Is there a reason for hope?
The fact is that our education system is depressing, but we cannot lose hope. Improvement could take long, but it will happen
The last 70km to Barmer, driving from Sirohi, was through the desert. This is not the romantic sand dunes of our imagination, but a landscape of clumpy shrubs across sandy undulating plains, with the occasional hillock. I cannot recollect even one village that we crossed. The stretch was sparsely dotted with the dhanis—clusters of a few houses—too small to be even called a hamlet.
The winter evening and the setting sun made this hard landscape beautiful. The beauty couldn't hide the demands of living there. Pleasantly incongruous were the schools. Every 5-6km, we would cross the neat building of a government school. Their stone walls and faint pink cladding made them look cheerful. Each had a nice compound, with its own playfield.
In that 70km stretch there was nothing else—just the dhanis and the schools. For me that is reason for hope. Schools are there, where there isn't much else.
In three days as I drove around south-western Rajasthan, I would have seen 75 schools. All government schools, all with one or two teachers. Only two of them were not working. The rest were open, children and teachers at work. By any standards of human development, this region would be classified as among the most disadvantaged and difficult in the country. But schools are there and they function.
Why am I writing about hope? Three reasons: one, despite the shambles that our education system is, there is indeed reason for hope; two, this hope energizes, and places in context our strengths and weaknesses; three, my wife has been telling me "your columns have become depressing". The fact is that our education system is depressing, but we cannot lose hope. Let me recount some more reasons for hope from this short trip in Rajasthan/
There are good, committed and thinking people at all levels in the government education system. I met three of them in the haveli that serves as the office of the district education officer (DEO) in Rajsamand. They were the DEO, the head of the district Rashtriya Madhyamik Shiksha Abhiyan and the assistant project officer for the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan - they were full of ideas and curiosity, not what most people expect of government education officers. Their sensitivity to the issues of adolescent girls and the inequity that they face was remarkable. They were intensely focused on how to improve their schools, despite the 30% shortage of teachers that they face.
The next day I met Shankar Lal Bunkar, headmaster of government upper primary school, Malipura. His school has a certain order that most schools will be envious of. He engages with the local communities in a way that he gets them to own the school. One sarpanch (village head) from a nearby village was surprised by the quality of furniture in the school; Bunkar had to explain to him that he got people of another village to sponsor the furniture. He didn't crib about anything. Like any good leader, he makes the best of his circumstances by seizing the initiative and being positive.
We have been working in two districts in Rajasthan for five years—Sirohi and Tonk. The two districts have 17 voluntary teacher learning forums. The teachers meet on Sundays or sometimes after school hours. The discussions are on academic issues, on how to be better teachers. Scores of these teachers attend capacity-building workshops, which stretch over long weekends, completely voluntarily. The two districts have about 8,000 teachers, and 800 of them are involved with these voluntary forums. Eight hundred of the much-maligned government school teachers showing up on Sundays—completely voluntarily—to improve education. What else do you need for hope?
From the DEO at Rajsamand to these teachers, there are many good men and women in the system. There are enough of them to make one believe that things will improve over time. I met two of these good men in the government primary school in Aabela. Govind Meghwal and Kanti Lal Meena are teachers in their mid 30s. One of the walls in their school has a neat chart with all the achievements of the schools listed. A class V girl won the class VIII inter-district English competition, the "learning excellence" award that was bestowed on the school, wins in district-level athletic meets and many more.
These two teachers are so good that they often function as resource persons (facilitators) in our workshops. I asked them my standard question: "So why do you do all this, what drives you?" They could sort of complete each other's sentences. They said: "…the government pays us a good salary, so we must do our job. And when we try to teach better—we ourselves learn. And our conscience, it tells us that we must do our best, these kids are in our hands."
It's an answer that I have heard so often from so many people that I am very hopeful: improvement in school education could take long, but it will happen.