School buildings are being made attractive to reverse dropout trends Image Credit: Supplied

For a long time, the government’s upper primary school in Morsari in the Indian state of Rajasthan was located in a local temple. Just 150 kilometres from Jaipur, the 50 or so pupils enrolled there up to Class 8 from 2008 onwards knew nothing else — there was no other formal school building.

That changed, however, when the Sarv Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA) — a government programme designed to provide funds for construction and upkeep of classrooms — planned a two-storey building. It allotted Rs550,000 (Dh29,500) for the project and work got under way. There was an immediate impact and enrolment went up to 250 the next school year.

Before the work was completed, however, the money ran out. The local community pitched in with another Rs500,000 to finish the project, and now the school has water coolers for drinking water, toilets and computers for information technology classes.

By the time the next academic year rolled around, 100 more students were admitted, and over two years, its enrollment had increased by 600 per cent.

For Rajesh Lawania, the Morsarai government school was the first project. For the junior engineer in SSA’s Alwar office, it was a valuable life lesson — and one that gave him a mission to rehabilitate government schools and make them attractive for parents and pupils alike.

Across rural India, government schools face many challenges — from decrepit and decaying buildings to non-existent infrastructure and plummeting pupil-enrollment levels. They also face poor learning outcomes — and the reality that more and more families are choosing private over public schooling. Between the 2010 and 2014 academic years, there was an increase of 16 million more students enrolled in private schools while those enrolled in public schools fell by 11 million over the same timeframe.

While students who dropped out of government schools may not necessarily have gone to private schools, there is a reality too that government schools were losing out. The National Achievement Survey (NAS) published earlier this year by the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD), reveals a pattern of decline in the quality of education measured as a “learning outcome” as students progress to higher classes. Nationally, just over 40 per cent of school children in Class 8 were able to answer their grade questions correctly, with the situation worse in junior classes.

Rajasthan was no better in terms of losing students from its government schools even though it fared far better than national outcomes. NAS data show the performance decline from Class 3 to 8 was present — but not as significant as in other states. The desert state, however, has won praise for causing a reverse migration from private to government schools.

Anil Swarup, the secretary for School Education and Literacy in MHRD tells Weekend Review that Rajasthan, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka has all revered the trend from public to private schooling.

Across the state, better learning outcomes and reverse migration are also being helped by education reforms school mergers, staff rationalisation and the creation of Adarsh (model) schools since 2014.

“Better management in these schools has led to a 17 per cent increase in enrolment across all classes, and the pass percentage has risen from 66 per cent to 78 per cent in Class 10, and 81 per cent to 84 per cent in Class 12,” Rajastan’s state education minister Vasudev Devnani told the Hindustan Times last year. “However, many schools still suffer from lack of adequate staff and infrastructure.”

And infrastructure was what SSA junior engineer Lawania focused on.

In 10 years of working with the SSA, Lawania has transformed 50 government schools in Alwar, earning him several awards at both state and national level.

In 2013, when Ashutosh Pednekar was district collector of Alwar, he took Lawania to Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration (LBSNAA) in Mussoorie for a presentation on transforming government schools in the district.

People who pass the civil services exam for recruitment to the Indian Administrative Service, Indian Police Service and Indian Forest Service are trained at the academy situated in the foothills of Himalayas in the northern Indian state of Uttrakhand. They attend a four-month foundation course at the academy and from then most IAS officers continue their professional training in Mussoorie while others go to their respective staff colleges. Lawania addressed the foundation course in August 2013, telling India’s future civil servants about the SSA’s innovations in government schools.

Lawania’s recent project is reforming Alwar’s Government Senior Secondary School, making it look like a railway station. There, the classrooms have been painted like passenger compartments, the principal’s office looks like an engine, and the verandah is the “platform” where students hang out. The boundary wall looks like a goods train, with wagons loaded with inspirational messages for young minds. The switch from dull yellow walls to vibrant blue was made possible by the RDNC Mittal Foundation that adopted the school four years ago.

“When we adopted it, there were only four classrooms for 10 classes and no toilets,” foundation chairman Dr SC Mittal explained at the time in published reports. “In four years, we have spent close to Rs4 million on the construction of new classrooms, verandah, toilets and repairing the rooftops.

The changes will be reflected in increased enrollment for the new academic session.

“Trains fascinate children in India,” explains principal Purushottam Gupta at the school for 450 pupils. “They often write essays on their first train journey. We decided to paint the school like trains to make the building attractive for students to have a sense of pride.”

Like in the railway station school, philanthropists and the community have participated together to raise money when SSA funds fell short of giving shape to innovative ideas.

In Government Girls Upper Primary School at Shivaji Park, head teacher Hemlata Sharma pitched in Rs11,000 from her family and asked other four teachers to donate. They had Rs40,000 in their kitty before the SSA pooled in with Rs500,000 to transform the school. It now has a nice lawn, a badminton court, classrooms with new furniture and the number of students there has more than doubled.

Similarly, for construction of two classrooms, toilet and a staircase at Government Sanskrit Upper Primary School at Kangaal Hatha (Umrain), villagers collected Rs50,000 and teachers contributed an equal amount. After the construction was over, villager Umrao Lal Saini donated Rs25,000 for its upkeep.

The SSA has brought out a publication too that details how making school buildings attractive can reverse dropout trends and allows government schools to work with teachers, community and students together in innovative ways.

In some schools, classrooms have been named after freedom fighters, instilling a sense of patriotism among students, while others have nice lawns and sports grounds — and in all cases, enrollment has increased.

Rakesh Kumar is a writer based in Jaipur, India.