India needs to address the chronic deficit of teachers if its school education landscape has to evolve to anything like what the National Education Policy envisages. An acute shortage of teachers afflicts schools even in the national capital—data from the Delhi directorate of education shows 84% of principal posts in government schools in the national capital are vacant, as are 34% of vice-principal posts. At least a third of the posts across teacher categories, except PGT, who teach the senior secondary classes, are reported to be vacant. This means the shortage is dire in the lower classes, where the foundations of future learning outcomes are laid. No wonder then that the gross enrolment ratio (GER) in India drops sharply as students advance to the secondary level (from 99.09% at the elementary level to 79.77% at the secondary level). Guest teachers have been brought in to address the shortage, but even then, there is an alarming gap in key subjects such as science, mathematics and English.
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While NCR sees serious teacher-deficit, the problem is worse in the rural areas. Indeed, a 2021 Unesco report says that the country has 120,000 single-teacher schools, nearly all of which are in rural areas, and needs 10 times that number to meet the shortfall.Data from Unified District Information System for Education Plus (UDISE+) for 2020-21 show that while the number of schools fell by 2.6% from the 2019-2020 levels, the number of teachers and students increased by 2.8% and 6.5%, respectively. Thus, India does meet the recommended target of Pupil-Teacher Ratio (PTR) of 26:1. But there are wide regional disparities, especially within the densely populated states. Disparities also exist across education levels. Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, both laggards in school education, have the worst showing among the states included in the Unesco report. Experts have recommended that the government must work on improving the terms of employment for teachers, and give them more professional autonomy. There is also a need to improve working conditions for teachers in remote and rural areas—while even the basic infrastructure needs improvement, a simultaneous focus is needed on training to equip teachers with the tools needed to succeed in the classroom.
Well-defined career pathways for teachers to meet their aspirations, while factoring in the large diversity of contexts, should also help improve the situation. That apart, the government needs to carefully consider if there is a need for greater flexibility in standards. The National Education Policy lays greater emphasis on professional qualification and modernising the teacher eligibility tests (TET) than before. It also talks of setting national professional standards for teachers, with the aim of improving teaching quality. While the soundness of the approach seems unimpeachable, there is perhaps reason to also explore bringing in professionals and subject experts who may not have the required qualifications to teach—something that has been done for higher education, with the creation of ‘professors of practice’. Some reforms have been made to allow industry experts to become professors without a PhD at the university level. Another route to resolve the vacancy issue would be to rationalise distribution: even in the face of an overall shortage in the country, there are many schools in the country that actually have significant teacher surpluses, especially in the urban areas. States will need to work on incentivising the ‘surplus’ teachers to move to peri-urban and rural schools over a period of time to have more equitable distribution.