The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Detention, retention & red-tape disruption
- Quality, quantity concerns in education

As debates rage on about when the Left Front government should introduce English in schools, children are fast falling into a black hole in the state educational record. Over 70 per cent of West Bengal’s students drop out of school between Classes I and VIII. This is the third-highest dropout rate in the country, just bettering Bihar and Meghalaya, which see 75.03 and 76.99 per cent, respectively, of its students dropping out.

Poor teaching, high detention rates in lower classes and incorrect implementation of the mid-day meal scheme are some of the problems identified by those working with the state education department. But in West Bengal, even if students want to study, they are being denied a rightful place in school. For the state’s 52,426 primary schools, there are only 2,384 middle/senior basic schools (2001-2002 figures released by the Union ministry of human resource development). The ‘drop rate’ is unique, with states having a comparative number of primary schools, like Bihar and Andhra Pradesh, registering around five times the number of middle schools. This may not necessarily translate to a higher rate of retention, but it does provide students with an option.

The goal of “universal retention by 2010” seems a distant dream. But there is also a shadow of doubt over how the dropout is calculated. “The number of students enrolled in Class I, compared to that in Class V, is the basic measure. But this does not take into account the students who have been made to repeat a year, which can vary from 20 per cent to 40 per cent, depending on the district,” explains Rajiva Sinha, education project director, Unicef. Though keeping children back at the primary level is against educational policy, teachers have been known to flout this. “Often, parents themselves want their kids to be kept back to avoid mounting pressure,” adds Sinha.

To bridge the availability gap, as an extension of its Shishu Shiksha Karmasuchi project (now a part of the Sarva Siksha Abhiyan scheme), the state has launched the Madhyamik Shiksha Karmasuchi. Under this project, centres employing para teachers are to be set up in those areas where there is no upper school within three km.

But quality concerns are as important as those of quantity, stress NGOs. “Teachers just don’t think about the students,” feels an NGO official, not wishing to be named. The appalling infrastructure doesn’t help, with over 89 per cent of all state-run schools operating without a girls’ toilet. “How do they expect older children to stay in school'” adds the official. Even in the city, surveys have shown male fourth-grade staff sharing girls’ bathrooms.

The mid-day meal scheme, which was recently modified from supply of monthly rations to provision of cooked meals, is still only being run in 1,900 schools as a pilot project. The rest get monthly rations, as, apparently, the cost of preparing hot meals is greater than that estimated by the Centre.

One key urban education functionary described the situation as a “monolith difficult to be disturbed”. The “red tape” disrupts prompt delivery of education. It apparently took two years for the funds to come through for the Shikshalaya Prakalpa, which targets education of urban deprived children. Community sensitisation and improved teaching techniques can help, the official adds, but only if the policy focus is broadened to include more than just elementary education.

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