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Plan for govt school mergers

New Delhi, June 19: The Centre is likely to ask the states to follow the Rajasthan model of "merging" government schools with low enrolment, a step that activists fear will increase dropouts.

A group of central secretaries supported the idea at a recent meeting, after which the Union human resource development ministry decided to prepare guidelines for such mergers, officials said.

This is how the proposal works: if there are three schools with low enrolment in an area, say, two of them will be closed and their students and teachers transferred to the third --- the biggest or the most centrally located.

Activists fear that as the distance between home and school increases for the students of the closed schools, the poorer among them would not be able to bear the cost of commuting and drop out.

Sources said the Union ministry would study the Rajasthan model before framing the guidelines.

In BJP-ruled Rajasthan, schools that don't have at least 15 students are eligible for merger. The state has closed down several thousand schools over the past two years.

Rajasthan officials have defended the mergers and relocations, telling a recent meeting of the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan that the exercise was part of a rationalisation drive that did not affect access to education.

"If there are only 10 to 15 students in a school, it amounts to under-utilisation of resources like teachers and facilities. The teachers could be better used in other schools," a central government official said.

Under the Right To Education (RTE) Act, there must be a primary school in the "neighbourhood", defined by the ministry as the area within a 1km radius.

Almost all villages have primary schools nearby, with most states adopting the Centre's definition of "neighbourhood". If some schools are merged and their students shifted, the rules will need to be amended.

Ambarish Rai of the RTE Forum, a civil society body, said many other states had been ready with merger plans long before the recent push. He said Congress-ruled Karnataka planned to shut 3,000 schools and Telangana Rashtra Samiti-ruled Telangana wanted to close 2,000 "in the name of mergers".

"The worst sufferers will be the poorer students. They will drop out. The parents who can send their kids to low-cost private schools will do so."

Komal Srivastava of the Bharat Gyan Vigyan Samiti, an NGO working on education in the rural areas, echoed Rai. She said Rajasthan was not providing transport facilities for children in areas where it had shut down schools.

"The Rajasthan government had last year closed down schools with fewer than 30 students. After protests, it modified the norm to 15 students. But it is not providing transport facilities. This is denial of education to children," Srivastava said.

Rai said that private schools often hire untrained teachers and pay them poorly. They do not offer quality education but the mergers of government schools will help them thrive, he said.


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