As part of the Right to Education (RTE) act, introduced in India in 2009, the government committed to providing a primary school (Grades 1-5) within 1km of each habitation, and an upper primary school (Grades 6-8) within 3km. As a result, the number of schools across India has mushroomed, with a huge number being built over the past decade.
This policy has successfully improved access to schooling, and enrolment at primary level is now close to universal in many states. Yet the policy has also had another effect: there are now huge numbers of very small schools spread across the country, with many reported to be sitting empty. As a recent article noted, India has 35 percent more pupils than China, yet four times as many schools. Many of these are single-teacher, multi-grade schools, with enrolment of 30 children or less, and far lower actual attendance rates. What’s more, this trend of ‘shrinking schools’ has been further compounded by the increasing movement of students from government to private sector education, meaning that total numbers of children attending government schools have been decreasing even as more schools were being built.
Smaller schools can make teaching harder
Statistics from India’s DISE (District Information System for Education) data reveal that almost 4 percent of children attend single-teacher schools – and this rises to close to 7 percent if we look at primary schools alone. There is significant variation between states: in Madhya Pradesh and Arunachal Pradesh, more than 10 percent of children are reported to be enrolled in a single-teacher school.
This creates a uniquely challenging context in which to be a teacher. Teaching multi-grade, multi-age, multi-level classes, often with little access to training, support from colleagues or access to new resources, teachers can easily become demotivated and disengaged. A study by RMSA on teacher supply and demand in Madhya Pradesh and Karnataka found there to be a severe shortage of subject-specialist secondary school teachers, particularly in very small schools, which they reported was impacting negatively on both students and teachers. Small schools were found to have fewer specialist teachers and facilities than a larger school would be able to provide; because of this, the study found that a large number of teachers were forced to teach subjects in which they were not qualified.
Are smaller schools less effective?
Perhaps partly for this reason, evidence from India suggests that the prevalence of very small schools may be a cause for concern in terms of learning outcomes. A school survey conducted by the Young Lives study in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana recently found that students in schools with just one Grade 9 class learned significantly less in both maths and English than those attending schools with three or more Grade 9 classes. With small schools particularly common in rural or remote regions, this also has worrying implications for equity.
With increasing awareness of the challenges raised by smaller schools, several states in India are now looking to close those which are very small, or combine them into larger ‘school clusters’ which share facilities, a move which is proving unpopular with some education activists. Very small schools, with ten or fewer students enrolled, certainly appear to be less cost-effective compared to larger schools, and will struggle to offer the same kinds of facilities. Yet in many remote places in India, these very small schools are all that currently exists. As noted in a briefing by the CREATE project 'in these contexts the policy choice is not between a small school, a medium sized school or a large school. It is between a small school or no school.' In this environment, closing small schools may only make things worse for the most disadvantaged, causing them to be excluded from education altogether. Perhaps with better transport options and well thought-through ‘clustering’ of schools, this need not be the case. What’s clear, however, is that in the case of small schools in India, there are no easy answers.