For the first time in 25 years, public schools in Kerala registered a year-on-year increase in student enrolment this year. It is a significant ahievement given that 5,715 schools were functioning without adequate student strength till 2016.

Data released by the education department last week showed that a little over 1.8 lakh students joined public schools from Classes 1 to 9 in the current academic year that began in June. This was an increase of 40,000 enrolments compared to the last academic year when around 1.4 lakh students joined public schools.

In Kerala, the academic year begins in June and ends in March. Public schools are run either directly by the government or by private managements with government support. Government-recognised self-financing schools do not come under this category. The total number of schools in all three categories in the state is 13,000.

According to the data, 70,644 students enrolled in government schools and 1,15,327 in government-funded schools.

“This is a record of sorts,” said Director of Public Instruction KV Mohan Kumar. “For the first time in 25 years, the number of student enrolments in public schools has increased compared to the previous year. We are reaping the benefits of the general education protection campaign.”

A full classroom at the government lower primary school in Ernakulam. Till 2016, 5,715 public schools in Kerala were functioning without adequate student strength.

Government campaign

The education department launched the “general education protection campaign” on January 27, 2017, as dwindling student numbers threatened the existence of many public schools.

Student strength is the criterion that determines the continuance of schools. Each class is required to have a minimum of 15 students. The State Economic Review for 2016 identified 5,715 public schools, which did not meet this requirement, as “uneconomic”, as against 5,573 schools in 2015. In June this year, the department decided to replace the term “uneconomic” in official records with “schools without sufficient student strength”.

The campaign was aimed at increasing the number of students in public schools with people’s participation. The government pumped in money to develop and improve infrastructure at these institutions. In response, people gathered in public schools in their localities and took a pledge to protect them. The government also selected one school in each Assembly constituency to be upgraded as a centre of excellence. It sanctioned Rs 5 crore to each school and asked the school’s development committee to arrange for an additional Rs 5 crore from the local development funds of members of Parliament and the Assembly. According to media reports, 149 schools were earmarked to be elevated to centres of excellence. “The project is in progress,” said Mohan Kumar.

As part of the campaign, the education department also set up 45,000 hi-tech classrooms in public schools. “Each classroom has a digital projector, screen, laptop and internet connectivity,” Mohan Kumar said. “It helps teachers provide information outside textbooks.” He added, “These initiatives have drawn many students to public schools.”

A smart classroom at the school in Ernakulam. The state government has set up 45,000 hi-tech classrooms in public schools with digital projectors and screens, laptops and internet connectivity.

The mushrooming of English-medium private schools was a major reason for the rise in the number of “uneconomic” public schools. “Parents preferred English-medium schools to public schools with Malayalam as the medium of instruction,” said Satheesh, a teacher from Kollam district. But “with the education department starting English medium classes in Malayalam medium schools”, Satheesh said parents were now starting to send their children to public schools again.

While the general education protection campaign has helped public schools attract more students, there is another contributing factor: Mohan Kumar admitted the closure of schools that were not approved by the government may have something to do with the rise in student strength. He said 1,585 unrecognised private schools were served closure notices last year under the Right to Education Act, 2009, the Right to Education Act, 2011, and the order of the Kerala State Commission for Protection of Child Rights. While a few of these schools managed to get stay orders from the Kerala High Court, the majority of them wound up operations. “Students from those schools might have enrolled in public schools,” Mohan Kumar said.

Confidence booster

The government campaign appears to have revived interest and confidence in public schools among parents.

In May, Rahul Lakshman and Lakshmi Rahul, doctors based in Kochi, enrolled their nine-year-old daughter Aryashree at a government lower primary school in Ernakulam. Teachers were surprised as the last school the child had attended was an expensive private English-medium school. “Parents have realised the importance of government schools,” said Leelamma Issac, the headmistress of the Ernakulam public school that has 160 students from Classes 1 to 4.

Lakshman agreed. “Government schools in Kerala maintain high standards,” he said. “Learning is fun in government schools whereas private schools put too much pressure on children.”

More parents are now sending their children to government schools in Kerala.

In Kozhikode district, NM Preethi said the number of students at the Malaparamba aided upper primary school of which she is headmistress rose from 65 last year to 85 this year. “Parents are happily admitting their children. It was not the case a few years ago,” she said. “The campaign has worked wonders here.”

The achievement is even more remarkable since Malaparamba was an “uneconomic” government-aided management-run schools that was taken over by the government in 2016 after the High Court had ordered its closure.

Continuing initiative

The success of the campaign has spurred the education department to come up with more measures to boost public school education in the state.

It has decided to set up libraries in 9,600 classrooms in 866 upper-primary schools and strengthen existing libraries in 1,225 high schools at a cost of Rs 10 crore.

The government is also looking to give students avenues to hone their skills outside of the classroom. “A classical dance training programme will be organised on Saturdays and Sundays at one selected school in each district,” explained Mohan Kumar. “We will set up sports, arts and cultural centres in each district soon.”

The government lower primary school in Ernakulam has 160 children studying in Classes 1 to 4.

All photographs by TA Ameerudheen.