This report was published in The Hindu on 23/03/2023
Centre for Socio-Economic and Environmental Studies study comes after a quarter century of decentralised education experience in Kerala
A study on the impact of decentralisation of school education in Kerala by the Kochi-based Centre for Socio-Economic and Environmental Studies (CSES) has called for major changes in the system to improve the quality of education. It also stressed the need for better financial backing for BUDS Schools for special children from poor families.
The 2021-2022 study found that students of private aided schools and primary sections of government-run secondary and higher secondary schools managed by district panchayats received less support compared to those in government primary schools managed by grama panchayats. District panchayats appeared to accord lower priority to primary sections compared to secondary and higher secondary sections.
One of the reasons for the “undesirable” prioritisation is a general perception that performance of students in board examinations is the yardstick of school quality. More so because all students are promoted up to Class IX and only the State-level Class X examinations draw public attention.
BUDS schools fill a critical gap. But these institutions are unable to meet their objectives owing to lack of funds with local government bodies, which alone cannot shoulder the entire cost of running the schools. The State government may share at least half the cost to improve the care given to children in such schools, the study suggested.
Kerala introduced the de-centralised approach to education under the People’s Plan Campaign in 1996, during the Ninth Five-Year Plan. Under the system, high schools and higher secondary schools are directly under district panchayats, while lower primary and upper primary schools are supervised by panchayats.
The CSES study led by N. Ajithkumar comes after a quarter century of decentralised education experience. The researchers found that the organic connection between grama panchayats and primary schools under them was missing between district panchayats and secondary schools. An option is to bring government high schools and higher secondary schools under grama panchayats to develop them as local knowledge hubs.
More than half the schools (54%) and student enrolment (58%) in the State are in the aided sector. Even though the State government foots the salary and maintenance of aided schools, local self-government bodies have no legal authority over the institutions under the decentralised system. As a result, some opportunities and facilities enjoyed by students in government schools are not available to students in aided schools. For instance, breakfast offered to students in government schools by some grama panchayats is not available to students in aided schools.
The study, therefore, recommended that students in aided schools be included in projects proposed by local governments for school education. It is important as the majority of students in both government and aided schools belong to poor and low-income households.
Despite drawbacks, the State has made significant gains through the decentralised system of education over the past 25 years. Several initiatives in school education succeeded with better community participation.
According to the 2022 Annual Status of Education Report (ASER), only 62% of Standard 5 students in government schools in rural Kerala can read a Standard 2 textbook though Kerala fares much better than the national average of 39%. Less than half (40%) the students in Standard VIII know how to carry out division correctly.
A CSES study in 2017 had found that marks received by children in annual examinations decreased as they progressed from first to seventh standard.
The study called for regular monitoring of learning achievements of students from the primary level by local self-government bodies, which will enable them to identify schools with low academic standards and make timely interventions.