Bishwajit Kumar Singh joined as Principal Secretary School Education Department (SED) J&K in October 2020. In his over one year experience as the Principal Secretary, he believes that better days are in the offing for the government school students as well as the department. The government, he says, is making all efforts to change public perception about government schools. He shares his thoughts in an exclusive interview. Here are the excerpts:
Reporter: J&K just saw the declaration of two major Board results. How do you see the overall performance of schools?
B K Singh: It was overall good because this time the big difference in exams as compared to previous years was that the pattern of question paper was different. Earlier students were asked simple traditional questions. This year we took it to the applied mode wherein the students had to apply their minds while answering the questions.
Reporter: But some government schools have fared poorly. It has been a persistent problem. Isn’t anything tangible being done to address this issue to make government schools perform better?
B K Singh: Yes. It is true that some schools produced poor results. It is indeed a concern for us. For this, we are going for a multi-level evaluation in all government high and higher secondary schools across J&K. During this evaluation, we will first see the availability of the teaching staff. Then we will ascertain the subject-wise pass percentage of students in these schools. In any subject where we find that the teachers have produced poor results, we will start the short-term training for them for one or two weeks so that their skills get enhanced and they will improve their result eventually. But if they still did not improve their result, they will think of some long-term measures for it.
Reporter: Infrastructural deficiencies in schools are getting largely unaddressed. Isn’t it a cause of concern for the government?
B K Singh: The basic reason for infrastructural gaps is that we do not get regular funding. Second is the selection of projects at the district level. For example, if we have 50 schools in a district and we know that 35 schools are in good condition, 15 schools have infrastructural gaps. For this, we should fix a five-year target to improve the infrastructural standards in these schools. But what I have observed is that we distribute the available funds in all the schools irrespective of the requirement and needs. Instead of focusing on needy schools, we distribute small amounts to all schools which don’t serve any purpose and no major changes take place in schools in this manner. With all this, the public perception about government schools never changes. If we will go for proper selection of projects, the perception about the schools will change in public. Now we are working on it and this time we have decided to go for remodeling of 40 schools wherein we have decided that the schools which have high enrollment will be given laboratory blocks, science blocks so that these schools get good infrastructure for students.
Reporter: There is no proper construction plan for school buildings and most of the school’s buildings are constructed haphazardly. Why?
B K Singh: This is another drawback of government schools in terms of layout. You visit any school you will find so many buildings of one school constructed haphazardly all over the campus. There are at least three to four school buildings in every school which really gives a bad impression about the school. It is all in a haphazard manner. This way there is no playground for students as well. But now we have decided to design a proper layout for school buildings for the next 20 years. As and when we get schools sanctioned these should be constructed properly and not in a haphazard manner. When parents see the govt school buildings constructed in a haphazard manner it really disappoints them and obviously, in such a situation, they will not prefer to enroll their kids in such a school where even buildings are not constructed while following a proper layout. When the parents go to a private school, they find a beautiful school building constructed with a proper design that is attractive and motivates them to enroll their kids.
Reporter: Most of the schools are yet to be equipped with proper drinking water and toilet facilities. Why?
B K Singh: It is true most of the schools are without drinking water and toilet facilities. We have taken up a major project under which we will have drinking water and toilets in all schools, particularly separate toilets for girl students. It is being taken up on war-footing. We will ensure proper toilets for boys and girls in schools. We do not have a dearth of money for this.
Reporter: The teacher-student ratio in many schools is lopsided. Is anything being done to address this incongruity to bring some parity to the issue?
B K Singh: We have a fixed Pupil-Teacher Ratio (PTR) for schools to run as ‘individual institutions’. A middle school has six classes and if you will not have even 40 students in a middle school, how can you run it as an individual institution. What we will do is that we will shift the students of such schools to adjacently located schools within a radius of three kilometers and merge these two schools. We are ready to provide transport facilities to the students to facilitate their travel and its charges will be provided to the parents through Direct Bank Transfer (DBT). It is not true that the merging of schools decreases enrollment. The issue is that we have to provide transport facilities to these students to commute. If we carry the students to the nearby schools by using transport facilities, obviously the enrollment in government schools will increase.
Reporter: But there must be some other issues due to which students do not get attracted towards government schools?
B K Singh: You see the only difference between the students in a private school and a government school is the maintenance of the dress code and obviously the layout of school buildings. If a parent can afford around Rs 3000 to Rs 4000 per month in a private school, he can easily afford Rs 1000 for his kid per year as a tuition fee in a government school. A student has to wear a proper attractive uniform including a tie. The government is giving Rs 700 to a parent to purchase a uniform for kids and the same parent can add Rs 200 to it and get a good set of uniforms for his child for one academic session. Once the student wears a proper tie, clean pair of shoes, and proper set of uniform it will obviously bring a new change. And when the government will facilitate the students with transport facilities, the difference between private and government schools will diminish.
