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The Indian school system is the largest in the world with over 1.5 million schools and 260 million children studying from classes 1 to 12. The priority of Indian policymakers and planners since Independence has been making school accessible to children in all habitations. Almost every habitation in the country—whether it is the plains, hills, valleys, or desert—has an elementary school within a 3 km radius. The vastness of the number and the spread of schools comes with enormous complexity in the structure of the schooling system. Schools are fragmented into different levels including primary (1-5), Upper-primary (6-7 or 6-8), secondary (8-10, or 9-10), higher secondary (11-12), with combinations between them varying across and states while managed by different government and private bodies. 

The government schools’ expansion in the post-RTE (Right to Education) era was to primarily meet the neighborhood norms and political priorities rather than the actual demand in a given region. Although both government and private schools have expanded in the last two decades, enrollment growth is primarily driven by private schools, especially due to the emergence of low-cost private schools. Between 2010-11 and 2015-16, while private school enrollment rose by 17.5 million, government schools lost nearly 13 million. The massive exodus of students from government schools has resulted in the growth of small and tiny schools (in terms of enrollment) in both urban and rural areas. In 2016-17 about 28% of India’s public primary schools and 14.8% of India’s upper primary schools had less than 30 students, according to UDISE (Unified District Information System for Education) data. Nearly 7,000 schools have zero enrollment. More than 10% of the schools (1.19 lakh) have a single teacher, with the majority being primary schools.

Small schools are economically unviable and challenging to administer due to limited teaching and infrastructural resources. Small, geographically dispersed schools pose challenges to school governance and management, teaching and learning processes. Multi-grade teaching is common and teachers are overburdened, compromising the teaching quality. Lack of subject-wise teachers and specialists for areas like sports, music and arts, the students in small schools miss out on a diverse learning experience. Separation of small primary schools from upper primary, and secondary schools breaks the continuity of schooling leading to higher drop-out rates. There is a need go beyond the physical access to schools and provide students, especially those from lower socio-economic background, with functional schools.

The New Education Policy (NEP), which is in its final stages of approval, has recognized these structural issues in the Indian school system and has proposed ways to restructure them. The NEP builds on the idea of a school complex first proposed in the Indian context by the Kothari Commission. A school complex is primarily a network of neighborhood schools led by one secondary school. These schools will function cooperatively, sharing teaching, staff, and infrastructural resources. It proposes school complexes to integrate early child education with up to higher secondary levels.

According to the NEP, a school complex will build a team of teachers, school leaders, and other supporting staff, share material resources such as libraries, science laboratories and equipment, computer labs, and sports facilities as well as human resources such as social workers, counsellors, and specialized subject teachers including teachers for music, art, languages, and physical education across schools in the complex. Such a school complex, the NEP says, would bring greater resource efficiency, better functioning, coordination, governance, and better management of schools in the schooling system. It would also improve support for children with special needs, better student support, incorporation of art, music, language, physical education, and other subjects in the classroom through the sharing of teachers and improve enrolment, attendance, and performance. The schools will be locally managed through School Complex Management Committees (in lieu of the School Management Committees under RTE) to improve governance, monitoring, and innovations by local stakeholders.

The proposal to reorganize public school systems into school complexes, although a sound idea, poses enormous difficulties in operationalization. The process has to deal with integrating heterogeneous system of schools with different management teams. In cities, schools run by state governments, municipal bodies, and state-aided private schools would have to be administratively integrated. In rural areas, one may have to integrate state run schools, ashram schools, and residential schools. School complex might instigate reactions that could include opposition from the local members, loss of power and autonomy to teachers, logistical difficulty in sharing resources within the cluster, and challenges in redeployment of teachers etc. Integrating early childhood education with schools will require coordination between the Ministry of Women and Child development (which runs the Anaganwadi’s) and MHRD. Many villages and gram panchayats do not have secondary or higher secondary schools, and additional financial resources would  be needed to construct them within the campus. School complexes will be challenged to operationalize in difficult terrains like the Himalayan belt, deserts, or dense forests in tribal areas.

The NEP has suggested interesting approaches to restructuring the school system to make it efficient, functional, and effective. However, the policy has to take cognizance of the complexities of schooling system in India, regional variations, and community perception of schooling implementation challenges. A one-size-fits-all approach will be ineffective. A common goal should be accompanied by a differentiated approach to cater to the complexities of schooling in India.

Shivakumar Jolad
Associate Professor of Public Policy