Over the years, the strengthening of the primary level of school education has remained a major challenge for the government. This is most probably the only area where the private schools take a lead in reforming the education sector at grassroots level.
The government primary schools across J&K, particularly in Srinagar district, are in complete shambles. Not to talk of learning outcomes of students, majority of the primary schools do not have required buildings, infrastructure and other recreational facilities for students. Over the past years, the government roped in dozens of NGOs and chalked out different strategies to revamp the primary education sector. But the poor implementation and the lukewarm response from parents and the officials at the grass root level played a spoilsport.
With the result, the government primary schools continue to remain a liability for the department. The Government of India launched erstwhile SSA scheme for opening of new primary schools with a hope to universalize the education at primary level. But the mandate of the scheme remained confined to the opening of schools and providing jobs. With the result, the government was forced to physically close 4400 out of newly established 10800 SSA schools in J&K.
The successive regimes in J&K did not focus on the primary education sector due to which the performance of the students remained poor, throwing a major challenge for the government to reform the primary education sector which forms the base of the whole education sector.
After the repeated failures of the successive regimes in bringing reforms in the education sector at primary level, the government apparently seems to have run out of ideas to bring reforms in the education sector at primary level. As a new experiment, the school education department has authorised the Panchayat Raj Institutions (PRIs) to monitor the overall functioning of the government primary schools.
The decision was taken in wake of the instructions passed by the Chief Secretary while taking a review meeting of centrally sponsored scheme Samagra Shiksha in J&K. As per the decision the local Sarpanch will be authorised to monitor the overall functioning of the primary schools in their respective areas.
From student enrollment to facilities available and from assessing the learning outcomes of students, the Sarpanch has been authorised to monitor all the school records and the attendance of the teachers in primary schools. Surprisingly, the decision has been taken for the improvisation of different interventions in education and monitoring of primary schools by PRIs.
The government has further authorised the PRIs to monitor the overall classroom environment and academic activities besides the space available for students. Besides monitoring early child care education in pre-primary classes the PRIs will also monitor the notebooks maintained by the students. The PRIs will also check the institutional plan, school records and village education register.
Going by the government guidelines issued to the Chief Education Officers (CEOs) and Zonal Education Officers (ZEOs), it seems that the PRIs are the lot of educationists and academicians whose mentorship over primary schools will really bring reforms at the ground level. But the fact is that most of the Sarpanchas are either completely unlettered and have been to schools in their life but have become the Sarpanchas of their respective areas because of their good fortunes.
The officers at the helm see the move as a positive development for revamping of schools at primary level. But it seems that the officers at the district level and zonal level have not given that much hype to the decision because of the adverse effects associated with the decision. The teachers who form the basic pillar in bringing reforms to the education sector at all levels are also unhappy with the government decision because of its implications at the ground level.
Given our past experience it is unlikely to yield any good results on the ground. In a situation where the academicians and highly qualified teachers, besides the IAS and KAS officers, have failed to rejuvenate the primary education sector, what can we expect from a Sarpanch who is neither an academic nor an administrator. From now onwards, these standalone primary schools of J&K, along with the staff, will be apparently under supervisory control of the PRIs of the concerned areas falling under their jurisdiction.
The Sarpanchas will be authorized to monitor the attendance and the overall functioning of these primary schools but that doesn't mean this supervisory control will bring reforms in the education sector overnight. For many years, the government of India has pumped in crores of rupees for building infrastructure for primary schools but the funds remained unutilized for some years and finally were surrendered to the government of India after facing cost escalation of the projects sanctioned by the MHRD.
The crux is that the basic structure and planning of the government for the primary education sector is full of flaws. The government policies on primary education lack proper planning, and the schools have been set up without following the required parameters. Instead of witnessing an increase in the enrolment the schools have maintained a downward trend in terms of student intake.
Taking governance to the grassroots level is good, but the government should always see all the aspects of its decisions, particularly in the case of education and health sectors which are craving for the government's attention.
Coming back to the point, the decision of the government to shift control of primary schools to Sarpanchas is likely to have adverse results because of so many reasons. One is fearful that at the end the situation might turn from bad to worse. The first and the foremost thing is the clash of egos between the highly qualified staff and the Sarpanchas who in most of the cases don't possess the same qualification as that of a teacher.
The teaching community, which is already a victim of identity crises, has been further ridiculed by making them subordinate to Sarpanchas. Given the annual allocation of funds from the government of India, the education department doesn't need the financial support for strengthening the school infrastructure but needs proper implementation of the schemes and interventions at grass root level. The education sector should be exempted from being handed over to different departments for the sake of revamping the system.
But now that the department has already ordered for shifting the control of primary schools to Sarpanchas, we can only hope that this new experiment brings some positive results instead of making the education sector a victim of grudges and ego because of the local politics involved in it. In the prevailing scenario, education at primary level has remained a liability for the government. It reveals that despite having highly qualified staff and crores of funds available, the government is yet to identify the actual areas of concern which need proper attention. Instead of shifting the control to Sarpanchas, the government should come up with some out of box solution to heal the ailing primary education sector.