Absenteeism Row: Odisha’s school education at crossroads

Odisha’s school education sector is passing through a critical phase that warrants much more than a routine redressal approach. 

Absenteeism Row: Odisha’s school education at crossroads

A video clip is doing rounds on social media showing a spirited youth asking how learning "(A+B)square = Asquare+2ab+Bsquare" was going to equip him in life; how it would make his life easier in grocery shop or while buying vegetables or how it would help him in married life or how well off it would make when he becomes a father. If the formula wasn’t of any help in these situations why, he was asking with consternation, was he being asked to memorise it in school. There seems to be justification in what he says. He represents a huge number of students in the tribal sub-plan area of Odisha where schooling in its present state has very limited appeal. Media men have reported their experience of students demonstrating huge academic deficits where students studying in class seven or eight would not be able to count numbers if you asked them to count numbers, say, between 17 and 94 and of students in class eight or nine who would not be able to say what the whole square of A+B is equal to. For thousands, a government school does not open any new world of opportunities nor does the quality of teaching, the environment of the school or available facilities sustain the interest of many students. 

State of school education in Odisha continues to remain a matter of serious concern. The sector is afflicted with problems like serious shortage of teachers and severe deficit in infrastructure. These deficiencies are more acute in underdeveloped regions of the state.

Given the quality of teaching in the remote areas of the tribal region of the state, the bond of the average student with the school has always been tenuous. The teacher has rarely been able to ignite his imagination; study has mostly been uninteresting – little beyond a rote learning exercise, without any “connect” with the vast ocean of knowledge. The teacher, by and large, has been a disgruntled person with a heavy baggage of grievance. He is rarely supervised; supervisors have seldom been accountable. The school ambience offered little to cheer about.

Whatever link the school offered to a student of below average merit, however, abruptly snapped when it closed indefinitely following the pandemic.

It was too facile an assumption that on reopening of the schools after almost two academic years, students in the remote areas would rush to the schools, particularly where schooling was never an attractive and lovable experience for the students. Teachers were always in shortage, many were engaged on contract and underpaid. Thousands of students hardly understood what was taught, there was little pressure from parents, mostly illiterate, to study at home. In many cases young hands in school meant loss of wage earning opportunity for a poor family; in many cases migration for work to a distant place was much more convenient if the young children too accompanied the parents. 

Long closure of schools due to the pandemic facilitated engagement of the young children in wage-earning activities; wherever they remained idle they became vulnerable to enticement of extremists looking for young recruits. Government mandarins, mostly operating in ivory towers, presumed that the online coaching would keep students occupied in study. Severe constraints on appropriate infrastructure made participation in online teaching extremely difficult. Bulk of the students were unable to take advantage of online teaching. As a result, most of them forgot what they had learnt and about 18 lakh students did not return to schools when schools reopened. Where the Government blundered was it did not ensure that the teachers remained in regular touch with the students even when the schools remained closed.

Shortage of teachers has been a chronic problem in the state and more acute in the outlying regions of the state. Many teachers do not enjoy the regular pay scale and remain engaged on contract. They live in a state of perpetual discontentment. A teacher’s availability for teaching is getting limited. He is either engaged in election duties or pulse polio campaigns or maintaining mid-day meal registers. A report released by the National Institute of Education and Administration (NUEPA) disclosed that only 19.1 percent of a teacher’s annual school hours is spent on teaching activities. The remaining part of the teacher’s time goes to non-teaching core activities (42.6%), to non-teaching school related activities (31.8%) and to other department activities (6.5%). Lack of supervision leads to a high degree of teacher-absenteeism. 

Poor infrastructure has been endemic for the rural schools in Odisha. Out of 50,256 government schools, 15663 (31.17%) did not have electricity facilities as per the Report on 2020-21 of Unified District Information System For Education Plus (UDISE+) of the Government of India. The rest, though with functional electricity facilities, suffered long hours of power outage. In 2019-20, only 10.61% of government schools had medical checkup of students. This was the lowest in the country. Only 14.25% of Odisha’s government schools offered functional computer facilities as against the national average of 31.11%. While 3,21,024 government schools in the country had functional computer facility it is interesting to note that Chhattisgarh provided functional computer facility in 40,014 government schools, Maharashtra to 40607, Jharkhand to 29651, Tamil Nadu to 29,732 and Odisha to only 7162 government schools. Out of a total of 10,32,049 government schools in the country, 140745 (13.64 %) schools had Internet facilities. Gujarat offered this facility in 25301 schools, Jharkhand to 10334 schools, Punjab to 19260 schools, Rajasthan to 19255 schools, Chhattisgarh to 4116 schools while Odisha offered only to 1428 government schools (which accounts for 2.84%). Almost every government school in Delhi, Gujarat, Kerala and Punjab has by now Internet facilities.

Prevailing lackadaisical attitude over two decades to the all important sector of school education has resulted in severe erosion of credibility of schooling with a large segment of population in deprived zones of the state. The Odisha Board of Secondary Education (BSE) reporting that 43,489 students had skipped out on the 10th Exams in 2022 is an indication of the critical situation. 

Again, as many as 14,935 students in Odisha did not appear in the Class 9 (2021-22) examination, though they were among the 5,66,269 students who had enrolled for the Class 9 examination. And now the most vivid revelation of widespread disillusionment has come with 30% of the school students not returning to schools post pandemic.

The state government, of course, has launched a flagship “Mo School” programme for modernising schools and some school premises now wear a new look. But the programme has been plastic surgery; it didn’t address the core. Large number of hostels have also been established for the benefit of thousands of tribal students. Obviously, these initiatives have fallen short in ensuring a meaningful transformation. Clearly, Odisha’s school education sector is passing through a critical phase that warrants much more than a routine redressal approach. 

Revival of the school in the far-flung area needs a meaningful reappraisal of the role of the school teacher. In any reform for improving schooling, the school must have amenities like electricity, computer and internet. At the same time, the teacher must get back his/her dignity and be provided with necessary wherewithal to make learning much more interesting and meaningful for the students.

(DISCLAIMER: This is an opinion piece. The views expressed are the author’s own and have nothing to do with OTV’s charter or views. OTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same. The author can be reached at lonewalker.1942@gmail.com)

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