On April 11, Prakash Javadekar announced that his Union human resource development ministry would set up a committee to “suggest and strengthen teachers’ in-service training”. In-service training involves short-term courses to help teachers upgrade skills, refresh their knowledge, learn new approaches to teaching or address the immediate concerns they may face in class.

Javadekar said the decision was prompted by the discouraging findings of the National Achievement Survey, India’s largest test for assessing schoolchildren’s learning, conducted in November.

Teachers agreed that in-service training needs attention, but they pointed out that the government has cut corners with the more crucial pre-service training, which is a full-time programme involving classroom instruction and practice teaching that leads to a degree or diploma in education.

In August, the government amended the Right to Education Act to extend the deadline for ensuring all appointed teachers acquire professional qualification by 2019. The original deadline, set in 2009 when the law was passed, was 2015. Not only does the amendment allow untrained teachers – numbering about 11 lakh by the minister’s estimate – more time to acquire professional qualification, it also makes it easier. The teachers can take an online course run by the autonomous National Institute of Open Schooling through the government’s online learning portal Swayam and collect a “diploma in elementary education” or DElEd after 18 months. Alongside, they can watch the relevant programmes on Swayam Prabha television channels and attend occasional “personal contact programme” classes.

Educationists are sceptical about the effectiveness of such training. Poonam Batra, who teaches in Delhi University’s Department of Education, argued that it reduces the training process to a “course that basically gives teachers a certificate to fulfil the norms” of the National Council for Teacher Education, which regulates teacher training in the country, and the Right To Education Act. “I am not sure if even a theoretical engagement can be done online successfully,” she said. “And it is also a question of engagement, you cannot build knowledge through just reading.”

Her views were echoed by some of the 7.14 lakh teachers who have enrolled for the programme on Swayam. “We hear recordings [of lectures] but we can’t ask any questions even if the concepts are not clear,” said Vikram Kumar, a teacher in Bihar’s Muzaffarpur who is pursuing a diploma in elementary education.

While the government has effectively diluted the quality of professional training for teachers, its efforts to regulate colleges offering pre-service training have been stymied by the judiciary. Anil Swarup, the Union secretary for school education, told The Times of India that these colleges were resisting, by bringing court cases, the National Council for Teacher Education’s attempts to get them to file affidavits with details of their programmes, resources and infrastructure, and to act against those that did not.

This compounds the matter: without a “robust framework” of pre-service training, Batra pointed out, “in-service programmes are not going to make much difference or sense”. “If there are problems because teachers do not have the basic knowledge base – either they are not qualified or have gone through sub-standard programmes – in-service training will not solve the problem,” she explained.

‘Hearing the recording’

Some of the teachers enrolled in the Swayam diploma programme see room for improvement. The absence of what Batra describes as “clear engagement with the faculty” is what they struggle with the most.

Vikram Kumar frequently misses the TV programmes based on his course and the contact programmes are erratic. “The course just introduces the syllabus,” said Kumar, 33. “You have to simply accept the recorded lessons. In regular programmes offered by the District Institutes of Education and Training that some of my friends have studied, you understand the practical side of teaching better.” Bihar has more than 3.5 lakh contract teachers who, after negotiating a salary hike in 2006, are counted as permanent staff but paid far less. Over half of them are untrained.

Kumar graduated in History in 2011 and landed his first job as a teacher in 2014. Having already taught for four years and undergone some rounds of short-term training at district or block level centres, he had many questions when he joined the Swayam programme but no one to put them to. How do you build interest in a child? How important is a textbook in teaching? Should we not introduce children to the alphabet through words they already know?

Kumar has now formed a study group with some others taking the Swayam programme to discuss each other’s questions.

Following Javadekar’s announcement that untrained teachers could join the online programme, the National Council for Teacher Education hastened to recognise the National Institute of Open Schooling’s programme. But Batra argued that the programme “violates the NCTE’s norms” requiring the first degree in teacher training to be obtained through a classroom teaching programme.

Teachers enrolled through Swayam have found that the few “personal contact classes” cover the most useful part of the course. Sanjay Raushan, 31, a teacher in Dardha, also in Muzaffarpur, said the weekend classes help him much as there is discussion and doubts are clarified, albeit by a trainer who had first introduced himself as the owner of a coaching centre.

Raushan said he gets some “new ideas” about how to teach and participates in teaching role-play in class, but is “not very satisfied” on the whole. “There is no one to see what is actually happening inside the school, to guide us on the practical aspects,” he said.

The six-month teaching internship in the conventional diploma course was “subsumed within the duration of the 18 months” for this lot of trainees with the justification that they are already teaching.

In West Bengal, even the contact classes are not helping much because most are conducted in Hindi or English, said Abhijit Mukherjee of the All Bengal Primary Teachers’ Association. About 40,000 untrained teachers in the state have signed up for the Swayam programme, he said.

‘A robust framework’

The model pre-service diploma programme and the Framework for Curriculum Design for Teacher Training notified by the National Council for Teacher Education in 2010 emphasised preparing teachers to deal with “real children” and “multiple childhoods that emerge from different sections of society”, said Batra. “They study not just children’s development, psychological orientation and how they learn, but also social issues, contemporary Indian issues so that we are able to locate the education of children in a larger contemporary and historical context of Indian society,” she added

The National Curriculum Framework of 2005, formulated by the National Council of Educational Research and Training, too emphasised the “need to address diversity and bring that into the curriculum and the classroom discourse”, Batra said.

The 2010 framework was aligned with this mission. In addition, the “robust teacher training framework” insisted that the “pedagogical approach”, or how something is taught, must be based on the subject itself, Batra said. For example, how mathematics is taught must be dictated by what mathematics is all about. The theory and the practical converged in a course and a six-month internship.

But 11 lakh teachers have entered classrooms without this foundational training, and instead of receiving updated professional training they have relied on conventional guidance from the previous generation of teachers. As Raushan explained, senior teachers in his school guided his classes and paper marking strategies. The online training he is receiving now is unlikely to equip him with more than a certificate of qualification.

Batra had seen an earlier version of the online programme and found it “very disconnected, with no coherence between papers and courses”. Mukherjee too felt it was not “rigourous training”. “These are very short courses, teachers are called to a hall and someone lectures them for five days and goes away,” he said. “Their inputs cannot be put into practice.”

Some names have been changed on request.