If schools show the future, it’s bleak in Salboni

Lacking adequate staff, ample funds and regular budget for midday meals, primary schools in Salboni plod on under a system that seems to be bursting at the seams. Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan helps, of course, but teachers say that help is either inadequate or irregular, or a mish-mash of both

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Puja Bhattacharjee | December 12, 2012


Construction of first floor of a primary school in Sayedpur is stalled due to lack of funds
Construction of first floor of a primary school in Sayedpur is stalled due to lack of funds

FUNDS
Being a para teacher, Asim Mahato motivates people to send their children to school, among his other responsibilities. “On Fridays and Saturdays I visit families of children who are not being sent to school or are playing truant,” he says.

On a crisp winter morning, when Governance Now visits Nandaria primary school in Salboni, Mahato rings the bell signalling the start of classes. As children scuttle toward their classrooms, a look of frustration bordering on exasperation clouds Mahato’s face. “We need a railing for the porch,” he says while pointing out the school’s various requirements, as headmaster Bholanath Dule looks on. “At night, hooligans trash the porch with bottles.

“We also need a boundary wall to protect the school ground.”

Do they have the money? All schools in Salboni, Mahato explains, are entitled to an annual maintenance grant that varies between Rs 5,000 and Rs 10,000 depending on the number of classrooms. A teacher learning material (TLM) grant of Rs 500 per teacher is also given to buy teaching materials like charts, maps and globe. But the maintenance grant is usually inadequate to meet the requirements.

Bhaktipada Mahato, headmaster of Majhipara primary school, says his school is located in the middle of a village and lack of a boundary wall encourages trespassing. “The tubewell meant for our school is used by the entire village. After midday meals, children have to wait for long as they have to share the water with the rest of the village,” he says. “I had brought this up in a meeting. But I was told that boundary walls are a priority for schools located by the road, and that I will have to wait.”

He is still waiting.

Popped the question, Swati Mondal, sub-inspector of schools and circle project coordinator, Sadar north circle, says: “Five schools have been granted boundary wall funds in our circle. Schools on the roadside are a priority for boundary walls — once these are taken care of, we will move on to other schools.”

Some boundary walls, she says, take years to build, depending on the school’s location. “For schools situated over a large area, the grant for boundary wall is released in instalments, and they take a longer time to be constructed.”

But teachers say the maintenance grant is inadequate for work on repair and upkeep. Rita Sarkar, headmistress of Metal special primary school, says one of her school’s three classrooms is in very bad shape and needs immediate repairs but they don’t have the funds necessary.

“Water leaks from the ceiling. Block-level people (officials) and engineers came and inspected the room. They asked me not to use the classroom, as it is in need of immediate repair,” she says. “But nothing has happened since.”

Fuzzy on funds
When the audit time draws close, Sarkar says, all funds are disbursed suddenly. “Then I am told to finish the pending work at the earliest. How is that possible? I need to hold a meeting, get consensus and find repairmen,” she complains.

Swati Mondal, the sub-inspector of schools, says funds are disbursed by the Sarva Shiksha Mission office after teachers fill up the requisite dise, a form teachers have to fill up explaining how the funds were utilised the previous year. “The maintenance grant is meant for minor repairs,” Mondal says. “For major repairs, a separate requisition form has to be submitted.

“We are expecting to get major grants for repairing for the next two years soon.”

She says funds are sometimes late as utilisation certificates are submitted late by the schools, or it is found to be unsatisfactory. “Funds are disbursed at the beginning of the financial year — around April. We get them latest by August. Sometimes they come in late due to issues with the bank,” Mondal explains.

Rules for whom?
At Metal special primary school, when we point out that some students are not in uniform, headmistress Sarkar says, “Under rules, only SC, ST, minority and general category girls are given school uniforms.”

What is left unsaid is many parents do not buy them for their children.

Under rules, teachers are also required to conduct parent-teacher meetings on a few occasions each year. “The main concern of parents (whenever such meetings are held) is the midday meal,” says Sheikh Khoiru, headmaster of Sayedpur primary school.

But the rule about the parent-teacher meeting is not the topmost priority for several schools. A teacher of Bakibandh primary school (name withheld on request) says the meeting was conducted only once in the two years she has been at the institution.

“The school is required to conduct a meeting on the last Thursday of every month under the ‘mother-teachers association’. The idea is to make parents aware of the education system and involve mothers in the whole process,” Mondal says. “Parent-teacher meetings are compulsory before every evaluation.
“Whenever a grant is to be released by the village education committee, parents are informed about how the grants would be utilised under the government guidelines,” she adds.

MIDDAY MEAL
Problems at the kitchens and meal counters, too, begin at the drawing board of policymakers quite removed from the ground realities. The cost of midday meal is fixed at Rs 3.33 per student: this is assuming that only 85 percent of the total student strength is present each day. But teachers say this calculation is somewhat flawed because more than 90 percent students attend school in certain areas.

Of 56 students in Metal primary, Sarkar says almost 50 are regularly present. “I have brought this to the notice of both the block and sub-inspector of schools’ office. But there has been no result,” she rues.

Rice is supplied by the block office, while the school buys the rest. According to rules, egg is served once every week and fish or meat once day during the last week of the month.

