Precarious Primary School Education in Kashmir

Due to triple lockdowns, primary school education has suffered the most in Kashmir

By Muhammad Tahir

SCHOOL-going children in Kashmir have been badly affected by the triple lockdown. Nearly 2 million kids have missed around two years of formal schooling. Following the revocation of Article 370 on 5 August 2019, curfew, communication blockade and hartal kept schools closed for many weeks. In spring 2020, schools in Kashmir were closed due the first wave of Covid-19 pandemic. Then the so-called ‘second wave’ (of Covid-19) struck and schools were again closed under Government Order No. 91-Edu of 2021, dated 04.04.2021.

Although teaching switched to online mode globally, Kashmiri students and teachers faced internet issues. Authorities restored high-speed 4G Internet only in February 2021, after a 550 days ban. According to BBC News (23 June 2021) “students from more than 150 villages in the area [Kashmir] have had no access to online lessons.”

The triple lockdown is a unique context which has created a uniquely challenging situation for Kashmiri students, particularly from the economically weaker sections who lack resources to navigate the crisis. Prolonged school closures and continuous disruption during the formative years of primary education is especially concerning, because students lose out on developing basic cognitive (and acquiring) other skills.

Specific context of Kashmir as a site of a protracted armed conflict makes the crisis all the more serious. Because prolonged disruption of studies of children could potentially add to the dynamics that have a bearing on the mental health of Kashmiri children, and in turn on the political situation in the region. Amit Sen, a child and adolescent psychiatrist, visited Kashmir during the 2019 military lockdown and later wrote in his article ‘A Childhood Denied’ (Indian Express, 31 Jan 2020) that  “Children and adolescents who could access mental health services, were reporting all kinds of abuse (physical, sexual and emotional) and nightly raids by security forces — as corroborated through reports from other members of our group who had visited villages and towns in different districts — which had created an atmosphere of terror and panic amongst young people and their families. They shared experiences of paralysing fear, acute anxiety, panic attacks, depressive-dissociative symptoms, post traumatic symptoms, suicidal tendencies and severe anger outbursts. There was a marked increase in psychological distress in 70 per cent (as estimated through a recent survey by mental health professionals in the Valley) of the population. Professionals working on the ground expressed concern about the aftermath of this imbroglio and feared that the trauma suffered by thousands of people will become evident in the months and years to come.”

Sen argued that “repetitive, violent trauma in endemic war zones can be deeply damaging for the community, especially children and adolescents, who could be scarred for life, and pass on their fear and anger to generations that follow. They don’t need to be tutored or indoctrinated to form extreme attitudes and prejudices.”

According Dr Majid Shafi, a clinical psychiatrist based in Srinagar, “Almost every parent of kids and teenagers in Kashmir is complaining these days about increased behavioural issues in their children.” Dr Shafi’s assessment is that there is an increase in symptoms such as “a feeling of hopelessness, anxiety, mood disorders, and a decline in academic performance” (as quoted by Majid Maqbool in The Conversationalist, 15 July 2021).

About 90% of the children of government primary schools belong to Below Poverty Line (BPL) category, including tribal and other backward categories. So, generally, students of government primary schools come from weaker socio-economic backgrounds – labour class, auto-rickshaw drivers, agricultural labourers, slum-dwellers, tribal and other BPL families. In comparison, most students of private schools in Kashmir come from middle- and high-income families. This economic disparity affects the outcome in terms of who gets better education or in the present context of an unprecedented health crisis, who manages to receive sufficient classes and get to participate in relatively better (alternative) learning processes.  A positive aspect of online teaching has been that the process became a learning experience for parents as well. A parent whose kid studies in a private school in Pampore said about online classes that “It is not only kids who are learning, but us parents also have learnt so many things – like writing techniques, activities, pronunciation etc.” But this is a privilege that most government school students’ parents do not have because they are from working-class backgrounds.

While government schools started online teaching classes around the same time the private schools did, they were less successful than private schools. Main reasons for this are lack of parental guidance, lack of smartphones, and poor internet connectivity (because rural areas in Kashmir usually have patchy internet). Other reasons could be related to psychological issues, such a lack of motivation among students due to the chronic crisis. But that needs to be properly researched.

Keeping in view the limitation of online teaching in the context of Kashmir, Directorate of School Education Kashmir started ‘community classes’, which have been somewhat successful. Community classes are taken in open air, usually in the school grounds or in commons closer to the school, with students kept at a 2-meter distance from each other. Classes run from 8-10 AM.

According to India Blooms News Service (17 July 2021), both government and private school students have benefited from the community-class initiative. By mid-July, around 1,80,407 students from government schools attended community-classes, while 6270 private school students also participated in the community classes in the same period. Top three districts for community class participation are: Anantnag (42,579), Baramulla (39,032), and Pulwama (20,634). It is claimed that around 30,000 government school teachers are engaged in community-class initiatives.

