As India awaits the sound of the bugle marking the end of the war against COVID-19, state education departments have an opportunity to catalyse systemic transformation. While efforts are underway to build resilient post-COVID education systems, one seemingly counterintuitive intervention—school consolidation—can single-handedly address multiple, inter-linked challenges. But why school consolidation? India has far too many schools, reflecting inefficient resource allocation. While the intent of several governmental efforts has been to universalise access, the statistics reveals its fallouts.
The confounding context: With over 15 lakh schools and 25 crore students, the average Indian school has six teachers, 160 students and a healthy pupil-teacher ratio (PTR) of 27:1. The flaw in an analysis of averages, however, lies in the disparities it hides. For example, the maximum variation in PTR is seen between states not too far apart—under 9 in Sikkim to over 42 in Bihar. In terms of proportions, regional differences bring up interesting revelations. Home to 10% of India’s students, Bihar has less than 6% of the country’s tally of schools, while Assam has almost twice the proportion of schools vs. students.
With 18% of the nation’s school-going population, Uttar Pradesh has less than 14% of India’s teachers. The average number of students per school varies from 65 in Meghalaya to over 1,000 in Chandigarh. Unsurprisingly, there is an 11-times difference in the range of teachers per school between Meghalaya (4) and Chandigarh (44). A deeper delve throws out stark ironies. First, despite the annual capacity to produce 19 lakh new teachers through 17,000-odd teacher education institutes, India still has 14 lakh vacancies. Consequently, 8% of the total schools are single-teacher schools. Further, the spread of teaching resources is skewed in favour of urban regions; and subject-teacher PTRs in secondary education are excessively high. It’s around the 1,000-mark for mathematics in Jharkhand and social studies in Odisha.
Second, trends in the number of schools and students are inverse. Total enrolment is falling, yet more schools are being opened. Between 2010-18, enrolment fell by 7 lakh but the number of schools increased by 1.5 lakh. Falling enrolment is in sync with demographic changes as evidenced by the reduced proportion of younger people in the population. Third, there is a rise in the number of sub-optimal schools defying the fundamentals of ‘economies of scale’. During the last two decades, the number of schools with less than 50 students enrolled has increased by over 10-percentage points. Today, a third of our schools have less than 50 students while only one-fifth have more than 200 students.
A chain of challenges: Too many schools, too few students and inadequately distributed teachers lead to widespread multi-grade multi-level learning. This gets exacerbated in single-teacher schools where for instance, one teacher has to simultaneously teach children from Classes 1 to 8. With less staff, the teachers also face the disproportionate burden of administrative work; school monitoring becomes harder to administer and the limited resource pie gets divided into too many pieces, affecting the foundations of the education system.
The abysmal status of learning reflects these systemic challenges. The World Bank’s estimate of learning poverty suggests that over 50% of India’s children at the late primary age lack reading proficiency. And the COVID-19 crisis threatens to deepen this poverty. Catalysing change: Optimising school structures requires interventions to consolidate/merge schools. While different types of school mergers are possible, it is essential for its design to suit local contexts. NITI Aayog’s project Sustainable Action for Transforming Human Capital (SATH) with three states—Madhya Pradesh, Jharkhand and Odisha, home to a fifth of India’s government schools—provides an ideal template with the cumulative consolidation of over 26,000 schools.
For states with a high number of same-campus schools, horizontal mergers of the same school type may be undertaken. Madhya Pradesh had 1.2 lakh public schools of which 50% of the primary schools had under 40 students while 20,000 were single-teacher schools. The government began with merging schools within 100 metres of each other. With over 19,000 schools successfully merged, there has been a reduction in multi-grade multi-level teaching where the number of schools with more than two grades per teacher has reduced by 14 percentage points and the number of schools with headmasters has more than doubled.
For states with schools at different levels, vertical mergers could be pursued to create integrated schools with both elementary and secondary classes. For example, Aspirational District Khunti in Jharkhand merged seven schools to create a model 1-12 school. The district also innovated with a transportation system to ensure all students are able to access the new school. On aggregate, the benefits include a 10% increase in enrolment and estimated savings through reduced resource requirements amounting to a few hundred crores for the state exchequer. Community involvement also increases due to larger parent groups.
The SATH project shows that the consolidation exercise, if implemented strategically, leads to no downsides. Fears of an increase in dropouts are not borne out on the ground. These efforts have even contributed to significant learning improvements across all three states. Critical caveats: In pursuance of pooling resources, one mustn’t lose sight of core development objectives. School consolidation must not be undertaken where there is a threat to access, equity and learning for the most vulnerable, remote or underserved sections.
The planning exercise must weigh costs, benefits and externalities after consultations, factoring in the local needs and aspirations of communities. As policymakers seize the opportunity to reimagine systems, it is time to think and act big. The scars of an inefficient system must be undone by creating well-equipped schools that deliver quality education for every child.
The author works on education policy at NITI Aayog. Views are personal