On Tuesday, the Ministry of Human Resources Development hosted a national workshop for states on the merger of the three major Central schemes supporting education – the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan for elementary school (Classes 1 to 8), the Rashtriya Madhyamik Shiksha Abhiyan for secondary school (Classes 9 and 10) and the Centrally Sponsored Scheme of Restructuring and Reorganisation of Teacher Education.

The ministry had on January 22 sent a concept note and draft outline of the new “Integrated Scheme for School Education” covering Classes 1 to 12 as well as teachers’ education to the states, seeking their feedback. It has said the merger will improve “school effectiveness measured in terms of equal opportunities for schooling and equitable learning outcomes”, and help instil “allocative efficiency and optimal utilisation of budgetary and human resources”.

Education experts disagree. A retired official from the Department of School Education and Literacy, which drafted the scheme, described it as “three schemes bunged together with administrative costs” and lacking in focus on quality – the professed goal of the restructuring exercise.

Agreed Kiran Bhatty, who studies education governance at the Centre for Policy Research. She said the scheme’s provisions “do not add up to improvement in quality”.

Ambarish Rai of the Right to Education Forum added that merging the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan – the only Central scheme for implementing the Right to Education Act, 2009 – with the others “may lead to elementary education being neglected”. The forum is a national platform for teachers, activists, academics and non-government organisations working on education.

The concept note attributes the idea of the merger to government think tank NITI Aayog’s India: Three-Year Action Agenda. The decision was first announced by education secretary Anil Swarup in an advisory to the states in November. Eighteen states have since appointed one project director to handle both the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan and Rashtriya Madhyamik Shiksha Abhiyan.

According to joint secretary Maneesh Garg, who issued the concept note, the Budget on February 1 will announce separate allocations for the three schemes but “during the year [they] will be combined”, as the plan is applicable from 2018-2019. The note says the budget for non-recurring expenditure “will be distributed… on the basis of data of enrolment and Aadhaar coverage of students submitted in Student Database Management Information System, up to a maximum of 20% of the total budget”.

Integrated scheme

The Ministry of Human Resource Development will run the integrated scheme and provide 60% of the funds while the states will put in the remaining 40%. The Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan follows the same Centre-state funding ratio. However, this ratio is currently 75:25 for both the Rashtriya Madhyamik Shiksha Abhiyan and the Centrally Sponsored Scheme of Restructuring and Reorganisation of Teacher Education.

For funding new schools, the integrated scheme prefers “composite schools” with children from Classes 1 (age six) to 12 (age 18), to improve transition. It envisages “the ‘school’ as a continuum from primary [Classes 1 to 5] , upper primary [Classes 6 to 8], secondary [Classes 9 and 10] to higher secondary levels [Classes 11 and 12]”.

The “composite school grant” – essentially, a maintenance grant to cover repairs and replacement of equipment and consumables, such as play material – earmarks a minimum annual amount of Rs 25,000 for schools with under 100 students and a maximum annual amount of Rs 1,00,000 for schools with over 1,000 students. Within each slab, a fixed amount is earmarked for a “swacchta [cleanliness] action plan”.

This grant is an improvement. This component currently fetches an annual Rs 5,000 for primary schools and Rs 7,000 for upper primary schools under the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, and Rs 50,000 per school per year under the Rashtriya Madhyamik Shiksha Abhiyan.

For elementary classes (Classes 1 to 8), entitlements such as free uniforms and textbooks under the Right to Education Act – which guarantees free and compulsory education for all children aged six to 14 – will continue. So will special training for children who have been out of school, though the fund for this will now be an “outcome-based component to incentivise better performing states”.

The existing provision of transport facility for all elementary students has been extended to girl students up to Class 12 whose homes are far from school. Also, library funds currently available to elementary schools will be provided to secondary and senior secondary schools. And the facility of residential quarters for teachers in remote areas under the Rashtriya Madhyamik Shiksha Abhiyan will be available for all schools.

‘Random’ provisions

Some of the provisions of the integrated scheme have education experts worried. Among them, the move to make Block Resource Centres and Cluster Resource Centres – local bodies established under the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan to provide academic guidance to schools in their jurisdiction – serve secondary and senior-secondary schools as well. One cluster resource coordinator will be put in charge of up to 18 schools in a block.

Activists say these centres are already stretched. “These bodies are few in number and I do not know if they will be able to cope,” said Bhatty.

The scheme promises an additional grant of up to Rs 5 lakhs for the added workload.

Bhatty also pointed out that there is no clarity on whether “posts of block and district elementary education officers will continue to exist or how the administrative merger will translate at the school level”. She warned, “This could wreak havoc.”

