Kannada, Kannadiga, Kannadigaru, Karnataka,

Kannadigarella ondaagi Kannadavannu ulisona, kalisona and belesona

Effective Government Schools

Effective Government Schools

by Melliyal Annamalai

Editorial SummaryThis article raises some pertinent and less talked about concerns about government schools in India. It stresses that flawed education policies cannot be blamed for many of our government schools’ problems, and one has to address the issues of implementation and people involved in implementation of schools’ curricula, teaching methodology, and administration. The author convincingly argues that factors influencing apathy of teachers, orientation of parents and local governing bodies can possibly be addressed by directly working on procedures relating to ownership and control of school administration, criteria for selection of school teachers, teacher-student interaction, and teacher-parent interaction.

Should education be the responsibility of the government or solely the responsibility of the community? There are a wide variety of perspectives on this issue, ranging from complete community control to complete government control. This article is based on the premise that it is the obligation of the government to provide education to all its citizens, just as it is its obligation to provide security to all its citizens. Defense is accepted to be something the government must provide for national security. Similarly education is the responsibility of the government for the social security of its citizens. This does not mean that the government retains control over everything in the education system. The government’s role may be that of facilitation and intervention, but not of control. Finances may be provided by the government to schools, but managed by the community – local management (day-to-day running of schools), hiring of teachers, introducing locally relevant curriculum material, ensuring universal enrollment etc. Management by the community will protect against bureaucratic apathy, inefficiency and corruption. Government control has the advantage of ensuring adherence to a standard – to protect against undesirable forces such as fundamentalist forces taking control of schools (assuming of course, that the government is fair (and neutral), which is not necessarily the case. That is an entirely different discussion which the article will not get into).

When we talk of government schools, what comes to mind is a dark and dirty building, paint peeling off, chipped blackboards, large scale teacher absenteeism. Schools pretty much most middle class children have nothing to do with. But schools which are the only ones accessible to a vast majority of the population. Schools where enrollment is 100% in class I (in states such as Tamil Nadu) and only 40% or so remain by class V. The rest drop out. Government schools clearly have various problems. Let us examine just a few:

  1. Teachers appointed are not local. They commute from nearby urban cities. As an example in all government schools in villages around Mysore the teachers commute from Mysore. Even at a school as far as 60 kms away from Bangalore the teachers commute from Bangalore! They want to stay in the cities for better amenities and better facilities (schools, hospitals, exposure) for their children. This is not conducive for quality teaching. The teachers have a long commute, cannot stay after school hours for meeting with parents, and worst of all, do not have any feeling of identity with the village community. They are ‘urban’ and hence ‘superior’ to ‘rural’ folk. This attitude manifests itself in various ways – the dedication to their job, their treatment of children, their treatment of the parents, their connection to the school.
  2. Teacher quality. The social background of teachers contributes to their having no knowledge of the environment in the home of a first generation learner. They have little or no knowledge of the gap between the school and the home of these children and hence have no empathy and take no extra measures to address that issue. Teacher training is of poor quality in general, and do not take such issues into account.
  3. High teacher absenteeism. In spite of drawing high salaries, teachers seem to have very low levels of motivation to their jobs and their professions. Their job is viewed simply as a job. As discussed above they do not identify themselves with the villagers, and the government system does not allow any kind of accountability to be built into it. Processes like school inspection merely mean another set of unmotivated government employees who can be circumvented by corruption. It is very hard to check blatant absenteeism in this environment.
  4. Unimaginative curriculum. This is known to anyone working in the field of education. Teaching is based on rote-memorization and has no relevance to the student’s environment. Also, India has diverse cultures and groups of people – a uniform curriculum biased towards the middle class alienates others who don’t belong to that class.
  5. Very poor infrastructure. Again this is common knowledge. Decrepit buildings, leaking roofs, not enough pacca classrooms, no libraries, no educational tools, no toilets, no drinking water – these are very common in many schools across the country.
  6. Centralization. Bureaucratic control of the school education system is centralized. Decisions are made by some far of bureaucrat who might not be aware of the local situation. It also makes it difficult for parents to addresses any grievances and to suggest changes. The rigid system disallows any attempt to make local changes to the functioning, curriculum, hiring of teachers.

