Adverse teacher-student ratio leading to poor learning, dropouts in this minority education block in Assam

Students at a school in Assam | Photo by Mahibul Hoque

This is the second part of a four-part TCN Ground Report series on how a bad teacher-student ratio also called pupil-teacher ratio (PTR) exists in Dalgaon education block, an education block in the Muslim minority area, in the Darrang district of Assam. Data from the school year 2019-2020 for the education block show that Dalgaon with a PTR of 49:1 in upper primary schools (from vi to viii standards) was far poorer than the worst-performing states, and in lower primary schools (from 1st to 5th standards), with a PTR of 35.88:1, remained almost at par with Bihar 38:1 PTR and Delhi Union Territory, the bottom performing states in India. The education block fares way below the national average in terms of PTR and fails miserably to comply with the Right to Education (RTE) Act 2009 mandated PTR. The first part of the story can be read here

Mahibul Hoque,

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Mazid Ali appears much older than his age. His dyed hair resembles the facial hair of an adolescent boy. He has just returned from Arunachal Pradesh where he worked as a mason earning Rs 12,000 per month. He started working last year when schools across India were shut down following the announcement of a nationwide lockdown. But it was not just the closing of his school, also his lost hope in education.

“It was so much fun in school. There were more than a hundred students sometimes in the classroom and it was so loud. When there was a shortage of teachers we would go to another section for a joint class. When two classes mix, it was fun,” he said explaining his time before dropping out from 8th standard from No 3 Shyampur Middle English Madrasa (now called Middle English School) which has the worst teacher-student ratio in the Darrang district as well as Dalgaon Education Block, an educationally backward block responsible for the education of mostly Muslim minority population.

Now 18-year-old Mazid officially left school when the lockdown was announced. However, it was his waning interest in a school that he choose to start working to earn money. “I used to score decent marks in exams. I hoped to do something good, standard in future after completing my studies. But had my interest in education not waned, I would have continued. What is the point of staying in the classroom when I cannot hear anything? By the time I reached 7th standard, I began to feel that there is no point continuing education as without proper guidance and in packed classrooms how could I learn for higher classes?” he asked as he sat on a bench near his former school.

Mazid’s village is No 1 Arimari, a char or a riverine area around three kilometres from the Brahmaputra where floods ravage the houses mostly belonging to peasant population, their crops and also wash away cattle. Destitution and poverty is a regular example. Losing interest in any other thing would result in getting into the workforce—either farm labour, masonry or migration to other states.

Seventeen-year-old Safiqul Islam is from the same village. He studied till 7th standard and dropped out two years ago. He was also a student of No 3 Shaympur ME School. He described his fondness for sports while he was in school. But he does not want to study anymore. “Why would I study now as I am already earning money. Would going to school get me a good job?” he told 

His statement is a commentary on his experience during school. “Too many students were there. Most of the other (senior) students would leave school for work,” he said.

While both the former students said that they miss running around at the school and the games they played at school organized by the teachers, they were sure that they are not going back to school.

Similarly, 52-year-old Iman Ali, from another village, who is a tenant farmer and cultivates on five bighas of land, told that while his children were young he would think that one of his children might change the fate of the family through education and by getting a government job. However, out of poverty and in need of helping hands at his farmland, Ali asked his two sons to join him in the fields and got his two daughters married off at the age of 14 and 15 years. Ali did not wish to reveal his full identity.

Pointing towards a small rise of the canal built by the government for irrigation purposes, Ali said, “Even if you want to climb this small slope, you need to learn the basics of walking. The same goes for education. If a child has to do well in senior classes, his foundations have to be proper. Now without a good education in the early years, my sons started doing poorly in school and I had to get them out as teachers were not there to take special care of them. I could not afford a private school for them”.

Gulap Hussain, 34, from No 3 Baruajhar village said that he could study up to the twelfth standard and had to start working to support the family of nine members. But he lamented that he could not make his younger brothers study beyond primary school. “Both of them are farmworkers now. They simply could not learn the compound Assamese words and mathematics. Though I had provided them with the option of studying but only because they failed to grasp the subjects, they left school,” he said. 

Teachers from the greater areas under the Dalgaon-Sialmari education block reflected similar sentiments. The schools in minority education remain overburdened as enrolment has risen significantly over the past years. However, appointments of teachers in higher sections have not been as per the requirements of the schools.

