 teachers. The classrooms are in bad shape, and the school does not have a proper library or laboratory.
The number of ramshackle schools in Lucknow alone is high. A primary school at Gaughat runs out of a community centre. There are two rooms for 138 students. As the school does not have a boundary wall, drunkards and gamblers have made it their recreational spot. The ambience is so vitiated that studying there is virtually impossible.
Another school at Barafkhana has 237 students. Because of lack of space, the children are forced to sit and study in one room. Sometimes, classes are conducted under the scorching sun. The primary school at Mishribagh does not have its own building. As many as 150 children, of classes one to five, take lessons in a room in a community centre. A school at Baraulia, too, runs from a single room, which is too small accommodate the 77 students there. Dangling from the roof is a showpiece—a rickety fan that almost never works.
Teachers who spoke to THE WEEK said the government was just not interested in improving the situation. “Primary education is not a priority of the government,” said a teacher. “Though they have the money, the authorities lack the vision and the will to improve infrastructure and quality of teaching.”
Academic parameters at these schools are almost absent. Teachers are not monitored to ensure that they complete the syllabus. Around 25 per cent schools in Lucknow district are overcrowded; the teacher-student ratio in many schools is way below standards. In fact, there are schools that have as many as 500 students and less than five teachers. If this is the situation in Lucknow, one can only imagine the plight of students at government schools in remote areas.
In 2007, the government decided to shift schools that did not have their own buildings to community centres. It promised that new buildings for such schools would soon be constructed. Eight years since, there is no sign that the promise would be kept.
When asked about the recent High Court order, district education officer Praveen Mani said, “We are yet to receive it. We will work according to the directives of senior officials once we get the order. Lack of resources affects the quality of teaching in government schools. Efforts are on to improve the situation.”
As bureaucrats resort to platitudes, the court order has given the opposition fresh ammunition to attack the government. “The government should implement the court order without delay,” said BJP state president Laxmikant Bajpai. “And it should not appeal the decision in a higher court.”
Said Bahujan Samaj Party leader Naseemuddin Siddiqi: “Not only the High Court, but also the Supreme Court is keeping an eye on the crumbling basic education structure in the state. The government is unlikely to get any relief even if it moves a higher court.”
For its part, the government has swung into action. It has asked basic shiksha adhikaris (education officers) and district inspectors of schools to inspect 20 to 25 schools every month and submit their reports. It has also directed them to ensure that semi-annual and annual examinations are conducted to rate the performance of students.