One is tempted to say that the government policies have completely and utterly failed, when they have resulted in a system with problems such as those described above (and more). It is true that the government policies have flaws. But they cannot be blamed entirely. The implementation of the policies, and the various powerful forces that come into play during implementation are also to blame for the current failures in the system.


Teaching is a privileged position because of the relatively high salaries and favorable terms of employment. The job market being the way it is in India, teaching jobs are highly sought after – they are secure jobs and have convenient hours. The economically privileged classes are in a better position to get these jobs, and they do, irrespective of whether they have an aptitude for it or not. Though reservations and other schemes have helped in getting some diversity into the teaching profession, the upper castes are still over-represented. Many are urban based. Even teachers who might be from a rural area choose to live in a urban city when their economic status (made possible by their salaries as a teacher) allows them to do so, for better amenities for themselves and their children. There is a sharp gender bias too – only 21% of teachers in primary schools are female. So in summary, the economically privileged, upper caste males tend to get teaching jobs more easily.

The government requirement for hiring teachers is not very high. For primary school teachers, a high school certificate, with a teacher training program (Basic Training Course) is sufficient, which applicants from the underprivileged classes and castes might easily possess. But the job market being the way it is today, there are plenty of candidates with higher qualifications available – B.A even an M.A. In the bureaucratic selection process, a candidate with a higher qualification, when available, is selected. It might be more probable that this ‘better qualified’ candidate comes from the privileged classes. Worse, the B.A or the M.A degree does not have any relevance to the job, and even the B.Ed degree is more relevant for secondary school teachers. This is an example of a sound government guideline, which recognizes that a high school certificate with the Basic Training Course is sufficient for teaching primary school children, being preempted by other forces in the job market and blind implementation which assumes that more the formal qualifications, better he or she is suited for the job.

Teacher training programs are inadequate. Good training programs might compensate for the lack of teaching in the qualified teacher’s background. The material used is often outdated, and worse, is designed with the middle class in mind. The training programs do not take into consideration special needs of a first generation learner, leading to large number of dropouts. The teacher training programs should have a special focus on primary children, especially first-generation learners and not be biased towards the middle class. Delhi University has attempted to introduce a teacher training course for primary school teachers but it has not met with the approval of the University Grants Commission. Government guidelines are not followed up with appropriate actions.

High Teacher Absenteeism

The government system, while ensuring job security, makes it very difficult for any kind of accountability to be incorporated. Powerful teacher unions have ensured promotions based on seniority and additional degrees and not performance. It is virtually impossible for an education department official to do anything about it. Recent attempts to improve the situation with community involvement is described under the decentralization section below.

Unimaginative Curriculum

The curriculum, for both privileged and under-privileged children, is void of any kind of material which would make learning interesting for the child. Government reports have long focused on this issue, starting with the Kothari Commission in 1968. They have bemoaned the large loads of books children carry to school, and the rote memorization which is the main mode of learning. But other aspects of the education system in India have unfortunately not kept up with this – such as examinations. Examinations are the single most important thing for ‘success’ in life. One needs an examination to get the high school certificate, to get admission to college, to get a job, to get into the civil services. Doing well in an examination is of utmost importance. Towards this end, all schools, especially middle class ones, focus on the best way to do well in an examination at the cost of actual learning. The examinations, unfortunately, do not test real learning, but test facts. Often these facts have to be written down in a precise manner which the examiner is used to, to get high marks. Given this situation, it is not surprising that ‘good’ schools focus on getting high marks.

