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One room, two teachers, six classes

By Burhan Majid

The state of elementary education in Kashmir is pathetic, says this reporter. Many believe that the funds for midday meals could be better utilised to improve infrastructure and the quality of education in the state

Elementary education in Kashmir

Information revealed by the State Project Directorate of the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA) shows that there are 10,921 elementary schools in Kashmir’s 10 districts. This exceeds the number of villages, which stand at around 5,000. Of the 10,921 elementary schools, 4,088 are rented, 6,155 are government buildings, and some are under construction. The recently compiled information also claims there are no dilapidated school buildings in the state.

However, on a visit to a school in south Kashmir’s Hassanpora village, Anantnag district, things seemed quite the reverse. The school, with six classes, operates out of a small dingy rented room. It has two teachers. It is a contradiction in terms -- one room, two teachers, six classes.

“Our school works under very difficult conditions, and we have no choice but to accept it,” says Ali Muhammed Dar, one of the two teachers. “The government (Directorate of SSA) is asking us to locate land for the building. What can we do? That is the job of the government,” he says angrily.

It’s the same story in the nearby village of Hafizabad. The school, with six classes from lower KG to fifth grade, works out of a small three-room dilapidated ‘building’. It has just two teachers. Children from two or three classes sit huddled together in a single room. “It is a mere formality,” says Sonuallah Kutay, an activist in the village.

Examples such as these are to be found right across the valley. Indeed, the word ‘building’ is a misnomer for Kashmir’s primary-level schools, although the government authorities appear to have no problem calling them such.

According to the information cited above, nearly half of Kashmir’s primary schools work out of rented buildings ranging from a single room to three rooms. Whether government-owned or rented, almost all are dilapidated. The matting on the floor is worn; there is no furniture.

Sanitation

The information given out by the directorate also hints at a substantial level of
sanitation in these schools. In most schools, however, it’s an unheard of concept. There are no toilets, no washrooms, very little privacy. Although towns have adequate sanitation, the villages don’t. In south Kashmir’s Bijbehara town, for instance, some schools do have sanitation. Karewa’s government primary school in this town has a toilet and a washroom. But even here, only a few other schools have these facilities.

Management

What’s more, the schoolchildren often have to do the job of cleaning and sweeping the school premises. They lay mats on the floor in the morning and roll them off every evening. The reason: there are no peons in primary schools so the burden shifts to the children. I have watched schoolchildren washing utensils after the midday meal at the government primary school in Hafizabad, in south Kashmir’s Anantnag district. Worse, there is tacit approval from the teachers who seem to enjoy the spectacle. But surely this is child labour in the guise of free education?

“The government is not putting proper effort into streamlining the management of these schools,” says Muhammed Yousuf Langoo, village head in Hafizabad. He says the schools have no headmaster who can be held responsible. “It is factors like these that are responsible for parents preferring private schools to government-run ones,” he concludes.

Indeed, it’s a common trend among parents in Kashmir to admit their wards to private schools which are said to have better facilities than those run by government. Lack of infrastructure apart, outdated teaching methods, outdated books, and the absence of libraries for children are other factors responsible for the trend. Rote learning and copying from the blackboard dominate the teaching methods at government schools.

“Education serves no purpose unless and until it is of quality, particularly in this technology-influenced world. The right to education necessarily means the right to quality education,” says Ajmal Farooq Gattoo, a teacher posted at the government middle school, Hafizabad. 

Unlike government schools, private schools have libraries with newspapers, and modern teaching equipment such as projectors. They also offer recreation and entertainment. At government schools, the children have to literally work at the expense of their education.

Out-of-school children

The information from the State Project Directorate reveals that there are presently 22,426 out-of-school children in the age-group 6-14 in Kashmir division. The actual figure could be even higher.

The provision of midday meals has been the subject of a lot of debate since the scheme was inaugurated. Ajmal Farooq believes there is no need for midday meals in Kashmir as there is no “classroom hunger” in the state, unlike the rest of India. “Yes, there may be a small percentage of schools,” he says, “where midday meals are relevant. The money utilised on midday meals should instead be used to develop infrastructure and provide quality education to the children,” he says.

Children with special needs

Despite laws assuring education to children with special needs, there are no signs of this obligation being fulfilled on the ground. Government-run schools have no special teachers who can teach children with disabilities. There are no ramps, no special seating arrangements and no modern-day techniques to teach disabled children. These children eventually drop out of school.

In Kashmir, disabled children in the age-group 6-14 constitute 2% of the total, according to recent census figures. Above 14 years, the number is as high as 8%.

Javaid Tak, who runs an NGO working for the disabled, also believes that around 80% of schools in Kashmir don’t need the midday meal provision and that the government should use the money for infrastructure and facilities for disabled children. Tak says disabled children see themselves as being further marginalised in government schools when it should be the other way around.

What officials say

New schemes are afoot to strengthen the elementary education setup in the state, says Urfana Jan, Programme Officer, Inclusive Education, SSA, Jammu and Kashmir. A number of schemes are reportedly awaiting central government approval. One such scheme aims at recruiting ‘education volunteers’ and ‘resource teachers’ who will assist in-service teachers in teaching disabled children. Another scheme that focuses on providing education to deprived children in major towns of the state is for urban deprived children. The latter is expected to remedy the high rate of out-of-school children.

“Also, there is continuous recruitment of teachers going on in the state and we hope all schools will get sufficient staff in the near future,” the official added.

(Burhan Majid is a Kashmir-based journalist)

Infochange News & Feat, May 2012