Reporter: What are the major policy interventions being done to improve upon functioning and performance of government schools?
B K Singh: Some major interventions are being made. One is the rationalisation of teachers and another is the merging of schools. Schools with meager enrollment will be merged with the adjacently located school. We will not suspend or transfer any teacher to any far-off place for this. See, one teacher can teach 12 students in a school and if there are only four students in a school then there is no fun in running it as a separate institution.
Reporter: De-walling of schools was introduced by the government some years ago. Any two schools functioning separately within the same campus were clubbed. One head would supervise the institutions. But that was later shelved. Why?
B K Singh: There is a mention of complex education in NEP-2020. Under this, a high school, a higher secondary school, middle school and a primary are to be taken as a complex school. No doubt these all schools are linked to each other as students from Primary school join middle school and high school and later to higher secondary school. But there is no link between teachers with respect to academics. They are working separately. But under NEP-2020 we are working on it and at least five to six high schools from primary to higher secondary level will be linked together. A middle school will observe the academic performance of Primary school. Let there be no controversy of administrative control in these schools but they can monitor the academics if these schools are linked. We want to concentrate on academic performance wherein the teachers can be deputed from HSS to lower-level schools. Suppose a lecturer can identify a bright student in a primary school. He can continue his guidance and groom the student with his hand holding till he passes class 12th.
Reporter: No doubt Government schools perform better at class 10 and 12th but it is also a fact that a class 3rd student cannot read the text of 2nd class text book.
B K Singh: Now it will not happen. We have taken the initiative to observe every student in real-time. As and when classwork commences, we will start mentoring kids under which one teacher will be assigned 10 students. He will be responsible for their grooming and handholding in the classroom. We will also provide them with academic plans like what private schools are doing for the grooming of small kids in schools. I am very sorry to say (smiles) we have adopted it. We will frame a monthly academic plan for kids. The concerned DIET will be responsible for issuing it through concerned middle schools. The assessment templates will be given to students concerning DIETs and middle schools will conduct the assessment wherein mentoring teachers will have no role in it. The assessment will be done through a third party. We have developed a portal for it which is almost complete. As and when it gets started every teacher will be assessed. We can also identify where the student gets stuck in understanding any topic of any subject. Even if a teacher will need training he will be provided it so that he can help the student to improve his performance and even after getting training, the teacher fails to help the students in improving his learning ability then we will take other decisions as well.
Reporter: Posting in DIETs and SCERT has become a persistent issue. There is an impression that posting in these institutes is not done on merits.
B K Singh: Now the scenario has changed. We have advertised all the vacancies in SCERT and DIETs as well. We have asked for nominations from teachers for their posting in DIETs and SCERT. We are planning to start interviews soon. The earlier concept is over now when DIETs were preferred as resting places. We have got 350 applications for around 70 to 75 posts. We will have to select a few among them.
Reporter: What about the implementation of New Education Policy-2020. Is there any deadline fixed? How does the government intend to go about it?
B K Singh: About NEP-2020, there are so many things that the government of India has to do first and after that, we have to start the implementation process. As and when they do their part we will start here as well. As part of NEP-2020, J&K is doing good in Early Child Care Education (ECCE) as we have developed around 3500 KG schools in government schools and our target is to establish 5000 more this year. We want to have KG in every school and it will help in increasing the enrollment in schools and improve the educational standards in the coming years. Another aspect of NEP is the mother tongue. All books are translated into almost four to five languages. Everything is done and students up to class 5th can study books in any language. In competency-based learning which is also part of NEP-2020, we have introduced it in exams by changing the pattern of question papers. Now critical thinking will be introduced in schools as well.
Reporter: There are scores of school buildings unattended as construction work has not been completed. Some are left abandoned as well. What is the government doing in this regard?
B K Singh: Basic problem is that we did not get funds from J&K Infrastructure Development Finance Corporation Limited (JKIDFC) to complete the construction of incomplete school buildings which were approved under languishing projects. Once we get the funding we will complete all the school buildings.
Reporter: Many say a separate administrative cadre for the education department was shelved. Why?
B K Singh: I have no idea about it. Such matters are dealt with by the General Administration Department (GAD). They can speak on it.
Reporter: We saw the rationalization of 2400 schools in 2015. Now another merger of 2000 schools is in the offing. What is the purpose?