Poor parents often view middle class folks as models of success and want their children to get a ‘job’. The route to get a job is filled with examinations, and so are themselves are happy with a teaching method of rote memorization if examinations can be passed easily. Recent attempts by the government to introduce better teaching techniques such as the joyful learning techniques can be seen in the DPEP (District Primary Education Program) scheme of the 90s. Using these techniques, teachers supplement the curriculum with their own material and teaching methods. However, the effect it had on the parents was interesting. The parents have a preconceived notion of learning, and this is reinforced by what they see among middle class students. In many DPEP schools the parents complained saying ‘the teachers send their children to English medium schools but have our children dance like donkeys’. And ‘ my daughter is class V and is learning of elephants and rabbits’. It is very hard to change what the parents want from education, and is especially hard for middle class parents who would much rather follow the tried and tested path to ‘success’.

Poor parents also want to follow the middle class desire for English medium, or the medium of the powerful language in the region. A ‘powerful’ language meaning a language which opens up more opportunities for a ‘job’. Research in educational techniques has shown extensively that learning during the early years must be through the mother tongue, the language of the home/early childhood; that language bridges the home with the school, followed by gradual switching to the dominant language of the region, the switching being woven into the curriculum. Government schools follow this to a large extent. In Karnataka, all government primary schools use Kannada medium. But people who can afford it, the middle class, choose to go to private English medium schools. Going to an ‘English medium’ school carries with it so much status. There is nothing wrong in wishing to learn English, or the dominant language. One can learn a language while the medium of instruction is the mother tongue. But the desire for English medium (which is rightly not recommended by the government policy) has contributed to the large scale exodus of the middle class from government schools. And the poor follow suit when they can afford it. And fail because there is no reinforcement of English outside the classroom.

Poor Infrastructure

The school is hardly a place where a child will want to go willingly. The school building is usually bare, often dilapidated, even filthy, no attractive pictures on the walls or any kind of teaching aids. The reasons given by the Karnataka government are interesting. 90% of the education budget goes for teacher salaries, leaving very little for other improvements. The teachers’ unions have been partly responsible for a disproportionate amount of the education budget going towards salaries. Government revises the pay scales periodically, but the education budget is not revised correspondingly.


Decentralization is a complex issue. Government policy makers in recent times have moved towards decentralization through community involvement in schools through local government bodies. The DPEP program heavily stressed Village Education Committees which would have both teachers and parents as members. State governments have attempted, through various schemes, to bring about more community control of schools. Implementation of these schemes however is a telling illustration of the complex factors that influence the education system today.

In Tamil Nadu for example, the panchayat was put in charge of teachers. It is far easier for a local person to build some accountability among the teachers, instead of a far-off government bureaucrat. It was hoped that the teacher’s performance would improve. The teachers did not like it at all (the panchayat leaders were also a bit at fault because were cases of misuse of power over the teachers). The teachers’ unions fought against this and won, and control was transferred back to the far-off government bureaucrat. The teachers are happy, the bureaucrats are happy to regain control, the losers are the children.

The Karnataka government wanted to transfer management of schools, including payment of salary to the panchayats. The teachers feared misuse of power by the panchayat leaders and a consequent cut in salary and opposed the move. The government has now dropped it. The government has now started school improvement committees in village schools whose members consist of panchayat leaders and parents. Things such as teacher’s leave has to be approved by this committee. Some verbal reports say that teacher absenteeism has come down after formation of these committees. But teachers find it undignified to ask ‘illiterate’ parents for things such as leave (they don’t resent this when they have to ask a education department official who can be considered to be the same class as them), and are opposing this structure. If they win, its yet another loss in the attempt to decentralize education. This is not to say that there will be no corruption at the local level, but corruption at the local level can be relatively easily discerned and corrected than corruption in a distant government office.

