Parents Pushback Against School Closure In Odisha

Parents Pushback Against School Closure In Odisha

  • Education
  • By Mahika Banerji & Adikanda Biswal
  • 13 Nov, 2021

Brahmantal village in Odisha’s Bargarh district had an upper primary school that provided quality education and basic welfare (such as food and clothing) for the children of the village. Then came the state order in 2020 to shut all schools with 20 students or less and merge them with larger, better equipped schools in the neighbourhood. The Brahmantal school was one of the schools shut down. The pandemic worsened the situation.

The School Management Committee of Brahmantal school hasn’t taken it lying down. Supported by the Odisha RTE Forum, they are pushing back against the decision because they realise the effort behind getting a 96% enrolment and the impact of quality education. Of the 112 families in the village, 80 are tribals, 30 belong to OBC community and two are dalit families. For all these families dependent on forest, agriculture and migration for their livelihood, this school is the best option for their children.

Moreover, this is a huge loss for children of migrant workers who leave their children in the seasonal hostel, an Oxfam India-Sikshasandhan initiative, so that they can continue their studies undisrupted.

The school closure meant that the children would have to go to a school further away, which logistically is fraught with dangers. Brahmantal is surrounded by the Gandhamardan hills on one side and a dense forest on the other three sides. Children will have to cross the forest to go to, what the government feels, better and bigger school. Parents are concerned — a tiger once attacked five people very close to the village boundary leaving one dead and others injured. Bears have been cited on the road that the children will have to take to reach school.

So when the villagers came to know of the school closure, they immediately met with the Block Education Officer (BEO) and the tehsildar at Paikamal. The SMC members said that the Brahmantal school did not fall under the provisions that mandated school closures; since it had 27 students. They demanded an enquiry. It was then that the parents found out that three-fourth students from Brahmantal were enrolled in the school in Bhuinkhar, a neighbouring village, which too was at the risk of closure. The teachers and SMC there enrolled the children, albeit on paper, without the knowledge of the parents.

The teacher and SMC of Bhuinkhar tried to save their own school, for which the enrolment of children from both villages was much needed. In this conflict situation between the two villages, the BEO and Tehsildar chose to not take sides and remained silent. Then the lockdown happened. It was ahead of the visit of the district collector, that Oxfam India and the RTE Network once again encouraged the villagers to put forth their points with facts and figures.

And they did have some very valid points. First, the village had 27 school-going children between the ages of 6-14 years and the provisions for closure stated 20 or less than 20 children. Second, the migration rate was high in the village and their children were at the seasonal hostel attending the Brahmantal school. If this school closed down, the parents would have to take their children with them disrupting their studies. Third, the drop out rate has decreased with the seasonal hostel and the enrolment over the years had increased. Fourth, logistically it was impossible for children to attend the school in neighbouring village as they would have to cross forests.

The Collector heard the villagers and once again instructed the Block Education Officer to look into the matter and make all possible attempts to reopen the Brahmantal school.

This is part of a huge struggle going on in the state. On 11 March 2020, the Odisha School and Mass Education department issued a notification for closure and merger of over 8000 primary and elementary schools. They said that schools with poor strength i.e. less than 20 and 25 students will be merged with nearby schools with bigger strength and robust infrastructure. The plan was to merge around 7772 schools of which 1724 schools had less than 25 students and 6048 schools had less than 20 students. This is likely to have severe impact on nearly 80,000 children from the most marginalised communities in the state.

To oppose school closure in the state, the Odisha RTE Forum took up the issue with different political parties with a petition highlighting the negative impact it would have on the most marginalised children, like those of Brahmantal village, dependent up on schools available in remote locations. In May 2021, Justice Dr BR Sarangi ordered an interim stay on closure and merger of schools and ordered state government to restore closed schools. The state has till end of December to provide a justification for the closure of schools.

Adikanda Biswal is from NGO MASS in Bargarh and member of Odisha RTE Forum

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