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Good Governance Day: How Modi Govt's School Consolidation Strategy Threatens Vajpayee’s Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan legacy

We need to retain small schools in rural areas not just to uphold the legacy of Vajpayee’s SSA but also to successfully achieve the objectives of Narendra Modi’s New Education Policy.

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As one celebrates Good Governance day to honour Former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, it is time to remember his contribution to the school education in the form of Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA). The first draft of the Right to Education Act (RTE) was put together during his tenure as the Prime Minister of India. Many might remember SSA through ‘School Chale Hum’ ads on the TV, but behind it was India’s most successful school education scheme which formed the bedrock for India’s educational transformation. 

What made SSA an effective intervention in education governance

Vajpayee government’s commitment to ensuing that every Indian 6-14 years old child receives free and compulsory education formed and strengthened India’s push towards universalisation of education. India can now dream of ensuring 50% Gross Enrolment Rate in tertiary education by 2035 under the National Education Policy (NEP), because it first set itself the target of universalizing elementary education under SSA. When Manmohan Singh’s UPA later combined the two tools envisaged in the Vajpayee era - SSA and the RTE act, India finally saw a revolutionary change in the field of education.

At the heart of SSA’s success was the simple commitment of the Indian State to ensure availability of a quality primary school within a walking distance of 1 kilometer from the children’s residence; for upper Primary school (Class 6-8) it should be within a walking distance of 3 kilometer. 

Why education accessibility gains under SSA and RTE are under threat? 

Two decades later, SSA and RTE’s very foundation is at risk with the central and state governments pushing for permanent closure and merger of low-enrollment schools in remote areas. The plan which has been termed by the central government as ‘ School rationalisation’  targets the small schools which gave confidence to India’s parents from marginalized communities to send their children to school by terming them inefficient and wasteful. It has been a silent creep of each state ordering closure slow.  The RTE Forum, a coalition of around 10,000 organisations working on education in 20 states across India estimates that over a one lakh government schools have been closed or merged in the country between 2010 and 2020.

It is doubly tragic to see it happen this year. Odisha, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar and Gujarat and a host of other states have reacted to the gradual lifting of lockdowns by ordering some of their government schools closed for good. Thousands of children in India will already never see school again on the back of the economic crisis. The government is adding to their pain by depriving them of their school by labelling it unnecessary. 

Mergers are undoing legacy of universalization and exacerbating educational inequality among India’s poor, Adivasi, girls and children with disability

Studies into the impact of mergers show it decreases enrolment.  Rajasthan, one of the first states to consolidate schools at scale, saw a 7% fall in enrolment in consolidated schools (compared to 1.4% for the rest of the states). The move hit children with disability hardest, contributing to a 22% decline in enrolment. Girls were 4% more likely to dropout than boys. SC and ST students were hard hit. 

Villages which have ‘small’ schools are more disadvantaged in terms of essential public services such as all-weather roads and government health facilities or banks and post offices. Additionally, these villages are less likely to have an alternative to the ‘small’ school, either government or private. Accordingly, schools likely to be closed are likely to be the poorest and deprive children of already marginalized and excluded communities of access to nearby alternatives. India’s Tribals and Dalits live in scattered and remote areas, hitting their populations hardest. In the recent closure of schools in Odisha, in the Ramanguda block of Rayagada district in Odisha 45% schools were ordered merged.

Closure decisions are discriminatory and the measure risks putting the education of Adivasis, girls and children with disabilities at particular risk. In Odisha, closure left some of the children, some as young as 10 with no resort but to be admitted in residential schools at considerable distance from their homes, disrupting normal family life growing up. 

It does so without evidence of improvement in learning outcomes and ignores benefits of small schools Research shows that despite differences in facilities between small and larger schools, there are no differences in eventual learning outcomes between them. School closure risks hardship and risk dropout without demonstrating significant improvement in learning or quality of education. Furthermore, smaller school sizes offer scope of building stronger interpersonal relationship between student and teachers and ensuring focused attention to each student. This can improve the quality education, if done properly. The problem with India’s education is the inadequate teacher preparation where many schools lack adequate professional qualifications, not the fact that India has committed to ensure that is has enough schools to reach to all of its scattered population. 

Risks accelerating move from government to private schools

A study on the consequences of closure decisions in various states highlights that merger risks increasing enrolment in private schools forcing poor parents to pay to receive education that they would have otherwise received as a right, free and in their neighbourhood. In so doing, it risks further weakening India’s public education system and feeding privatization of education.  

Closing schools in rural areas when we need them the most is bad governance

India saw a significant demographic shift because of migrant workers’ return to rural areas. By some estimates, Odisha alone saw about seven lakh people return to the state at the beginning of the lockdown, many of them travelling with their children.  In many instances, children of migrants have been enrolled in schools identified for closure/merger making them no longer “unviable” or children who returned became child labourers in the face of prolonged COVID related closure of schools.   The economic crisis has also pushed many low fees private schools to close and it would be critical to ensure government schools are open to absorb this new enrollment. Accordingly, official pre-COVID enrollment figures may not reflect the true picture of children relying on a particular school for enrollment.

Small schools: critical for ensuring distancing requirements in the pandemic

The coronavirus pandemic imposed severe distancing requirements. Maintaining physical distancing is possible only in small low enrolment schools with small, more manageable school strengths. Doing so is particularly important given the evidence of children and young people being potential carriers and even super-spreaders of the infection. Accordingly, if the state is contemplating unlocking and re-opening of schools, it would be critical to retain small schools to prevent spread of disease. Indeed, tribal states like Chhattisgarh have been promoting mohalla classes, with the teacher going to individual hamlets to ensure uninterrupted instruction. This may not be the right time to bring children together into large, more difficult to manage groups. 

The move is opposed by children, parents, teachers and civil society

A school is not only a place of delivery of education but has strong social and emotional connect with the community. Communities are usually not consulted in the decisions of closure. As a result, the decision has been marked by protests by villagers who have submitted memorandums to concerned officials. In other places children themselves have led protest. It is time Narendra Modi led government listened to the voice of India’s children, just like the way Vajpayee did by giving the call of ‘School Chalein Hum’.

In conclusion

The government has an obligation to run quality schools for all. At a time when COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdowns, over 12 crore Indians have lost their jobs and 84% households have suffered a loss in monthly income it is not the time to add to the climate of social uncertainty.  We need to retain small schools in rural areas not just to uphold the legacy of Vajpayee’s SSA but also to successfully achieve the objectives of Narendra Modi’s New Education Policy.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.

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Anjela Taneja

Anjela Taneja leads the work on education, health and inequality at Oxfam India. She is one of the founder members of the RTE Forum, India's largest education network, and coordinates the Fight Inequality Alliance in India.

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