There are however, several cases of successful execution of decentralization schemes. The school in the village of Khetolai in Rajasthan is one example. Initiation by the Sarpanchs and parental involvement and commitment have contributed to a school which is the best government school in Jaisalmer district and the ninth best in Rajasthan. Teachers appreciate the support of parents. The economic prosperity of the parents in the last two decades might have contributed to the teachers feeling less of a divide. In Himachal Pradesh, there is cooperative action amongst parents and between parents and teachers with respect to functioning of the school. Parental vigilance has resulted in accountability in the system. The community participation seen here is not through formal structures such as the panchayat, or parent-teacher committees, but through informal channels. It is possible that this model works because of the relatively small social distance (in terms of educational level and economic status) between teachers and parents in Himachal Pradesh. To the teacher, what the community thinks of him or her is important. If a school does not function well, the whole village community has a stake in solving the problem, not just the privileged part of the village.

It has to be kept in mind that community control of schools need not be simple and straightforward as doing what the community wants. The community may want education that increases the market value of the students and pay little attention to inculcating the values of social justice and equality. It may not be the ‘right thing’ to always go along with what the community wants which could be English medium or professional education at the cost of science and humanities education or non-secular education with a bias towards one religion. Interaction with the community might be essential to illustrate the pros and cons of the various things they want.

Functioning Government Educational Institutions

Let us now take a look at some government educational institutions which function extremely well.

There are three kinds of institution with regard to relation with the government: funded and administered by govt., funded by government and administered by other bodies which are constituted by the government or elected, funded by non-government bodies including individuals and administered by bodies nominated by the fund giver or elected. The first and second kinds are relevant to this article, the third kind covers private schools.

Government schools come under the first group. As discussed above the problems here are that funding is limited, accountability is lacking with government administration, motivation to excel is lacking since promotion is based on seniority and since most of these institutions are in poor areas the disparity in status between the teachers and parents is large leading to very little constructive interaction between them. However consider the example of Kendriya Vidyalayas. They are government schools. But they are mostly located near towns and the teachers live in that town. Many middle class children go to these schools and the teachers don’t feel superior to them. Perhaps funds are allocated more smoothly by bureaucrats since several of their own children go to that school. Many would agree that Kendriya Vidyalayas are good schools. This again illustrates that if the community whose children go to school are the ones who manage the school, there is potential for tremendous improvement.

Government aided schools, most universities, IITs, IIMs belong to the second category. Here accountability is strong. The reasons for lethargy on the part of teachers (lack of motivation to excel and disparity in status) are not there. Because of the community it caters to (privileged and powerful) sufficient funds are available. Most people would agree that IITs are excellent educational institutions – yet they are not private, but government institutions. The government institutions are managed with accountability. Autonomy (a form of decentralization) given to universities, IITs and IIMs gives the administration of the institutions to the local bodies who have the freedom to innovate and power to effect change. In universities the governing bodies like the academic council and the senate have members from the teaching community of the university (though the syndicate has political appointees). There is some risk, however, in having autonomous schools like autonomous colleges – the elected body may be sectarian or feudal or both. There are however, several bad examples in this category also – aided schools and universities that are bad because the management is inefficient or corrupt.


Why have government schools become bad now? It is not because of policy. There have been many acclaimed policies, but none have stopped the downslide. It is not because of lack of funds. Schools get more money now (not all from the government) than twenty years ago. I suggest that it is because of various factors which impede the intended form of implementation of policies. Teaching has become a job rather than a vocation (correlating with salary increase for teachers) and is like a government job with no accountability to the people/children they serve, they do not even have faith in their own schools to admit their children into them; decentralization has been thwarted by powerful lobbies and misuse of power by vested interests in the local communities; changes in the curriculum makes slow progress given the reluctance of the privileged classes to adopt them. While we do need to make many changes in policy and need to persuade the government to put aside more funds for basic education, we need to also work on procedures to combat the complex factors that influence the behavior of the people in the education system. Only then will better policies and more funds be effective.

Melliyal Annamalai is affiliated with ASHA, Boston. She can be reached at annam38@yahoo.com.


March 1, 2008 Posted by | Articles on Schools | 1 Comment