B K Singh: The fresh rationalisation is different from what was done earlier. We will merge schools using Google mapping and enrollment. Let me tell you one thing, the enrollment will not decrease with the merging of schools but the problem is that we don’t use transport facilities to take students to the schools which are at a distance of around three to four kilometers. If in a village we have 200 students out of which 150 continue schooling and 50 are dropouts. The fresh rationalization is to attract the students to schools by using various interventions besides going for the merger of schools.
Reporter: Now transfers are done through online ATD in which the department mostly relies on Google mapping. Do you think it works on the ground as well?
B K Singh: I want to clear it with you because I know many teachers must be approaching you with their grievances. We have set various categories for transfers which are Very Hard zone, Hard Zones, and soft zones. We have done it scientifically. The very hard zone is already classified if it falls in hilly areas. The second thing for it is the distance from the urban area and the road connectivity. Even if the area is at a distance of only three kilometers from the urban area but it has no road connectivity and people have to walk on foot it is also considered a hard zone. The tenure in the Very hard zone is for one year, two years for hard zones, and four years in normal zones. But we ensure that teachers are transferred back from very hard and hard zones after completing their tenure so that we can motivate the next lot to serve in these areas. The first preference for transfers is given to people with disability, the second preference is the working spouse and other preferences are followed accordingly as per norms. We send teachers to Very hard zones for one year because presently we have an acute dearth of staff in schools of very hard zones. For example in one high school, we have only one master and four teachers and in a higher secondary school running a medical stream, we do not have a lecturer for Chemistry. If these schools do not get adequate staff then we are playing with the future of the students in these areas. We also saw this in the recently announced results of class 10th and 12th exams of these schools.
Reporter: Is the government considering a transfer policy for Grade II, Grade III, and ReT teachers?
B K Singh: As of now nothing has been decided. We are stuck with other problems in the department. So, as of now, we want to focus on other critical issues.
Reporter: But it will not help them to learn from seniors in other schools? Having no experience of managing things, at times they land in trouble?
B K Singh: We have prepared an interim draft for their transfer within zones. But first, we want to implement the ATD and see its impact. Later we can touch the RET, Grade II, and Grade III teachers.
Reporter: J&K has its own SCERT now. Has it fulfilled the purpose?
B K Singh: It was established in July 2020 and it has been only a year now. It is working well and has started playing its role in terms of holding training of teachers besides working on other reforms.
Reporter: Coming to private schools. Charging transport fees has been lingering for the last two years now. Why doesn’t the government come clear on it?
B K Singh: There is uncertainty among people about the running of schools as of now. There are apprehensions if schools will continue to remain open or not. It is also a fact that their (private school) system got disturbed over the past few years. No one can deny their contribution to the education sector as well. Almost every private school is doing a good job in imparting education to children. Regarding the collection of the transport fee, I will note it and get it resolved. Thank you for bringing it to my notice. Now all the issues are getting resolved, the transport fee issue should be over now.
Reporter: Many orders and circular instructions were issued to have a common curriculum in government and private schools. But there was no implementation on the ground.
B K Singh: Our personal understanding is that we will not force private schools on that. Let them grow the way they want to grow. Our job is to regulate their fee structure which we will do very strictly. But we will not go to their campus. Why touch their affairs when we have our own issues to address. We face problems in National Achievement Surveys (NAS) and other surveys as our students do not perform well. While facing such issues in our own sector how can we go to the private schools directing them to adopt our practices? I believe that is not genuine. Once we are able to handle our own schools properly then only we can go to their schools. We are not much interested in interfering in that. Another issue that I feel is not good is the practice of authenticating the result of junior classes of private schools by our ZEOs or CEOs. We want them to send the result online to ZEOs and seek their remarks within the shortest possible time. If they do not get any remarks they can declare the result. I think it is illogical that the private schools go to the offices and wait for days to get the results confirmed. They have 10 times better results than us and we are issuing certificates to them. We are working to change the old system.
Reporter: There are complaints about the quality of JK BOSE textbooks. The paper quality of books is not good.
B K Singh: We are looking into it. We will give funds to JKBOSE from our budget because textbooks should be attractive. I know they had a problem because they had inadequate funds but had to print more books. The issue was resolved as we have matched the printing and requirement. No extra books will be printed now.
Reporter:: Schools are opening after a long time now. How are the preparations going?
B K Singh: The schools in Jammu are already open. The winter vacation will end on February 26 (Saturday) and February 28 will be the first working day for schools in Kashmir and winter zones. The heads of the schools should try to keep schools clean and go for sanitisation of the campus besides following all Covid Appropriate Behaviour (CAB). The ZEOs, CEOs are on the ground and they know the requirements very well.