Few weeks ago, the J&K lieutenant Governor Manoj Sinha stated that they are planning to merge 2000 more schools to streamline Pupil teacher Ratio (PTR) in the government schools.
The announcement took everybody by surprise as to why the government reached the conclusion of merging more schools. The government has stated that a school should at least have 15 students enrolled to function as a separate school. The School Education department has already started the process of merging 2000 schools- 1000 schools each from Kashmir and Jammu division as well.
This will be the second time that the government will go ahead with the rationalization of the schools to balance the PTR in schools. The decision has been taken in wake of the reports about the schools having meager enrollment of students. The decision to merge more schools exposes the flawed implementation of the successive regimes which used the benefits of the schemes for the political gains which marred the actual mandate of the scheme.
The erstwhile SSA scheme was launched in 2003 for universalization of elementary education in a time bound manner by providing free and compulsory education to all children falling in the age group six to 14 years. Under the scheme, new primary schools were opened besides up-gradation of schools to Upper Primary level.
As per the government policy a primary school should be available at a distance of one kilometer while the upper primary school should be available at a distance of three kilometers and a high school should be set up at a distance of five kilometers. Also, a higher secondary school should be available at a distance of seven kilometers from a child.
But contrary to it, after the inception of the SSA scheme in J&K, the successive regimes violated the set norms while announcing new schools which ultimately bounced back on the government after a passage of more than a decade. I remember when the government started rationalization of schools in 201 it was found that more than a dozen schools were set up within a radius of one kilometer in Baramulla district. The situation in other districts was no different than Baramulla.
The government opened new schools in a haphazard manner which resulted in dwindling of the enrolment in schools year after year. The basic reason for the downfall in the enrollment was the schools were not established as per the requirement and no set norms were followed as well. But the scheme was used to provide jobs and erect concrete structures to release the funds from the state exchequer.
From 2003 to 2015, the wrong doings had gone unnoticed and in 2015, some startling revelation came to fore wherein some schools had no students but more than five teachers were posted in such schools. Also, the schools were accommodated in residential houses of some teachers which were reflected as rented buildings hired by the government to impart education to the students.
To be more precise, the government had established ghost schools, which had no permanent campuses and had no students enrolled as well but existed only to provide salary to the teachers.
Amid these startling revelations the government in 2015 merged around 2400 SSA schools which had zero or meager enrollment of students. The decision was taken on the directions of the then education Minister Naeem Akhtar. The decision somehow proved fruitful as it helped the department to balance PTR in schools and provide adequate staff to the institutions to some extent as well.
Now six years later, the government has now decided to merge 2000 more schools to maintain PTR in schools. Another rationalization process of schools of schools is the evidence that the enrollment in schools is witnessing a dwindling trend.
No doubt these schools were needed at some point of time but it has become impossible for the government to have minimum enrolment in schools due to flawed implantation of the scheme.
If we go by the official figures around 10800 new primary schools were opened under the erstwhile SSA scheme from 2003 to 2019 and out of this 7081 were upgraded to the level of upper primary school.
But out of the total schools around 4400 schools will be physically closed due to meager enrollment. 2400 were merged in 2015 and now 2000 will be merged this year. So it means that 40 percent of schools which were not needed in J&K but were opened only to waste the state exchequer.
Besides the enrollment and recruitment of teachers, the civil work component of the scheme was driven by the vote bank. Since the inception of the scheme in J&K the successive regimes miserably failed to achieve the targets for completion of school buildings that were sanctioned by the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) till date. In most of the cases, the contractors left the buildings incomplete but they were given full money by the concerned ZEOs, reportedly, after taking suitable commission from these contractors. The contractors were no strangers but close aides of our former MLAs and ministers. Crux- the representatives used this component of the scheme to please their vote bank. Providing education was not a priority for them.
Amid the flawed practices adopted by the J&K authorities over the past years the government has been selling dreams of working on roadmaps and other interventions to revolutionize the education sector in J&K.
But the reality is that the scheme has failed to provide any fruitful result on the ground which is evident given the government decision to physically close around 2000 more schools.
From construction of school buildings to serving Mid-Day Meals to students, the scheme was blatantly mismanaged by the officials at the helm of affairs, as well as by the employees of the department. The happenings on ground are completely in contradiction with the motives and goals of the scheme.
The schools are being merged at a time when the department is beating the drums of having an increase in enrollment by around nine percent for the current academic session. Merger of schools is an open indication of how the SSA scheme which was aimed at universalisation of education has failed to take off in a right direction in J&K. The government should wake up to the issue and focus on strengthening the education sector, particularly at primary level which will set the base of the overall education scenario in J&K.