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Education is writing a new chapter in Himachal Pradesh

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    Class Palace From the bottom of the literacy heap five decades ago to Himalayan heights, education is writing a new chapter in Himachal Pradesh. Manraj Grewal
    Message 1 of 1 , 30 Jan 6:58 am

      Class Palace

      From the bottom of the literacy heap five decades ago to Himalayan heights, education is writing a new chapter in Himachal Pradesh. Manraj Grewal finds out the score. Photos: Swadesh Talwar

      Posted online: Sunday, January 30, 2005 at 0000 hours IST


      IDYLLIC. The word cartwheels in the head on the skid-slide-jump way down to the Kathleeghat Primary Centre School in Solan district. Perched on a ledge amid a straggly carpet of green, the gleaming white building is an apt metaphor for the state of primary education in Himachal: It is shining.

      And unlike the subject of the devalued electoral slogan of 2004, the shine here extends beyond the surface.

      A class in progress under a tree behind the school falters a little with the intrusion: A last-minute revision takes the backseat for the brief while. ��It�s for the last exam,�� explains Sunita Sharma, a teacher.

      That�s why this school, with a strength of 11 children�Class I has just one little boy called Ashish�and three teachers, is all abuzz though the bird calls still manage to drown the voices of the children.

      Set up on land donated by a Kathleeghat family in the early �50s, this school became a �centre school� in 1980, when the government decided to bring five to six primary schools under its care. Since then, centre schools across the state not only conduct annual exams for the schools it governs, but also disburses salaries.

      Which is why one gets to meet zonal kabaddi champ Vipul Sharma at Kathleeghat even though he is from the Basha school. The boy with ruddy cheeks leaves his teachers smiling as he reels out the correct answers to an off-the-cuff GK quiz.

      ��Independent primary schools (or schools in small clusters of four or five) have benefited not only the students, who get individual attention, but also junior basic teachers, who can now look forward to promotion as centre heads and block primary officers,�� says the greying Jagdish Sharma, head of the centre school in Basha, also in Solan district.

      ��It�s just one of the series of primary education initiatives undertaken by successive state chief ministers with missionary zeal,�� says B N Nenta, director of primary education in Himachal Pradesh. The state spends 16 per cent of its Plan expenditure on education, and the ��schooling revolution�� in hill country wowed none other than Nobel laureate Amartya Sen and author of the Public Report on Basic Education (PROBE) Jean Dreze.

      Schools multiply
      TRAWL the Himachal countryside, and a primary school crops up every few kilometres, each one boasting not only well-kempt clasrooms but also a healthy student-teacher ratio of 25:1, or even lower, all for a handsome fee of Rs 2 a month.

      Neelam Chauhan, a teacher at the Dhyarighat primary school, recalls that the first visible signs of change appeared in the early �90s, when schools began to proliferate. ��Earlier, there was one school for seven to eight villages, now there�s one after every kilometre or two.��

      It is the fallout of a 1993 policy decision, which decreed that no child should have to walk for more than 1.5 km in the hills and 2 km in the plains to reach his school.

      Besides jacking up the enrollment rate to a handsome 98.7 per cent, this also brought down the dropout rate from 33 per cent in 1994-95 to two per cent in 2003. Keen to pull this down to zero, the government has decided that no student with an attendance of over 80 per cent should be flunked till Class III.

      The education department has also spiced up teaching by introducing co-curricular activities, a la private schools. ��Come Saturday and the last two periods are devoted to Bal Sabha, in which the students get to sing, dance, and even stage plays,�� says Hemlata Sharma, a teacher at the Shoghi primary school, showing off a long line of trophies her students have won at zonal-level competitions.

      This is not all. All too aware of the challenge posed by private primary schools, the Virbhadra Government has now introduced English from Class I, instead of Class IV, where it used to be taught first earlier. Hemlata, who herself graduated from the prestigious St Bede�s in Shimla, says it�s made their schools much more attractive to English-centric parents.

      After setting up schools every 2 km, the government is focusing on nomadic and special children. A teacher is embedded with each of 50 itinerant groups
      Ambika Chauhan, a young teacher at the Shoghi primary centre school in Shimla district, knows this only too well: It�s the one subject that comes up for eager discussion at the weekly Mother Teacher Association (MTA) meetings. Unlike other states which have Parent Teacher Associations (PTA), Himachal has MTA which, experts believe, is a key to its schooling success. At Shoghi, they have even begun collecting an MTA fund with a contribution of Rs 5 from every mother. ��Later, we�ll decide how to use the money for upgrading the school,�� says Ambika.

