Opinion: Strengthening public school education – Telangana Today

By E Revathi and Venkatanarayana Motkuri
The State government has taken up an important task of strengthening public school education under the flagship programme of Mana Ooru-Mana Badi and Mana Basti-Mana Badi. In the aftermath of Covid 19, there has been a massive shift from private schooling to public schools due to loss in household incomes and/or closure of budget schools. It is opportune for the State to focus on school education to sustain the increasing enrolment in public schools. In the light of the intervention and strategic action plan, here are some key issues for strengthening the public school education system.
Key Challenges
Attendance rate among the school-age children in Telangana is almost saturated — 98% among 6-14 years and 88% among 15-17 years. The concern is that the children attending schools are not placed in age-appropriate classes. Enrolment in each class consists of both the under-aged and over-aged. Net enrolment ratio (NER) is measured by the enrolment of relevant age-cohort in a class/the age-cohort child population relevant to the level of education. For example, the NER of primary school is the ratio of the number of children of official primary school age who are enrolled in primary education to the total population of children of official primary school age expressed as a percentage. The State’s performance is low on this parameter. This arises due to low quality of schooling, difficulty in attending school or dropping out of school.
Primary schools must have a minimum of five teachers wherein each class can be engaged by one of the five teachers simultaneously. Deviating from this norm results in multi-grade teaching which is considered as normatively an undesirable outcome.
For middle and secondary sections (classes 6 to 10), subject-wise teachers are critical. One qualified teacher for each core-curricular subjects of Telugu, Hindi, English, Maths, Physics and Chemistry, Biology, Social Studies is a must. Besides, qualified teachers are also required for co-curricular subjects like physical education/sports, crafts, music and dance. The digital era necessitates the introduction of computers as one more core-subject.
Quality education also depends on infrastructure. Each class should have a separate classroom. Having enough classrooms with sufficient ventilation and required furniture (benches or desks) is a normative requirement in school education. There are 2.76 lakh classrooms in the State, a few thousand more than what is required (2.62 lakh). But government schools have a clear-cut deficit of 34,000 classrooms. There are some government schools which manage multiple classes in a single classroom.
Along with the concerns of minimum teaching-staff and classrooms, critical mass of minimum enrolment is crucial to achieving economic viability and efficiency of public investment,and low social cost. The enrolment size is very small in many schools in Telangana. Around 24,000 schools, comprising nearly 60% of the schools, in the State have enrolment from less than 100 students! Most (90%) such smaller schools are run by the local body or education department. Nearly 8,000 schools in Telangana have a total enrolment of less than 20, another 7,000 schools have 20 to 40 students, and 4,000 schools have 40 to 60 students. Together, 18,000 schools, comprising 44% of total schools, in the State have less than 60 students. Further, another 6,000 schools have enrolment in the range of 60 to 100. This means the pupil-teacher ratio (PTR) in these schools is much lesser (at <15) than half of the normative benchmark of 40 or 30.
Prevailing Paradox
Looking at the PTR criteria, it appears the existing teaching staff is more than sufficient. But if we consider the number of existing schools each with a minimum teaching staff irrespective of the size of enrolment, then the existing teaching staff is found to be inadequate. Similar is the case of classrooms. They they are found to be adequate going by the total enrolment criteria or a minimum number per school but not according to subject-wise classrooms. This is the prevailing paradox of the public school education system across the country, especially in rural areas.
Government schools in rural areas do have large catchments to get critical mass of minimum enrolment. But due to parental choice for quality education and as well as preference for the English medium, many children are sent to private schools. Other parental concerns are: low enrolment in government schools, inadequate teachers and absenteeism of teachers, inadequate classrooms along with other school infrastructure (labs, library) and facilities (toilets with running water, drinking water, etc). Poor governance and unaccountability are the core issues affecting the quality of education in public schools.
Universalised enrolment of school-age children in the State has been achieved due to the efforts of both public and private schools. However, the responsibility of sustaining and taking forward the momentum falls on public schools. With private education becoming costlier, closure of budget schools during the pandemic and falling household incomes, public schools have become the inevitable choice. It is in this context that they are made attractive to withstand competition from the private schools and gain critical mass of enrolment for their economic viability. There is also evidence that the bigger the size of the class, the better the outcomes. The introduction of English or bilingual medium of instruction could be a factor in this direction but more crucial is infrastructure and adequate teaching staff.
The State Cabinet’s decision to allocate a one-time public investment of Rs 7,289 crore covering 26,065 government schools at Rs 28 lakh per school is a timely move to support sustainability of public schools. The first phase with Rs 3,497.62 crore, covering 9,132 schools, offers Rs 38 lakh per school. It could be even higher if local funds are mobilised from the community, CSR and/or alumni contributions. The asset value created by this investment depends on the contracting system for construction/renovation of schools, whether it is a costs-to-cost or margin-based one, and whether has scope for leakages. Human resource is important too.
Cluster System
Rapid development in road connectivity and transportation facilities have improved mobility and provided large cluster of villages a readymade catchment for enterprising private schools even in remote corners of the State. In the light of the experience of social welfare residential schools, model schools, and KGBV schools which are performing better and for which there is a growing demand, the State government can experiment with large sized semi-residential schools with primary, middle and secondary sections from Class 1 to 10 in the same premises providing breakfast, lunch and evening snack to the children. Such schools one for a cluster of 4-5 villages can be set up along with transportation facility. It also provides an opportunity for better performance and accountability of teachers in view of peer surveillance.
This requires reorganising the existing system without much additional costs — teachers are already there and food costs can be met from existing mid-day-meal programme funds. Existing high school buildings in the cluster can be used for the purpose of the cluster school or if it does not suffice the need, it could be renovated and expanded with enough classrooms. Such renovation costs, along with transportation costs in coordination with Road Transport Corporation, could be the only additional expenditure towards this cluster model. The State can experiment with one or two large-sized semi-residential cluster schools per mandal to build alternative models for quality and sustainability of government schools.

(The authors are with the Research Cell on Education Planning, Policy and Governance, Centre for Economic and Social Studies, Hyderabad)
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