SMRITI Irani, the former Union Minister of Human Resources Development, had once said the Centre was studying the feasibility of replicating Punjab’s ‘residential schools for meritorious students’ model in the entire country.
Six such schools, one each at Ludhiana, Jalandhar, Patiala, Bathinda, Amritsar and Mohali, were started by the state government in 2014-15. They were made operational under ‘Society for Promotion of Quality Education for Poor and Meritorious Children’.
This year, three more such schools, each at Gurdaspur, Ferozepur and Sangrur, were opened, taking the total to nine with a total of 4,500 seats — 500 in each school
The schools also made an effort to be gender inclusive in a state with one of the worst sex ratios in the country. The first six schools had 300 seats for girls and 200 for boys. This has been increased to 375 for girls and 175 for boys in three new schools, seeing more girls were seeking admission there than boys.
All residential, the schools provide students boarding, lodging, hostel, food, books, uniforms free of cost and even free coaching to prepare for competitive exams.
Punjab Finance Minister Parminder Singh Dhindsa, during his 2016-17 budget speech, said the state government has spent Rs 65 crore in 2015-16 on seven residential meritorious schools, in Amritsar, Bathinda, Jalandhar, Ludhiana, Mohali, Patiala and Hoshiarpur, and Rs 90 crore on setting up three new such schools at Ferozepur, Sangrur and Gurdaspur. He announced Rs 105 crore for meritorious schools for 2016-17, and Rs 15 crore for higher education of deserving students in these schools.
When the schools first began, Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal described the project as his “dream”. The schools provide free senior secondary education to students scoring more than 80 per cent marks in Class X. The condition is that they must be from government schools only.
Badal had then said that “the government has taken up the task to prepare these government school students, mostly from financially weaker backgrounds, for competitions at international level and admissions in professional colleges”.
For the first time this year, the government decided to hold a common entrance test (CET) for admissions to the schools. The students were tested in English, Maths and Science.
All those who appeared for the test had scored more than 80 per cent in their Class 10 examination, the minimum eligibility to appear in the test. Almost 10,255 students were eligible this year but only 6,547 appeared for first CET of which 3,082 cleared the exam. With almost 1,500 seats still going vacant, the government was forced to conduct a second CET in which 1,054 more qualified. That means 400 seats are still vacant.
The admissions process as well as the Class 12 results of the first batch of meritorious school students have raised a number of questions to which there are no clear answers yet, but which, most agree, will need to be addressed if the project is to truly empower children with ability but without means with the gift of a good education.
In March 2016, the first lot of 2,053 students from these schools appeared for the Class XII board exams conducted by Punjab School Education Board (PSEB). On the merit list were 23 students from these schools. None made it to the top 10, but they were ranked not too badly either — from positions 12 to 22. As many 297 students secured more than 90 per cent marks and 956 students got 80-90 per cent marks.
But there was a shocker too — 47 students failed in the exam. Eighteen of them got below 60 per cent marks and 166 students got 60-70 per cent marks.
The key issue, according to educationists, remains that of education at the primary and middle levels and the improvement of learning outcomes in the early stages. Unless this takes place, meritorious schools cannot catch enough talent, and the catch itself will be only as good as what a mediocre system throws up.
“The best is not really the best is what we have felt. Almost 25-30 per cent of them lack that level. This year things have improved as we conducted an entrance exam for admission to these schools. It has helped in eliminating the average ones further so that brighter gets chance,” said retired Colonel Amarjit Singh, principal, Ludhiana Meritorious School.
As reported first by The Indian Express, this year PSEB made the decision to give 20-27 grace marks to students in class X and XII which has put the entire education system under a scanner.
This underlines one of the key challenges being faced by meritorious schools, which is how to ease students into the sudden and steep ascent of the learning curve from Class 10, accentuated by having to learn everything in English.
In Class 12, students across Punjab’s government schools switch from the PSEB syllabus to the NCERT syllabus followed in CBSE schools. Along with this, the medium changes from Punjabi to English, as PSEB books adopt NCERT syllabus which is in English.
For students in the meritorious schools, this turns out to be a bigger burden to carry compared to students in other government schools because of higher expectations from them: they are also simultaneously being coached to appear for competitive exams and entrance exams of professional colleges. Their monthly scores are closely tracked by education minister himself.
Teachers and principals of meritorious schools say English remains the main stumbling block, as half of the session is devoted to giving the students a crash course in the language.
“When our teacher says ‘Tom is a boy’ and asks students to write it down, some still write it in Punjabi. In English books, they are underlining difficult words and writing their meanings in Punjabi. Students here cannot be blamed at all because this is what they were taught for ten years and suddenly in eleventh year you give them English books and ask them to excel,” said a principal of a meritorious school.
