Education International
Education International

The need to overcome the teacher gap in India

published 28 March 2011 updated 14 September 2012

In September 2010, Mireille de Koning, from EI’s Research Unit, set off on a visit to four states in India to undertake research on teacher training for non- and under-qualified (contract) primary teachers. She spent her time meeting with policy makers and teachers about the main challenges to quality teacher training. In this report she shares some reflections of her visit, for which the All India Primary Teachers Federation provided organizational support. The full study will be published later this year.

Entering the classroom, I cheerfully call out: ‘Namaste…!’

Forty excited 9-10 year olds stand up with a clatter, look from me to their teacher and back at me, before chiming in harmony: ‘nam-mas-ste-e-e!!”

Pointing to myself I hesitantly pronounce: ‘ M?r? n?ma Mireille hai’ (My name is Mireille). Rows of shyly smiling children watch curiously. A few giggles. I look over at their teacher who nods reassuring before calling for the children to sit down again.

In almost all the schools and classrooms I visit across India similar scenes are played out – in public schools in Delhi, small village schools surrounding Lucknow, rural districts near Bhopal, and in the ever-expanding Calcutta suburbs, where - having forgotten that the children don’t speak Hindi – my standard greeting was met with confused giggles. Everywhere I go, I am welcomed ceremoniously with flower garlands, songs, chai tea, before being proudly shown around the rudimentary school facilities – chattering children trailing behind us or staring wide-eyed from open doorways. Sometimes the parents come in from the villages to meet the union leaders I am travelling with.

Meeting with education policy makers and implementers in their cluttered offices in Delhi and state capitals, is a world apart from the daily routine of a rural village schools in Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and West Bengal. This gap between top-level policy makers and the reality in the classroom illustrates the difficulties in organizing and coordinating an ever-expanding public education system to meet the needs of a society characterized by extreme socio-cultural, religious, linguistic and wealth divisions. Guaranteeing ‘education for all’ is no easy task in the Indian sub-continent home to over 1.1 billion people, where it is estimated that millions of children do not have adequate access to school.

Ensuring that teacher recruitment and retention keeps pace with developments in education is a major challenge. In recent decades many state governments have resorted to the recruitment of contact teachers on low wages and with little or no professional training. Although difficult to determine, an estimated 500,000 para-teachers are working in schools across the country, and their numbers are increasing. What was initially seen as a short term solution has now become entrenched in the Indian education system. Coming up with pragmatic solutions to achieve quality teacher recruitment and training is an increasingly pressing issue for teacher unions and the wider education sector, and one for which there is no easy solution.

Witnessing large-scale strikes organized by para-teachers demanding higher wages; seeing the contrasts in school conditions from colourfully-decorated classrooms to single-class schools where the children are present but not the teacher; listening to university professors claim that sweeping government reforms in education are not leading to real changes in the classroom – a picture emerges of an education system which is unafraid of innovation but where equity remains elusive. Considering the high esteem in which education is held in India, one wonders why policy makers seem to turn a blind-eye to the undertrained para-teacher working in a poorly resourced classroom not 30km from the state capital.

Is enough being undertaken to marry policy and practice to overcome the quality gap in education? Are teacher unions getting their voice heard in the education debate, or could more be done? What are feasible, yet economically viable, solutions to teacher training? Are the issues simply too complex in an already highly fractured education system and society where almost half the population live in poverty?

In every school I visit, I am overcome by the same feeling – the conditions may be poor, the resources scarce, children may be sitting on uncovered cement floors in bare-walled crowded classrooms, sharing books, and the teachers may be earning far below a decent wage – but no one is giving up. Almost daily newspaper articles and blogs debate the newly passed Right to Education Act, while union activists speak passionately how more needs to be done so that every child gets the chance to access the best possible education from professionally trained teachers.

It is 6am and I am in a taxi on the way to the airport. Calcutta is waking up as we drive through swarming streets where families are living in tent-like constructions alongside the main roads - women are hunched over small stoves preparing meals, men crouched in gutters lathering themselves with soap, young men carrying baskets on their heads laden with goods for sale, and the ubiquitousrickshaw drivers stretched over their seats waiting for the next passenger.

A sidewalk tent flap lifts and a young mother emerges in a colourful sari. She pushes two small well-groomed, uniform-clad children out in front of her, carrying small backpacks, their wet hair parted neatly to the side. I watch as they turn to walk in the opposite direction, heading to school.

By Mireille de Koning, Education International

This article was published in Worlds of Education, Issue 37, April 2011.