Monday, February 23, 2015

Children First

The start of an academic year should have triggered discussions about the hopes, expectations and requirements of Sikkim’s young. Has that happened?

A new academic year has begun. This should be a time when the collective energies of the society, the government and, okay, also the political parties, should be focused on children. Unfortunately, all these agencies seem more invested in the affairs of the grown-ups, what with the teacher transfers commanding more attention than the excitement of starting students on a new year of academics.
Around 1,000 of the government teacher strength of about 11,000 were transferred during the winter break and of these, 202 teachers were offended enough by their relocation to approach the courts with their grievances. Their complaints might have grounds and no one will be surprised if the department bungled in drawing up the list.
That said, all the noise about a teacher transfer policy is just noise, because the Department has at hand Manpower Management Guidelines [drawn up in February 2010] for determination of teacher-strength in schools. All that needs to be done is for this guideline to be adhered to. In fact, there is also a clause in the “guideline” which makes it the “bounden duty” of heads of schools and drawing & disbursement officers to ensure that salary of “non-existent or excess” teachers over and above the prescribed strength was not issued and in the event of failure to do so, the same would be realized from their monthly salary. Whoever drafted these guidelines was clearly punching above his/ her weight class because such strictures are impossible to implement, at least in Sikkim, where toes are easily trampled and egos even more easily bruised. As expected, two years since the guidelines were drawn up, when CAG auditors checked on its implementation in February 2013, a test check of 438 [out of over 700 govt schools] revealed that there were 648 excess teachers crowded into 254 schools even as 78 of the 438 schools were short of 198 teachers. It is unlikely that the situation would have improved in the two years since, and if the last round of transfers was an earnest effort to correct this imbalance, then it should be welcomed. Interestingly, even the ongoing cycle of protests, showboating, allegations and counter-allegations, no one is demanding that the manpower management guidelines of the Department be implemented. It is anybody’s guess on why this is so.
Meanwhile, what Sikkim is receiving is a continuing focus on the concerns of 202 [upset teachers] blanking out any discussions on the prospects of 1.18 lakh? As per the HRDD, as of December 2010, the number of students enrolled in government schools across the state stood at 1,18,520. Shouldn’t the hopes, expectations and aspirations of this 20% of the State’s population be the primary concerns of everyone in Sikkim, at least at this time of the year? And no, reaching them free uniforms and textbooks in time, although important, is not enough. And no again, one cannot argue that discussing the teacher-transfer issue is not the same as discussing concerns of the students. Accept it, clich├ęd though it may sound, children are every society’s most vital resource. And this is true not just morally, but also economically. Investing in the health, education, and skills of children offers the highest economic returns as any society or nation which is doing well on socioeconomic indicators will bear out. Investing in the young does not mean only material goods handed over to them but also includes the emotional commitment extended to them. Free education is welcome, even necessary, but what will groom better rounded citizens for the future will be policy interventions which look out even for their physical environments. Better appointed classrooms, functioning and clean toilets, safe infrastructure, adequate options for extracurricular activities – these engagements require more attention, but are unfortunately not being processed enough.
Over fifty per cent of the Sikkimese population is in the most productive age-group of 10 to 34 years.  [This, as per Census 2001. The matching statistic for Census 2011 is not yet at hand]. This, very large, very young proportion of its population could as easily be Sikkim’s strongest asset as it could implode into its biggest liability. For this demographic situation to reap dividend to its potential, Sikkim needs its schools and colleges to become vibrant institutions of learning. Learning has to be made exciting, proactive and practical, because that will bestow students with critical reasoning faculties. The emphasis in schools and colleges is unfortunately still on examinations and degrees and when education is so pursued and imparted, the focus is on memorisation and not on intelligence, innovative thinking or even problem solving. Yes, some efforts are afoot to make learning more exciting, more independent, but these have been piecemeal efforts which end up becoming token gestures which do nothing to further learning. That is perhaps because the accent is still on performance [in exams] and the concept of learning all year round has still not found enough supporters.
No single article or argument can offer all answers for what is best for the young at school or at home [and there are no playing spaces for them], but what is worrying is that even the conversation on this issue has not begun yet. More people need to get talking about what should await students in government schools when they begin a new academic year. More parents should find the courage to relax and not fear as much about how their children will “compete” with the outside world, and by abandoning such fears, they will support teaching methods which encourage problem-solving [against repeating by rote] which will prepare their children even better for the “outside world”. Accept it, there is very little space for original thinking in most traditional government school classrooms. Sikkim has among the best teacher-student ratios in the country so even the excuse of overworked teachers is not applicable here [at least not in the 254 schools which had 648 excess teachers in Feb 2013]. The bigger states cannot do much with the education system they have inherited, but Sikkim, with its small size, can find the nimbleness to experiment and adapt for the real benefit of the students. If enough people get talking about it, the required policy interventions, given that these are times of “quality education” pursuits, will also come about. It will be worth the effort to whisper such discussions into the public domain…

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