“In the present scenario, if you have to excel in national or international exam or appear for an interview, you cannot do that until English speaking and writing is not fluent. It is expected from us to produce students who crack IIT or PMT or CA exams in two years when they did not study Maths or science in English for ten years,” said one teacher.
Another teacher said, “The government forgets the definition of ‘meritorious’ students that we are dealing here with. They were not Class X toppers like those of CBSE schools with fluent English writing and speaking skills and a whole lot of exposure to internet and outside world, but those coming from extremely poor backgrounds.”
Data accessed by The Indian Express from the office of Director Public Instructions (DPI) Secondary Education Punjab shows there are only 866 English teachers under “master” cadre for 11.38 lakh students for classes 6 to 10. That is, one teacher per 1,314 students. Punjab is short of at least 6,000 English teachers for class 6 to 10.
“Till Class 10 these students get PSEB question papers in bilingual form (Punjabi and English) but here it’s only in English. Now we are starting with special English extra classes, which will be conducted by British Council trained teachers,” said Major General K A S Bhullar, the meritorious schools project director.
Even in meritorious schools, there are only four sanctioned posts of English teachers in each. In most of the first six schools, two of these are lying vacant which implies that two teachers are teaching 1,000 class XI and XII students (20 sections), taking minimum 6-7 periods a day. The three new schools have only two English teachers each as yet, keeping in view that they have to teach only a Class XI batch this year.
The other challenge is that the meritorious schools are not able to follow the prescribed ideal teacher student ratio of 1:30. Each school has 20 sections (10 each for Class XI and XII) with 50 students each, making the ratio considerably higher 1:50.
Education Minister Daljit Singh Cheema said: “No posts in meritorious schools will be vacant. Till recruitment, we send teachers from education department on deputation.”
The schools were running even without principals for a year before the CM announced appointments of ex-servicemen as their principals.
Beyond these, there are a host of other stumbling blocks, including homesickness that affects both children and parents.
“It is a strict 4.30 am to 11 pm schedule, which includes study and sports hours, and children are not used to such disciplined life. Then there are parents who call up every second day, saying they want to withdraw the child. To solve this, regular parents’ counselling sessions have to be conducted. Stations are allotted on the basis of merit ranks and if a child’s home is in Amritsar, he refuses to come to Ludhiana. This is a major reason behind so many seats going vacant,” said a principal.
A student from Jalandhar said, “We should be allowed to keep mobile phones so that we can talk to our family regularly.”
The number of vacant seats can further go up, said Bhullar. “A total of 4,082 students have cleared the exam but not all of them have joined yet. Many of those who have cleared the exam may not join and many also withdraw after spending a month or so at hostel. In the past two years also, more than 900 of our seats had been vacant,” he said.
Setting future goals is nowhere in the minds of majority of students from government schools. With most of them having nearly illiterate parents, it is an uphill task to make them goal-conscious but we try,” says Prabhjot Kaur, officiating principal, Jalandhar school.
Educationists say the family background of poor students should not matter in teaching. Tripat Dua, managing director, IDIPIA (I Dream, I Plan, I Achieve) Foundation, who held several meetings with education minister for career counselling of students in meritorious schools, said: “It all depends on the teacher how he/she explains concepts, using the way in which student feels comfortable and in that students’ poor family or background has nothing to do with. Also, it is high time that government focuses on English since beginning if it wants results at national/international level.”
Teachers have their own complaints. Unlike in government schools, where appointments are made after one written test, teachers in meritorious schools are recruited after three-step procedure conducted by Guru Nanak Dev University, Amritsar. After a written test and classroom demonstration, they appear for an interview. But they want their work to be acknowledged better.
“Despite extra classes we take in evening and the pressure to produce toppers, we are getting salary less than government school lecturers. We are hired on contract Also, our maternity leave is not paid,” said a teacher.
Schools opened: Ludhiana, Jalandhar, Mohali, Patiala, Bathinda & Amritsar
Seats: 3,000 (500 each for Class XI, including 300 for girls and 200 for boys in each school)
Streams: Non-medical, medical and commerce
First batch appeared for Class XII (2015-16): 2,053 students
Seats vacant: 947
Passed: 2,006 (97.71 per cent)
Merit ranks: 23 (none in top ten, ranks from 12 to 22)
Failed or compartment: 47
Above 90 per cent marks 297
80-90 per cent marks 956
70-80 per cent marks 569
60-70 per cent marks 166
Below 60 per cent 18
An all-girls school started at Talwara, Hoshiarpur; Seats: 100 only in humanities, admission without CET, current strength is 88
Schools opened: Gurdaspur, Ferozepur and Sangrur; 500 Seats each for class XI — 325 for girls, 175 for boys in each school
Students applying for CET 2016: 8,581
Cleared CET: 4,082
Seats vacant: 418, Many still withdrawing or not joining despite clearing CET