Provisions regarding teachers and their training are sketchy as well. The draft does not have a provision for filling vacant teaching posts or training untrained teachers, who numbered 15 lakh in October.

Poonam Batra of the Central Institute of Education, Delhi University, said teacher training institutions were “already languishing because the existing scheme had to be [renewed with every Five-Year Plan] and the states did not take any interest”. She said the merger would rob these institutions of what little attention they receive.

Experts also pointed to contradictions in the scheme, betraying an underlying confusion about concepts like inclusive education. While the scheme’s designers emphasise the need for an inclusive school system that can teach all groups of children, they plan to achieve it by supporting exclusionary practices such as “open schooling” for out-of-school children and home-schooling for the disabled.

“They seem to have randomly picked things,” said Bhatty. “The activities they are covering under inclusion are totally against [the principle itself]. And the government’s idea of gender and equity seems to be self-defence training and motivational camps.”

The draft of the Integrated Scheme for School Education has no provision for filling vacant teaching posts. (Credit: AFP)

Quality concerns

While the restructuring exercise is aimed at improving the quality of education, the draft has little to say on this aspect.

The scheme has earmarked funds – Rs 10 lakhs to Rs 20 lakhs per district, depending on size – for the “assessment of learning levels of children along with school evaluation” by the National Council for Educational Research and Training, the top advisory body on curriculum and learning, or an external agency. There is no equivalent provision in the existing schemes. But while the new scheme puts an emphasis on testing, it sets no targets for schools or for learning.

“The department should have delineated the outcomes expected from this sectoral approach,” said the retired education department official. “If the aim is to improve quality, what are the outcomes you are expecting in five or 10 years? Without setting standards for learning, school management and things like attendance rate, qualification of teachers, infrastructure, how do you make sure states prioritise and do not neglect the sector?”

She added, “This was a great opportunity for improving evaluation, introducing examination reforms.”

The scheme provides for a “learning enhancement programme” or remedial teaching for struggling students, but this is identical to an existing provision under the Rashtriya Madhyamik Shiksha Abhiyan. The only difference is that it has been extended to all students.

The Rs 500 earmarked for each child under the learning enhancement programme is also meant to cover the cost of implementing and improving the system of continuous comprehensive evaluation – a key component of the Right to Education Act under which a child’s progress is tracked through the year and not just based on the year-end exam.

“There is tremendous confusion,” said Bhatty. “The draft talks about quality but the 20% of funding earmarked includes very strange heads like teacher training, ICT [information and communication technology] and vocational [education] with no further details or criteria [for obtaining funds].”

Educationists also point to a crucial mechanism for monitoring built into the Right to Education Act that has received little attention in the draft. The concept note advises states to merge the school management committees and parent-teacher bodies of elementary schools with the school development management committees of secondary schools, but allocates just Rs 1,500 per year to each school committee. “The community is the best monitoring mechanism for a school, most likely to know the institution and take interest in its growth, but the school management committees are not being empowered,” said Ambarish Rai of the Right to Education Forum.

Elementary education

Of the three schemes, the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan is the only one backed by law and, over the years, has received the largest chunk of education funds, the retired education department official said. In the 2017 Budget estimates, it was allocated Rs 23,500 crores against Rs 3,830 crores for the Rashtriya Madhyamik Shiksha Abhiyan. “It is possible that through the merger [and common fund], the government is giving themselves more room to shift monies from elementary to secondary,” the official said.

Bhatty cautioned that elementary education could end up being “completely ignored”. She said, “How changes in administrative structure will impact school administration and resource distribution between schools where many primary, upper primary and secondary schools exist as separate institutions is not clear.”

The retired official added that the government may be of the view that elementary education has already seen “a fair degree of investment over the last 20-25 years”.

Once again, the activists disagree. Also expecting a shift in focus, Rai said: “The Right to Education Act itself has not been implemented completely in most schools and that has been mainly due to shortage of funds. Withdrawing more will be disastrous.”

Pointing to the fact that the government has already moved to amend the Act to scrap the no-detention policy (under which schools cannot fail children up till Class 8), Poonam Batra of the Central Institute of Education said merging the three schemes was “another step toward diluting the RTE Act”.

In its report last year, the Comptroller and Auditor General of India said that many states had failed to spend their Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan funds. But educationists argued that this was because government systems were too under-resourced to even utilise those funds.

“It is good the government acknowledges that it is not all about [schools failing to achieve high] learning outcomes and that there are systemic problems too,” said Bhatty. “But the draft [scheme] does not address any of those and the problems of spending will remain.”