Thursday, June 09, 2016

What went wrong with school education in Bihar

by Ratnakar Tripathy

Just as we thought that the state of mass education in India at every level is too bad to shock us anymore, a rude jolt comes from Bihar where a Political Science topper in the class twelve exam with over 90 per cent score shook up the nation with a piece of news that will not go down our gullets for a long time. When a suspicious journalist asked Rubi Rai, the topper about her subjects, she muttered something that sounded like ‘Prodigal Science’. When asked to define what the science in question aimed at, her answer was ‘cooking’.  Similarly, the science topper Saurabh Shreshth claimed in front of the journalists that Aluminium is the most reactive among all the elements. Thankfully, the Bihar government has reacted to the news promptly and is already taking action at the topmost levels. CM Nitish Kumar has set up a special investigation team to look into this scandal and an FIR has been lodged against three Class XII toppers and Vaishali’s VR College Management as well examination and evaluation centre superintendents and teachers. While the news reports and analyses in the press seem to be shocked at the abysmal levels education in Bihar and in general in India have stooped too, I feel that such frauds will continue to turn up time and again with greater frequency in the coming days. It is easy for a discussion on education to degenerate into generalities in moments. So I will discuss my views specifically on what went wrong in Bihar despite the loud slogans of ‘good governance’.

Nitish Kumar who seems to be taking such stern action against the college authorities will be reluctant to admit that he is himself responsible for the way we have begun to look at education in the last few decades. Unlike Lalu Yadav who cared a fig for any kind of education at all, Nitish was keen to repair the educational setup in Bihar after he came to power.  But look at how he did it – he and his bureaucracy decided that in the first phase he must get all the kids inside the schools. He used bicycles and meals as the lure and these measures were not unsuccessful. But the educational planning was split into two stages – first the massive drive for high enrolments, after which a focus on quality. As a result it took him all of fifteen years to reach a point when he could even think of quality. In the meantime, a whole generation or more of students are out in the market, some of them turning into teachers with potentially lethal impact on the quality of education. Along with the enrolment drive of course, he decided to hire not thousands but lakhs of teachers on contractual basis, paying them salaries as low as Rs 5-6000 which was often paid late by 6-9 months. This ensured the teachers began to habitually depend on moonlighting for their livelihood, now an established practice in Bihar. I met dozens at a workshop that run grocery shops, flour mills and coaching classes during the school hours. In my experience the quality of the teachers was far from bad but they were people with seriously diminished self-respect. Nitish has ended up creating a whole cadre of these in Bihar in the last decade or so. The salaries have increased a bit now but it seems too late to repair the morale of the teaching community.

To go back to the issue of quality, the original plan was to first ensure quantity, meaning percentage of enrolment and then plan out the quality inputs – but this is disastrous. It is also a very mechanical way of thinking, a bane of planning in our times. At the end of the day, students are drawn to classes not because of bicycles or meals but the learning they receive in the classrooms. So what has happened in Bihar is a fracture of planning followed by a fracture and mangling of the education system that will take forever to repair. The reason is even if education in Bihar during the Lalu years was in a bad shape, we still had a rudimentary ‘culture’ of education in that the common man in Bihar knew what to expect of good education. Nitsh’ good governance has decimated this culture of education from Bihar and demotivated a whole generation of teachers. During the last few years when the contractual teachers agitated for better salaries, they were chased around the Patna roads and beaten up on a regular basis. The damage was more than physical.

No wonder today’s news carries a statement by Nitish claiming ‘When I assumed office in 2005, 12.5% students were out of school. Today that figure has dropped to 0.86%. Our first phase was to bring students to school for which we started the cycle yojana and uniform scheme. Now, our focus is on quality education’. Clearly the attitude has not changed and the Bihar CM is unable to see the long term damage he has done to his own cause, easily losing two to three generations of students to bad education. The same news report also has him calling the great mathematics coach of Bihar Anand Kumar the ‘face of Bihar’ – Anand Kumar runs a glamourized version of a cramming school, not unlike the coaching industry in Kota, and gets Bihari students into IITs. It may or may not be a worthwhile task depending on your viewpoint but do consider what it does to our IITs in the long run. So by splitting quality and quantity into two planning modules, we have ensured that there will be more Ruby Rais in the future endlessly, and the governments will continue to wonder what went wrong.  In the meantime, it is the likes of Anand Kumar, the Narayana Schools, the Kota gurus to take over the entire school system and turn our school system into a cramming factory at best or a V R College from Vaishali that is producing toppers like a rampant malignancy.

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