“Self-help groups are in charge of the midday meal scheme,” block development officer (BDO) of Salboni Jayanta Biswas says. He then goes on to list out the long, tedious route in which money spent on the meals is reimbursed: “Self-help groups place the bills before the headmaster, who places it before the school managing committee elected by students’ parents. After the committee’s secretary approves the bill, it is sent to the panchayat, who finally reimburses the bill,”

But Khoiru of Sayedpur primary says, “The reimbursements are often late by two or three months. We borrow the food items required from the shops, and repay them once we get the money.”

Biswas says the money is released to the gram panchayats much beforehand, keeping in mind the assumption that on average 85 percent of students eat the meal daily. “Panchayats are not supposed to hold back the fund,” the BDO says, and then adds as an afterthought: “(I suspect) panchayats release the funds late to reap benefit of the interest on the money.”

The block sends a list of the number of days midday meal is to be served in a month — in November, when details were last available, it was only 10 days. “We have to follow directives. They will pay us according to this calculation,” says Bhaktipada Mahato.

Numbers lost in policy
“The rice almost always is inadequate,” Mahato says. “How can 15 percent students be absent every day?”

Biswas says the student strength of each school has to be checked to correctly determine attendance. “Our hands are tied if more than 85 percent students attend classes regularly. We have to follow directives. But in some cases it has been found that the school shows more students than there actually are,” he says.

He says the roll strength is revised twice each year. “It could be possible that new students have taken admission in between,” Biswas says. “The calculation deals with an ideal situation and is not always totally accurate.”

Teacher in-charge Ananda  Hazra says his school’s midday meal reimbursements are due since January 2012. “We are supposed to provide eggs once every week but now we are giving eggs once every two weeks,” he says.

On a recent visit to Salboni boys school, Biswas says he found that the school has stopped giving midday meals on account of the annual exams “when there was no such order”.

Dhirendra Murmu, a teacher at Baskopna primary school, points out another issue that adds to the shortfall: many students bring their siblings, who share the midday meal. “These children not only disturb the class but are also a pressure on our resources,” says Murmu. “We have complained to the parents but to no avail.”

During the midday meal, some parents also come to supervise their children. “My younger son does not want to stay at home alone. So he accompanies his elder brother sometimes,” says Pinku Ghosh.

Khoiru says 80 percent of students in his school are not interested in studies; they are keener on the midday meal. “The no-fail system is not working,” he says, an observation echoed by Sarkar. “We can’t even scold them,” she says. “They are not afraid of anything, and it is difficult to make them learn under such circumstances.”

But Sarkar denies that midday meal is the only motivation for children to attend school. “They come to school even when there is no meal,” she says.
The state of affairs can be well gauged from even a quick visit to one of the schools, with one classroom in each strewn with jute bags from which rice leaks out. And why are rice sacks stored in classrooms? Because the storerooms are infested with rats.

Olchiki: medium sends a message
Natundihi primary school deals with an altogether different problem. It’s a small school with only 23 students, with Olchiki as the medium of instruction.
“The local tribal population had demanded that Olchiki be made the first language and medium of instruction at the sub-inspector (SI) office,” Ananda Hazra says. The medium of instruction in high schools being Bengali the question is, how will the children manage after primary school? “We had to start class v here due to popular demand. The pressure is now to convert this school to a high school as well,” says teacher Mrinal Barua, pointing at a two-room dilapidated building.

“It is difficult for them (students) to secure admission anywhere else. Some of the older students knew Bengali but those newly admitted speak only Olchiki,” Barua adds.

But the problem is, Hazra is the only one who can teach Olchiki, which means he looks after all the subjects barring English, which Barua takes care of. Most children don’t understand Bengali and do not possess any skills to speak or comprehend English.

So how does Barua instruct them?

“The decision to make Natundihi an Olchiki medium school came from the district level,” SI of schools Awati Mondal says. “It depends on the number of students in Santhali medium: Bengali medium is the norm in schools with less than 50 percent tribal students. We haven’t got instruction for class VI yet. We just implement the policy decided by the government.

“A few Olchiki para teachers have been recruited recently but there has been no order till now to assign teachers to Natundihi.”

INADEQUATE STAFF
While all primary schools follow the 1:30 of teacher-student ratio, this does not always work to their advantage. On most occasions teachers have to take two classes together because not all 30 students would be in one class.

Sarkar says one teacher usually has to report for election duty or as BLO. In her school, the only male teacher does that work. “As headmistress, I am burdened with a lot of official work, though my priority should be teaching, and not being consumed by paperwork,” she rues.

“Teachers are more efficient and competent and hence elected as BLO or DO or both. They can efficiently conduct surveys, data entry, enquiry .The election duty is supposed to be beyond office hours. Anganwadi workers are not so competent. A suitable alternative is yet to be found,” says Biswas.

“The BLO, DO is decided on the final consent of the district magistrate,” he adds.

Not all schools have a para teacher. Para teachers are assigned as per requirement.

“The engagements of para teachers have been stopped for now. We had assigned para teachers in schools where there was a shortage of staff. We had sent a vacancy statement to the district Sarva Shiksha office and they made the decision who to assign and where,” informs Mondal.

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