      Balance the equation
      SITTING on a slope, a few hundred yards away from the road to Shimla, the Shoghi school does seem to require some brushing up, though you can see the signs of Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA) funds. ��We got a new toilet thanks to it,�� says Ambika.

      The girls and Scheduled Caste students have also been given free notebooks and textbooks, though they are yet to get the promised desks and chairs. Inside the dank classrooms, the students sit cross-legged on a red mat, bent double over their answer-sheets.

      ��We�re told that chairs are on the way,�� says Ambika, who has a touching faith in government schemes. ��They work,�� she smiles, giving you the example of the all-new mid-day meals under SSA.

      This, however, is one scheme Ambika and her colleagues find hard to digest. ��It�s a big drain on our time and patience,�� Ambika pulls a face, describing interminable afternoons spent serving pulao or khichdi to unwilling children, many of whom prefer to bring their own tuck boxes.

      Interestingly, here, too, woman power has come to the rescue. Take the case of the Kathleeghat school, where the local mahila mandal has pitched in with utensils and a local maid who cooks the food for a paltry Rs 100 a month.

      In fact, most villages have a Village Education Committee� usually headed by the pradhan�which plays an active role in running these schools. Vandana Sharma, a teacher at the Premnagar primary school in Sirmaur district, is all praise for pradhan Kalyan Singh, who�s now getting toilets constructed under the SSA.

      The pradhan also has the authority to appoint voluntary teachers or sahayak adhyapak, a practice introduced by the government in the �80s to make up for the teacher deficit.

      Social science
      A LONE voluntary teacher runs the show at the primary school in the Jaypee Institute of Information Technology in Waknaghat. Tucked away in the institute�s temple on a hillside, the state government set up the school this January as part of its Education Guarantee Scheme (EGS), under which it appoints teachers wherever it comes across a cluster of children not going to school. ��The idea is to mop up all the non-schoolgoing children,�� says Nenta.

      A visit late in the afternoon finds a frisky bunch of urchins rattling out ikyaasi, byaasi after their harried-looking teacher, Ramesh Dutt Sharma. A former dealer in vegetables, he got this job on contract for a meagre salary of Rs 800 a month. It isn�t easy disciplining this naughty bunch which he�s divided into two classes, but hope of a regular job sustains him.

      For the 40-odd children, whose parents are labourers at the Jaypee construction site, the cluster school, as it is called, is godsend. ��They get free books, notebooks, pencil, eraser, lunch... what more can they want,�� asks a pujari of the temple.

      Mention this to Nenta, and he reels out two other initiatives launched last year, one for the itinerant communities like the Gaddis, and the other for special children.

      ��The Integrated Education for Disabled Children (IEDC) helped us zero in on 3,000 special kids, who will now be educated at home,�� says Nenta, who is also very proud of the 50-odd mobile schools, each of which has one teacher who travels with a specified nomadic community.

      Vandana Sharma, a teacher at Premnagar government primary school in Sirmaur district, is among those who has done a capsule course for teaching special children. ��We don�t have one in our area, but I am prepared,�� says this pretty woman, who�s a postgraduate in commerce, but is still on contract.

      She is not an exception. Most primary school teachers�nearly 50 per cent of them are women�are over-qualified. Kusum Sehgal of Kathleeghat, for instance, is a post-graduate in political science and education. This perhaps explains why absenteeism is not commonplace although a water carrier (read, peon) attributes it to regular inspections by district education officers.

      Plus and minus
      NONETHLESS, the teachers were present in full strength at all the schools this team visited, though almost everywhere they rued their low numbers. You may think three teachers for 11 students at Kathleeghat is on the higher side, but they let you know that it isn�t a cakewalk, for they have to teach classes I through V.

      Most teachers felt they would be able to teach better if the government were to allot one class to a teacher. And this, they contend, can be possible if the government were to combine a couple of schools instead of opening new ones. Frequent transfers�once every three years�are also a grouse.

      There are other dissenting notes as well. Subhash Medhapurkar, who runs Sutra, an NGO at Kasauli, rues that the state is laying more stress on quantity than quality. ��It is high time the government addresses Generation II issues�instead of sticking to the old paradigm of taking education to the doorsteps of children�now that the ground realities have changed.��

      In the setting sun on the mountains, however, everything looks unchanged. And then we spot a lone woman standing on the roadside. That she is a teacher is evident from her keds, her tote bag, and above all, from her look. We slow down and ask her if she knows the way to the nearest primary school, and she smiles, ��Why, I teach there,�� pointing to a white building atop a bump.

      Even in the shadowy light, the slogan painted on its wall says it all: Sab padein, sab badein.

      lil belz say`s good day

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