In Mararikkulam South panchayat of Alappuzha district, children take their baby steps in education at pre-schools set up by the gram panchayat as part of ‘Balakairali,’ a pre-school learning project that has been around for 26 years.
Introduced as an alternative to the Anganwadi centres in 1997, the Balakairali project now prepares more than 300 children in the panchayat, which has 15,600 families, to be future achievers.
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“We started the project in 1997 when the Anganwadis were not functioning properly. We use the gram panchayat fund to run these preschools, each of which has two teachers. The teachers are more of volunteers whom we pay an honorarium of ₹6,000 per month,” says P P Sangeetha, the president of the panchayat and a CPI(M) functionary.
“It’s not a pre-school per say, but we train the children to become better human beings, and incidentally they fare well in examinations too,” added Sangeetha.
The project at Mararikkulam example is among the many projects conceptualised and executed by the local governments in Kerala after the EK Nayanar government kicked off the decentralisation drive in 1996.
The Government Upper Primary School in Trissur’s Cherayi is another illustration of what a small school can accomplish when the neighbourhood takes control of it.
For the past 10 years, the residents of Cherayi, a border village between Trissur and Malappuram districts have goaded local government for funds for allocated projects, contributed to funding gaps to ensure that projects are finished on schedule, and most importantly ensured that every child goes to school.
A three-storied modern structure with tiled floors, digitised classes with projectors, and student lockers was created from old, worn-out buildings with broken clay tiles, thanks to this decisive intervention by locals. Under Panchayati Raj rules, local governments or gram panchayats are the custodians of primary schools of their locality.
Neglect in primary education
A study conducted by the Centre for Socio-economic and Environmental Studies (CSES), a non-governmental organisation, promoting policy and action-oriented research on decentralisation in Kerala’s school education found that the students in private-aided schools and primary sections of government secondary and higher secondary schools managed by the district panchayat, receive lesser support compared to students in government primary schools that are managed by gram panchayats.
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The district panchayats give less priority to primary sections (Class 1 to 7) compared to secondary (Class 8 to Class 10) and higher secondary (Class 11 and 12) sections of schools managed by them. One of the reasons for the undesirable prioritisation is the societal perception that student performance in board examinations is the yardstick of school quality.
‘Gram panchayat model’
The study recommended the extension of some of the gram panchayat-led initiatives for students in government primary schools, to students in primary sections of government secondary and higher secondary schools, with the financial support of the district panchayats.
“We conducted the study by interviewing those who started the initiative locally in the 90s. We took Malappuram district as a case study” said Dr N Ajithkumar, director of CSES, who led the study.
“We found that the organic connection seen between gram panchayats and government primary schools was missing between district panchayats and government secondary schools. One option was to bring government high schools and higher secondary schools under gram panchayats and developing these schools as knowledge hubs of a locality. However, in order to consider this possibility, the financial resources of gram panchayats need to be enhanced through reallocation of funds,” he said.
Rope in aided schools: Study
More than half of the schools (54 per cent) and student enrolment (58 per cent) in the state are in the aided sector. Even though the state government meets the entire salary and maintenance expenditure of aided schools, local governments do not have any legal authority over these institutions under the scheme of decentralisation.
As a result, some of the opportunities and facilities enjoyed by students in government schools are not available to students in aided schools. For instance, the breakfast offered to students in government schools by some gram panchayats is not available to students in aided schools. The study recommends that goals set by local governments for school education should include students in aided schools as well. This is important as a majority of students in both the government and aided schools belong to poor and low-income households.
Learning gaps persist
The study finds that Kerala has made significant strides in school education sector during the last quarter century of decentralisation. Several initiatives in school education succeeded only because of the decentralised governance mechanism and the processes developed under it to facilitate community participation. But, available data shows that much needs to be done to improve the quality of school education in the state.
According to the 2022 Annual Status of Education Report (ASER), only 62 per cent of fifth standard students in government schools in rural Kerala can read a second-standard textbook. However, Kerala fares much better than the national average of 39 per cent. Similarly, less than half (40 per cent) of students in Class 8 know how to do division correctly. Similarly, a study conducted by CSES in 2017 found that marks received by children in annual examinations decrease as they progress from first to seventh standard.
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Education for mentally challenged
The study identifies BUDS schools of the Kudumbashree project as a promising initiative by local governments, which fills a critical gap in educational facilities available for mentally-challenged children from poor households.
However, due to lack of funds at the disposal of panchayats, these institutions are unable to meet the envisioned objectives. Given the significance of BUDS schools, the study suggests the state government to share at least half of the operating costs to improve the care and education of children in these schools.
While the state government pays for the salary component of government schools and even aided schools under private management where children without disabilities are enrolled, the absence of such support for schools specifically functioning for mentally challenged children is not justified.
‘Children’s gram sabha a must’
The study points out that, even though there is token representation of students in some of the school-level committees, they usually remain silent in the committees dominated by adults. The institutional mechanism of ‘children’s gram sabha’ is an effective platform to identify children’s felt needs with respect to their education. This platform shall be strengthened to ensure the participation of children in the decision-making process related to school education.
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In some local bodies, school teachers participate in the gram sabhas of wards where their schools are located. This practice is worth replication as the chances of gram sabha recommending school-related projects is higher in such cases, says the study.
The study, conducted a quarter century after the launch of the People’s Plan Campaign, was led by N Ajith Kumar, Aswathi Rebecca Asok, Bibin Thambi, Marina M Neerakkal and Ramshad M, researchers at CSES.