The Uttar Pradesh government has proudly declared its project to end cheating in board exams a big success. More than 10 lakh students failing to appear this year is proof, it claims.

As reported in the first part of this series, in the board exams for Class 10 and Class 12 held in February, the state school board introduced a number of measures to control cheating. It reduced the number of centres, made video recording of exams compulsory and ensured the police were present in greater numbers.

But teachers say this is only addressing the symptom and not the deeper malaise in the school system. The government itself is responsible for the mass-scale cheating in the state.

For a state as populous as Uttar Pradesh, it has a bafflingly low number of government secondary schools. Consequently, most of secondary education has been left in private hands and it is here that copying is most prevalent.

Lalmani Dwivedi of the Uttar Pradesh Madhyamik Shikshak Sangh explained why. Private schools, their management and staff are largely outside the government’s regulation. “A government or aided school teacher is bound by the government’s service conditions,” said Dwivedi. “We could have our increments stopped or our salaries docked as punishment. But the government has no control over private school teachers.”

By systematically underfunding secondary education and setting up very few government schools, the government has created a system where private schools employ most of the teachers and enrol the bulk of the state’s students. This was possible because in the early 1980s, teachers were sidelined from the process of framing education policies and now they are drafted by political appointees and not education experts.

Lopsided school system

According to the 2015-’16 report of the only government database on schooling, the District Information System for Education, Uttar Pradesh has about 1.2 crore children in secondary school.

But the state has just 2,152 high schools with Classes 9 and 10, and inter-colleges with Classes 11 and 12. To put that in perspective, Delhi, with a little over 12 lakh students in secondary education, has over 1,000 schools with those classes.

According to the Allahabad-based state board, the Uttar Pradesh Madhyamik Shiksha Parishad, the state has another 5,500 secondary schools that are government-aided – they are under private management but with teaching staff recruited and paid by the government.

Consequently, 71.3% of high schools and 67.5% of intermediate schools – the highest in the country – are entirely private.

The vast majority of the 67 lakh registered candidates for the 2018 board exams were compelled to attend these schools. Dwivedi estimated these number over 18,000 and both board officials and teachers maintained that the bulk of the cheating happens in these.

Lax regulation

In the view of many government and aided school teachers, the problem of mass-copying is also linked to unchecked privatisation.

In addition to being free of the threat of government action, because of their sheer number, private school teachers are able to “hold the board at ransom”, as the board’s secretary Neena Srivastava put it. “Because they are the largest in number, no exam can be conducted without their help,” she said. “They demand higher salaries and to be made permanent but we have no control over that.” One faction “refused to cooperate” this year, compelling Srivastava to bring in reinforcements from government primary schools.

In private schools, the teachers are often low-paid and exploited. They have been accused of taking money from students in exchange for helping them cheat during exams they invigilate.

Some, like a biology teacher in Naini whom many school owners know, help broker deals between schools, examination centres, administration and board officials.

Private schools lobby to have examination centres allotted to them, affording them the chance to make money from cheating. They lobby also to have their own students, often enrolled with the promise of high marks, placed in schools where they can cheat.

“The government can debar a centre where students were caught cheating for several years but that is rare,” said a teacher from the Government Inter-College, Allahabad, who was placed at the private Bal Bharti Inter-College in ADA Colony because the school’s own staff were all arrested for aiding cheating on the first day of the exams. The residents of ADA Colony knew cheating at Bal Bharati was routine but despite that reputation, it was made an examination centre.

The teacher hoped the crackdown would see more government school students making the merit lists of top scorers.

Rural and semi-urban areas are even harder to govern and that is where private schools have proliferated most. Naini, across the Yamuna river from Allahabad, has private inter-colleges tucked away inside every residential colony, at the end of narrow lanes, on roads with vacant land on all sides. “Inside the city, it was still harder,” said a private school owner who also runs a post-graduate college, “Out here, the flying squads will not reach most of the schools.”

No steady policy

“Education policy has never been fully under government control in Uttar Pradesh,” observed Lalmani Dwivedi, who teaches at an aided school himself. In 1921, the Uttar Pradesh Intermediate Education Act was passed and based on it, the board was created. A provision of filling 24 of its 72 posts with elected representatives of teachers and principals was introduced in the late 1970s.

Lalmani Dwivedi, general secretary of the Uttar Pradesh Madhyamik Shikshak Sangh. (Credit: Shreya Roy Chowdhury)

“Uttar Pradesh was divided into 12 constituencies and each had one teacher and one principal, from government and aided schools, representing it,” said Dwivedi. “They served three-year terms and with ex-officio members decided on a variety of policies including school recognition, framing of syllabus, school timing and exams.” The last election was held in 1981, he said.

Since 1984, school teachers and principals have had practically no say in education policies, he added. In 2006, the Allahabad High Court directed the government to hold elections but the Samajwadi Party government amended the law to abolish the elected positions altogether.

“The parties that ruled the state nominated their own people into the board,” said Chet Narayan, member of the Legislative Council from the teacher’s group, Varanasi. “Without elected representatives, there was no check on it.” He argued that this led to the board indiscriminately recognising private schools with no emphasis on quality. He alleged the recognition process, too, was riddled with corruption.

While each Bharatiya Janata Party government took strong action against cheating – a move Dwivedi lauded – and subsequent ones reversed the changes, no government addressed the underlying flaws that engendered this racket.

Primary education got some attention after the Right to Education Act, 2009, was passed, but the state’s retreat from secondary education continued with policies swinging wildly with every change in regime. No matter who came to power, with every change in government, syllabi were altered, recruitment policies changed, schemes launched and withdrawn, said Dwivedi. But very few new government schools were opened. “Sab apni manmani se chalate the,” agreed Narayan. Successive governments ran secondary schooling by the own whims. Teachers bodies are now petitioning the state government to address this problem and grant them a role in decision-making.

“One government says ‘Teach Ram Manohar Lohia’ [a freedom fighter and socialist] and the next one says, ‘Teach Deen Dayal Upadhyay’ [a Right-wing ideologue],” complained Dwivedi. “Once the system ceased to be democratic, no one who had the actual experience of a classroom and knew the real state of education and children was involved. If teachers were still a part of the board, our children would not be impacted every time the government changed. But we have never had a steady policy.”