The good and the bad in Bengal’s primary education

The good and the bad in Bengal’s primary education

The good and the bad in Bengal’s primary educationReport, to be released by Nobel laureate Amartya Sen today, reveals a mixed bag of achievements and failures

In one of rural Bengal’s schools, a girl, whose identity has not been disclosed, had learning problems. Her teacher reported that she had no idea about counting and used to gaze at the field outside during her arithmetic classes. One day, she saw a man on stilts in the field during one of her classes and shouted: “Ran-pa, ran-pa, ami chorbo (Stilts, stilts: I’ll ride on them).” The teacher later arranged for a stilt and voila!

“I would bring [the ran-pa] and ask her to count the steps she took. What a surprise! Her progress in counting was unbelievably quick. In a few months she met all the requirements of her course,” the teacher said.

A few years ago, discussions on such anecdotes from parents, teachers, educationists, students and field notes from researchers brought together a group which sought to understand the achievements and failures of the primary education system in Bengal.

Collective efforts

“These collective efforts constitute Shiksha Alochana,” says Nobel laureate Prof. Amartya Sen, who will release the findings of these efforts in Kolkata on Tuesday in the form of a report titled “Primary Education in West Bengal: The Scope for Change” brought out by Pratichi Inistitute and Shiksha Alochona. The report marks the high points of the Bengal government’s achievements in the area of primary education, while underscoring the failures.

One achievement that the report of Pratichi Institute, founded in 1999 by Prof. Sen, unequivocally indicates is that access to primary education in West Bengal “has increased substantially”. Besides, the average pupil-teacher ratio has “dramatically improved” to 23:1. “…the State required a total of 217,320 teachers, whereas the actual number, including para-teachers and instructors, is 235,445. In other words, there are almost 8.3% more teachers than the minimum requirement…” the report notes. Yet, the ratio of teacher to students ranges from 1:14 to 1:44.

“Administrative failure in rationalising their distribution has resulted in shortage of teachers in almost 20% of government primary schools,” the report notes. Even worse, the proportion of single teacher schools “increased from 3.3% in 2014-15 to 4% in 2015-16”.

The other key problem, noted by the report, is access to schools. The government’s guideline suggests that the distance between a student’s residence and school has to be one kilometre in rural areas and 0.5 kilometre in urban areas.

“However, in West Bengal, and perhaps in many other States, these aspects seem not to have been considered while establishing new schools,” the reports notes. The reason, as explained by a senior Education Department official, is alarming. The decision to establish a new school “depends more or less on what the political leaders, across party affiliations, want. They like to establish a school in their own backyard.” As a result, 847 villages in the State “do not have a government-run primary school”.

Midday meal

Regarding the midday meal, the report notes that while “a decent meal would cost at least ₹₹ 7.17 per child per day, the present allocation is only₹₹4.13. “There is thus a deficit in conversion cost of ₹₹3.04 per child per day,” the report notes.

The report highlights another half-a-dozen serious problems ailing the State’s primary education, including severe inadequacy of fund for schools to “feeble academic planning” and the “menace of private tuitions”. Additionally, there are “constraints” in public participation and “uneven distribution of resources”.

But Prof. Sen is hopeful. “The progress of primary education in West Bengal gives us grounds for some satisfaction, but we cannot escape the diagnosis of a number of serious gaps, telling us about additional things that have to be done,” he says and concludes with his trademark caution: “Much would depend on the involvement and commitment of the teachers and their sense of confidence, and here we could not but observe a wide variation.

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