A local government's decision in August to shut down 34 schools in India's northeastern state — after none of their students passed a critical exam this year necessary to receive a graduation certificate — has been termed by critics as "illogical" and "senseless."
Hundreds of thousands of students from schools in the state of Assam sat for the High School Leaving Certificate exam. More than 1,000 students, from the 34 schools that were shut down, failed the exam.
Although parents and teachers blamed the inconveniences faced by the students during COVID-19 lockdowns for the poor results, the Assam government chose to close down the 34 schools — which are mostly located in rural areas — and send all students to better-performing schools in the neighboring areas.
"It is the primary duty of schools to impart education to children. If a school fails to perform this duty and students fail the crucial exam like HSLC, it is pointless to keep running the school," Assam's education minister Ranoj Pegu said.
"The government cannot spend taxpayer's money for schools with zero success record."
The performance of some 2,500 other schools is also being assessed, and more schools are likely to be closed for what the government insists are "performance-related reasons," several sources said.
Teachers and education activists blamed the poor infrastructure of the government schools in Assam as the root cause of the crisis.
"By shutting down the schools the government is handing out a collective punishment to the students and teachers. They should have rather conducted a survey in all government schools to find out why exactly the students performed badly," Bhupen Sarma a teacher and educationist in Assam told VOA.
"Following the survey, with the help from expert agencies, the government should have adopted policies to improve the infrastructure in those schools."
In the past six years, 6,000 government elementary schools — where first through fifth grade students usually study — have also been closed by the government in Assam.
In most cases those schools were closed because very few students were attending, the government said.
Sarma said "poor infrastructure" in those elementary schools was the main factor that led to their closure.
"Some of those schools had no teacher at all. Others had only one teacher in each school, for students of five different classes [grades]," Sarma said. "Since the government kept the infrastructure of those elementary schools in very poor shape, most families avoided sending their children to those schools, and finally the government closed down those 6,000 schools."
During the COVID-19 lockdowns, course work for many students, mostly in rural areas, were disrupted and it was one of the reasons why the students of those 34 schools performed poorly in the HSLC exam, Sarma added.
"The government [public] high schools in Assam's rural areas often have a lack of teachers. This factor might have also contributed to the failure of the students in the HSLC exams. Instead of taking steps like finding out the reasons behind the students' failure in the exams and addressing those faults, they took a senseless decision to close down the schools," he said.
Recently, after the government responded to a Right to Information application, from some activists, it became known that in Assam there were 3,221 schools, each having only one teacher and 341 of them had no teacher at all.
Souvik Ghoshal, a high school teacher in the neighboring state of West Bengal said that during the COVID-19 lockdowns many students across the country could not study well, which might have been an important reason behind the failure of the students in the Assam schools.
"Most of the poor and lower middle-class families send their children to government schools in India. During the COVID-19 lockdowns, almost all schools switched to the online mode, most of the children in the government schools — especially in rural areas — could not afford to have their smart phones that they needed to attend the online classes," Ghoshal told the VOA.
"Some, despite having smartphones in their families, could not arrange money to pay for the Internet services. Only a small section of the government school students could regularly attend the online classes during the lockdowns."
A survey conducted last year by a group of educationists across over 15 Indian states, including Assam, indicated that during the COVID-19 lockdowns only 24% students in urban areas had attended the online classes regularly. And, in the rural areas, just 8% of the students had regular access to online classes.
Mahmud Hossain, a teacher in Assam's Barpeta district, blamed a shortage of teachers as the biggest reason for the poor performance of the students in Assam.
"Most teachers happen to be posted in urban areas. The crisis of teachers is more acute in rural areas. This is why the students in rural areas are performing badly in exams," Hossain told VOA.
As per India's National Education Policy 2020, every school should ensure that the pupil-teacher ratio, there is below 30:1. In areas with large numbers of socially and economically disadvantaged students the PTR should be under 25:1, according to the policy.
Across socioeconomically disadvantaged rural areas of Assam' schools, the PTR is as dismal as 150:1, Sarma said.
"Over 70% of the elementary to high school standard students in Assam study in government schools — they cannot go to private schools where the educational infrastructure is better," Sharma said.
"The government has to upgrade the infrastructure of the government schools if they want the students to perform well."