However, the School Education Department Kashmir treats community classes as “a parallel hybrid learning exercise to supplement the existing Learning Management System (LMS).” That means community-classes cannot replace the online mode of teaching, which is, seemingly, a more preferable alternative for the department. As the official circular (quoted by Greater Kashmir, 30 June 2021) makes clear: “The community school should be prioritised for those children who are not connected through online classes and should in no way be considered an alternative to online classes. Online classes should continue for the connected children through Learning Management System (LMS) or Real Time Video Conferencing Apps or conference calls and other digital platforms.”

However, in effect, community classes have replaced online mode of teaching. Because community classes are relatively more effective than online teaching. At least, this is what teachers from District Pulwama told me. A Zonal Education Officer (ZEO) from one of the Tehsils of the district told me that “Primary schools were badly hit by the pandemic lock down due to having a delicate lot of learners prone to infection. Due to non-availability of Internet facilities and Android phones with the children, the online teaching could not be held for most of the lock down period. However, it took a measure time with parent’s cooperation to make things available but almost only 10 to 20% of students. However, community teaching was of great support.”

Although community-classes have been relatively successful, problems still persist. Some of these problems precede the crisis. Firstly, most government primary schools do not have their own grounds. So, they are forced to rent nearby orchards or private properties to conduct their classes. State land abutting many govt schools (that could be transferred to the school department) have been encroached upon by locals. Cooperation from students is mixed, many don’t attend community classes regularly. Only some parents cooperate, most do not actively involve themselves in their kid’s education, because they are from the working-class. Two hours (8-10 AM) are not sufficient to cover everything. Teachers told me that they can give lessons, but they cannot check homework and conduct other activities. School Department is working with the Health Department and their focus is on managing Covid-19 pandemic. As a result, some schools are facing staff shortage because some of their teachers have been assigned non-academic duties, such as Covid-19 pandemic related surveillance. Most schools have just 3-4 rooms, and lack toilets. Teachers and masters are forced to partition rooms with thin plywood. Noise from one class disturbs others. In some rural schools, there are only fewer teachers for a large number of students, while there are many teachers for a fewer lot of students in some urban areas.

In terms of problems, a ZEO said that “primary schools…are in dire need of furniture with proper seating arrangement. The schools need Internet facilities with all other modern gadgets required for primary teaching. The primary school teachers need specialised training from time to time and explore visits to the advanced and well performing schools in and out-side union territory to get well equipped with knowledge and skills. The primary schools need school-maids for proper watch and ward, sanitation, health & hygiene of the students.”

If Kashmir wants to catch up with others, and improve its future human resource, the above-mentioned problems must be immediately addressed through a comprehensive policy backed up substantial investment plan. A silver-lining in this crisis has been that there weren’t many drop outs in government schools. In fact, some private school students switched to being government schools (although this was due to the financial crunch brought by the triple lockdown).

Many experts advocate blended learning, but primary stakeholders must be brought on board and a policy must be formulated after receiving their feedback. Parents of govt primary school students seem to be unsatisfied with online mode of teaching. Father of a govt primary school student from Awantipora, a laborer by profession, told me that “I am not satisfied with online teaching; these kids keep their mics mute and do other stuff than listening to their teachers. I kept my phone at home but my son would play the Free Fire game on it rather than attend his classes. I prefer face to face classes where teachers will at least keep him under discipline.” A government school teacher from Awantipora told me, “It (alternative teaching) is just a compensatory thing, to keep students engaged.” These views were echoed by some other teachers. A government school teacher from Pampore told me that “We started community classes in 2020, but it was moderately successful. There is marginal engagement of parents in the process, not all students join. We have a roll of 85 students, we have just 3 rooms. We have seven teachers out of which three are on Covid-duty.” These are important views, and must be considered during policy formulations.

I have focused on primary school students, because in comparison to higher secondary school students they are affected more. Students of higher secondary schools have already acquired basic cognitive skills, so they can manage on their own. However, primary class students are learning, and prolonged closure of schools has taken away their crucial formative years of basic learning. Also, schools have been ‘informally’ asked schools not to fail students. Students who were in Grade 3 in 2019, were promoted to Grade 4 in 2020 and, most probably will be promoted to Grade 5 in 2021. But, since they have not covered the entire syllabus of the previous two classes, they cannot be expected to have the required prior training/skills to be able to read or adequately understand the syllabus and texts of the class they have not progressed to in a normal way. As a rough analogy, they are like entry level swimmers who must first learn how to properly enter and exit a pool but instead they are being asked to do 50 yards of swimming with different strokes in a local stream without sufficient aid and support.

Furthermore, higher secondary school students can get resources/materials from the internet and photostat shops or from private coaching centres. For primary students there are far fewer options.  There are far more coaching centres catering to the high school students than primary school students in Kashmir. During the winter of 2020, private coaching centres worked normally in almost all districts of Kashmir. Therefore, I think the ‘triple lockdown’ has affected the primary school students more than high school students. But this is a question that requires to be explored through empirical research.

This article is based on the research paper this author presented at the conference ‘Education in Crisis: Re-thinking Education in (Post)-Pandemic South Asia’, 23-24 July 2021, hosted by Education South Asia, University of Oxford

Views expressed in the article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the editorial stance of Kashmir Observer 

  • The author is an independent researcher 

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