Along with this, schools also face another difficulty in the form of high enrolment in the ninth standard. 

According to the RTE Act 2009 and Sarva Siksha Abhiyan (SSA), a mission for universal education for children between 6 to 14 years, every enrolled student has to be promoted to the next standard. “This has resulted in the higher enrollment of students in ninth standard, irrespective of the child’s learning ability,” said Mazibur Rahman, vice-principal at Bechimari Higher Secondary School, the school with the highest enrollment in the district and lowest number of teachers among the only four higher secondary schools under the education block.

As per the SSA mission, children up to 14 years have to be mandatorily enrolled in schools. This system has brought the eighth standard within the upper primary section in India. As the ninth standard comes under high schools, students promoted to high school needs to enrol themselves in the class. Hence, apart from the school from which a student is promoted to 9th, other students from various nearby upper primary schools seek admission to high schools. In this process, high schools also see a huge number of enrolments.

“Every year we enrol around 287 students in the ninth standard, out of these around 130 children appear in the tenth standard. For example, for the school years 2019 and 2020, 136 and 122 students appeared in the tenth board exams and 47 and 42 children failed the exams respectively for the corresponding years. This happens due to low-level learning or slow learning. Again, by the time these children reach us, they are out of their foundational learning years, where worse PTR in lower sections already hampers their learning process,” Rahman told me.

Many of these pupils, who fail in the board exams or ninth standard exams, migrate either to private schools or drop out of schools as their parents cannot afford the fees of private schools.

Similar to the views of Rahman, Mofizuddin Ahmed, the headmaster at Daipam High School told that around 150 students enrol in the ninth standard in his school. “We hardly find a minimum standard of learning among these students. Despite our consistent efforts, around 30 to 40 students fail every year. This is because they reach us at a juncture where their foundational learning years are complete and lack of teachers in the high school also hamper individual care,” he said.

“Substantially, a high teacher-student ratio has a major impact upon the children for low or slow learning apart from being first-generation learners in these areas. Their progress remains somewhat slow and eventually many fail when they encounter the pass-fail system for the first time in ninth standard or the tenth standard,” he said. 

While the RTE Act provides for, “Children’s right to an education of equitable quality, based on principles of equity and non-discrimination” and SSA aims for “universal access and retention, bridging of gender and social category gaps in education and enhancement of learning levels of children,” the higher number of PTR in Dalgaon education block hinder the learning outcome of students.

Experts from the education sector from Assam maintained that for quality education and learning achievements of students, a healthy teacher-student ratio is desirable.

“When the number of students against teachers remains within the RTE mandate, then students’ participation remains high. In such a situation, an environment of cohesive learning can be created and teachers can also identify the potentials of students and difficulties in the learning process. Then they can take individual care to address them. A teacher can then motivate the child which impacts the learning process of the child. Eventually, this shall lead to quality education. If the classroom has too many students, then that adversely impacts the learning outcome and it also may create an environment of anxiety among children as disciplinary methods may be used by a teacher to control, let’s say, the noise in the room,” assessed Phunu Das, Associate Professor in the department of education at Cotton University who specializes in primary education.

Child psychology and primary education expert, Professor Gayatree Goswami of Gauhati University also holds similar views. She said from day one individual care is a must for joyous learning in primary education. “If a teacher cannot reach out to every student then it becomes a burden for the student to learn. For quality education, therefore, a better teacher-student ratio is a prerequisite,” she added.

However, Padma Nath, the Block elementary education officer of Dalgaon education block also highlighted that pupils in the region do not have basic infrastructure at home. He said that several students do not have the means to study as their parents cannot support them at home. “Apart from many families not having proper lights at their homes, children often have to work in agricultural lands. Thus they cannot devote a certain amount of time to studies which also contribute to slow learning,” he said. 

“Do you think any father would want their daughters to get married as a child bride in this age (21st century)? But I had to get my daughters married off when they were in seventh standards. She was not doing well enough in her studies and scored low marks in examinations throughout and slowly I lost all hopes that she would bring pride to the family through excellent results in education. Being poor I could only think that all the money was going to get wasted, so what other option I had to protect her dignity if not get her married as she was out of school? Is it my fault or her fault or is it the systematic problem of negligence at educational institutes?” Iman Ali said about the marriage of his two daughters at the young age of 14 and 15 years.

The slow learning due to bad PTR, among other reasons, to a large extent contribute to dropouts in ninth and tenth standards.