Punitive measures alone will achieve nothing

These children in Bangalore attend a government school in one of the most deprived areas of the city. However, the commitment of teachers is great because of the respect and esteem in which they are held.

These children in Bangalore attend a government school in one of the most deprived areas of the city. However, the commitment of teachers is great because of the respect and esteem in which they are held.

I am seldom convinced that punitive measures in education work. I am even less well disposed towards these when they are applied in poor situations which have, to some extent, been created by those who would inflict punishment.

A number of news reports from the state of Bihar, one of India’s poorest districts have lately caused me to reflect on how a dire educational situation there could be improved. For many years there have been major difficulties in recruiting teachers to work in this deprived area of the country, which has often been singled out for the poor quality of its education and social provision. A few years ago a significant recruitment drive was conducted in order to fill the many teaching vacancies in Bihar, and with a stated intention of improving both school attendance and levels of pupil attainment. At one time, this was reported as a success story, with an increase in school attendance and progress being apparently made towards increased levels of literacy. However, in recent months all of this good news appears to have evaporated amidst scandal and intrigue.

Recent reports (see for example http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-india-28190261) indicate that more than 20,000 teachers recruited under a state scheme had forged their degree certificates in order to gain employment. It is claimed that almost 800 of these teachers have recently been dismissed from their posts and that others are to follow.  Furthermore, more than 60,000 primary schools lack principals who could provide leadership and direction for schools where the average pupil teacher ratio is currently one teacher for every 63 pupils (India’s national ratio is about one teacher for every 40 pupils).

All of this makes for depressing reading, but I believe that the information is not easily interpreted. Those unqualified teachers, many of whom are described as incompetent, who are currently working in Bihar’s schools, were presumably appointed by authorities who made very little effort to check their qualifications prior to appointment. One also needs to ask questions about why it is so difficult to appoint teachers to work in this area, whereas in some other parts of India this does not seem to be such a problem?

Part of the difficulty in this situation appears to be the low status afforded to teachers in India, particularly those who work in government schools. Having visited several of these schools (though not in Bihar) I am always aware of how poorly resourced they are when compared to the private schools in the same vicinity. The teachers working in these schools are often less qualified than their counterparts in the “elite” schools, and government schools regularly report difficulties with recruitment of staff. The majority of teachers working in government schools are women and many have second jobs in order to make a living sufficient to feed their families. Recruitment of men to the teaching profession remains problematic because of the low esteem in which teaching is regarded as a profession. In Bihar, which is regularly reported as one of the poorest Indian states, there are major difficulties in attracting a skilled and educated workforce. I am for example, aware of many migrant workers from Bihar and other deprived states such as Orissa, working on the building sites of Bangalore because of the difficulties of finding well paid employment at home.

Children need well qualified and competent teachers and it is quite right that the state officials in Bihar and those at national government level, should be not only expressing concerns, but also identifying those individuals who are working under false pretences and with forged qualifications. However, punitive measures alone will not alleviate this dire situation and it is surely essential that these same authorities address the situation, by enhancing the status of teachers and providing more effective training for those who have ambitions to teach. There are many examples from other countries, including my own, of the development of incentive programmes to encourage teachers to work in poor areas. The provision of assistance with housing is just one of the benefits that have been used to entice well qualified teachers to work in areas where there have been difficulties with recruitment.

I am not suggesting that this is an easily solved problem. However, I do wonder if those teachers who have illegally falsified their qualifications might also be the source of a potential solution to the current difficulties. Presumably some of these individuals have demonstrated a commitment to work in situations that other more qualified persons have avoided. Perhaps an initiative to raise their skills and support them to gain the necessary qualifications might be one part of the answer to the challenges of recruitment in this area.

I have witnessed in many government schools, even those that are poorly resourced and where class sizes are above sixty students, dedicated, highly motivated and competent teachers who are affording children learning opportunities that were denied to previous generations. At one such school, the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan BBMP school in Bangalore, which serves one of the most deprived areas of that city, I have seen enthusiastic and skilled teachers making a significant contribution to the lives of their students. This has been achieved because of the ethos of respect and appreciation created by the school principal and the gratitude of the community served. Whilst I am sure that many of the teachers working in that school could obtain better paid posts in private schools elsewhere in the city, their dedication to their students and the recognition they receive for the progress that these children make, ensures that they have status in their community and feel appreciated for their professionalism.

I do hope that the authorities in Bihar take the appropriate action to address the serious fraud that has characterised many of the schools in that state. But I would also urge them to look in more detail at the underlying situation that has led to this problem, and find ways of enhancing the position of teachers who would provide a commitment to the children in that area.