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School education hobbled by teacher politicisation, lack of accountability

Geeta Kingdon
State after state surveys in India show extremely poor learning levels for students in our schools. Studies have consistently shown that government school teachers are often absent and when they are present, they are not spending their time on the task at hand – teaching. Teacher effort is low primarily because nobody holds the government teachers accountable.

Accountability is low because teachers often hold positions of power in the state assemblies and/or are sheltered by strong unions. This politicization of the teaching community and their over-representation combined with low effort are two of the main afflictions of the system as it stands today.

Academician, expert, president of the City Montessori schools in Lucknow and part-time Professor of Education Economics and International Development at University College, London, Excerpts from an interview with Anjuli Bhargava:

If I were to make you the HRD minister, what would be the first thing you would tackle to fix India’s broken schooling sector?

Let me begin by saying that I favour a data based approach to policy making. Policies should be tailored based not on ideology or on what is politically expedient or on the hunch of any individual, no matter how eminent. It cannot be based on what you and I believe to be true. I think policy should be based only on data and what the data shows to work and not work.

As far as the available data shows, teacher effort in India is very low. What data points to this? Data time and again has shown that teachers are not present in the numbers they ought to be. Independent studies and also those by government show that on any given day, 25% of the teachers are absent.

But as and when teachers are present is their attention on students? Isn’t it true that their other paperwork and administrative responsibilities take up most of their time?

The data doesn’t corroborate this really. While it’s true that the mid-day meal takes up some amount of teachers’ time, they are not really burdened with as much paperwork and other administrative duties as it is made out to be, and as is required in many other countries.

For example, in the UK, teachers are required to take attendance for every lesson, write separate report cards for each subject for every student. There are huge reporting and documenting requirements. In India there is no such thing at all. Actually, the burden here is less. For most of the states in India, in the years for which data is available, it was 10 -14 days of non-teaching duties reported in DISE data, out of 220 working days of the school year. That’s not significant. The data does not back up this belief that teachers are overburdened by administrative duties.

Lack of teacher effort has been measured through the teacher absence surveys, and when teachers are in school, by what is their time-on-task. Studies have shown that even when the teacher is in the school, she is not performing her main duty: teaching. Her body is in the school but her mind is on other things. A World Bank study on teachers’ time-on-teaching-task found that this was quite low. The PROBE and PROBE2 surveys of five north Indian states found that about half of the teachers present in school on the survey day were not in class but rather found to be drinking tea, knitting, reading stuff, gossiping, or snoozing.

So data shows us two things. Teachers are often not present and when they are present they are often not occupied with what they ought to be. So this brings us to the big question: why is teacher effort low? Teacher effort is low because there is no one to hold them accountable. Teacher accountability measures do exist but they are not implemented. So as I see it, the big elephant in the room for me is the lack of accountability.

What can be done to make them more accountable?

The system needs to change. The ways of holding teachers accountable today are perverted and misused. In some states those who should be holding the teachers accountable are compromised themselves. It is in their economic interest that teachers don’t turn up at schools. 

Article 171(3c) of our Constitution stipulates that one twelfth (roughly 8%) of the membership of the upper house of the state legislature shall mandatorily be made up of persons who are elected from a teacher constituency. In addition, state governors also often appoint teachers as MLCs. As a result, we have seen that almost 12-24 per cent of the MLCs are teachers instead of 8 per cent, which is mandatory. In other words, teacher representation in the Upper House has been much higher than what is mandated via election from the teacher constituency.

Why has this happened and been allowed to happen?

Two reasons. One, in the rural areas the teachers are the most educated, active and empowered. Given their guaranteed representation in the state legislature, a culture of political activism has developed, especially among aided school teachers. Teachers (as members of the ‘teachers’ constituency’) vote for teachers in the MLC elections, and teacher members of the ‘graduate constituency’ also often vote for teachers in the MLC elections. They often spend their time campaigning for the next election rather than teaching. The leaders of the different factions among the teachers unions want to get elected as teacher MLCs i.e. from the reserved ‘teacher constituency’. Although not all states have Upper Houses, the fact that they exist in eight larger states creates political ambitions among the teachers in smaller states too.

Where and do the aided school teachers come into the picture? 

A: Aided school teachers also fight MLA elections as they are not deemed to hold an office of profit under the government, i.e. they are not debarred from contesting election to the lower house of the state legislature because they are deemed not to be civil servants, despite the fact that aided school teachers are paid by the government treasury and at the same rate as government school teachers. My co-authored study with Professor Muzammil (former VC, Agra University) shows that in the Uttar Pradesh assembly’s lower house, 6.6% of the members were teachers, so teachers’ representation in the lower house of the assembly is 11 times their share in the state population. In fact, government school teachers have also been demanding that they be given the right to contest elections if the government-paid aided school teachers are allowed this privilege, though court after court has ruled against this demand. The net result of all this is that many teachers are not spending their time on teaching but on running campaigns, electioneering and so on.

Apart from the fact that teachers are in the corridors of power as legislators (MLAs and MLCs), they also constitute 50-67% of the polling party that mans polling booths as election time. This gives teachers a very important place in the minds of politicians who fear that disgruntled teachers could stuff the ballot boxes against them, and for this reason too, no government has the courage to ignore teachers’ demands. This has implications even for the state’s finances.  

Union-backed teachers do not fear adverse repercussions on slackness in their work. The report of the National Commission on Teachers (NCT) 1986, pointed out that “some of the Principals deposing before the Commission lamented that they had no powers over teachers and were not in a position to enforce order and discipline”.  

Nor did the District Inspectors of Schools and other officials exercise any authority over them as the erring teachers were often supported by powerful teachers’ associations. 

What can be done to change things?

I have four suggestions, but they require huge political will. To improve the political economy environment, we need to do away with the constitutionally guaranteed representation of teachers in the Upper house of the state legislature. Thus article 171 (3c) of the Constitution needs to be abolished. 

Secondly, teachers from aided schools and private schools in large numbers also contest MLA elections. The law needs to be changed to consider aided school teachers (who receive their salaries entirely from the government exchequer) as holding an office of profit under the government, rather like government school teachers who are deemed to be civil servants. This would debar aided school teachers from contesting elections and becoming politicians.

Thirdly, the election commission needs to reduce the percentage of teachers in the polling party that mans polling booths at election time, to perhaps a maximum of 25-33%. This will reduce the perceived hold of teachers over the state governments, and governments will be freer to make rational educational legislation that is not unduly influenced by the interests of the teacher lobby.

It is important to implement that appeal of the National Commission on Teachers “to promote actively parents’ organisations all over the country”. This Commission argued in favour of this as it felt that the most important factor responsible for vitiating the atmosphere in schools has been the role of teacher politicians and teachers’ organisations.

Last but probably most important, the government ought to allocate funds to schools on a per-student basis, as Direct Benefit Transfer (DBT) to parents in the form of a school voucher for each child, so that the parent can choose a school of her choice, instead of giving the government educational funds to the school. This will change the entire dynamic by making schools accountable to parents, and schools that apply low effort will not be able to attract students and thus not be able to get voucher funds. This will set up the incentives correctly. The government can first try out DBT voucher funding for the education of economically weaker section children in private schools (where it already has to reimburse those schools for educating such children), as there will be no pressure group to oppose the introduction of school vouchers here. Some states are already trying out school vouchers in India, following the example of many countries where vouchers are used, such as New Zealand, Holland, USA, Chile and Colombia, etc.

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