An education functionary from the central region of Karnataka, whom I had known for some years, called me recently to inquire if an abstract she had sent for an ensuing seminar that we are conducting had been received.
Using the occasion, we chatted for a while on how things have been on the work front. She had assumed charge as the Block Education Officer (BEO) eight months ago, moving from being a faculty at the District Institute of Education and Training (DIET). She confidently narrated how she had overcome the initial skepticism from people around her and settled down in her new role. What was remarkable was her own reflection about how her earlier academic role was now helping her perform as a BEO.
Two distinct practices she started following steadfastly after taking over as a BEO sent out a clear message among the teachers and other colleagues in the block.
One, whenever she visited any of the schools, she would make sure she would visit one or two classrooms and observe quietly from the back row; and two, she went around the schools to check how the basic facilities like toilets and drinking water were maintained.
She mentioned jokingly on how the word had spread around that the procurement levels of phenyl, a liquid used for cleaning, had gone up in schools in the recent past. She has made herself fully accessible for anyone who wanted to meet her and did not flaunt her official position. Most importantly, she is focusing on creating a conducive environment in her block for all children to learn and teachers to teach. Meanwhile, she has also sent out a stern message for those who were lackadaisical towards their work.
Just around the same time last year, another friend in the education department had been shifted from the BEO's position to a faculty's role in one of the DIETs in the Malnad region. Irrespective of his role, he has forever been thinking of ways of strengthening the government schools and keen on picking new ideas from his professional colleagues.
These were either with regard to improving certain educational practices in schools or in terms of addressing poor learning levels of children at the lower primary stage or improving their competencies in science and english at the high school level. He strove towards creating a vibrant environment in his block while he was a BEO by forging a positive relationship with all the stakeholders. He succeeded in restoring the confidence of many parents by implementing small yet innovative practices, motivating them to bring their children back from private to government schools.
These were just two instances of Block Level Officers getting inter-changed, part of over 250 such officers being shifted across the state in July 2017, making it arguably one of the biggest ever reshuffles in the education department. It had at once opened the doors for many officers who were academically inclined but hitherto unable to get such postings, to also get this key role for the first time. The government strictly enforced the norm of shifting all block and district level officers after a three-year tenure, despite some resistance.
Block Education Officers can exercise significant autonomy to improve equity and quality of education in their blocks. The block is a compact sub-district area for the purpose of educational administration for which plans are made and implemented through block offices, with each block having on an average 300 to 400 schools including government, aided and unaided primary and high schools.
They have the mandate to make all the schools in their block comply with the norms of the Right to Education Act. This means going beyond Sec 12 (1) (c) of the RtE Act, which provides for 25% reservation of children belonging to economically weaker and disadvantaged sections in private unaided schools in the neighborhood. And doing more on implementing other key provisions such as providing universal access, health, safety and security, quality and equity of education for all children falling in their area.
For this, BEOs need to develop a vision for their block by empowering their team, engaging with all stakeholders including School Development and Monitoring Committees, elected representatives and community.
They need to work towards achieving universal access and retention of all children, improving basic infrastructural facilities in schools, enhancing teacher competencies, addressing skewed pupil-teacher ratio, especially in remote and interior schools, and focus on enhancing children's learning. Thrust has to be on effective monitoring and implementation of these objectives as execution of plans, often, has serious gaps.
Though BEOs can be an effective agency to drive change at the block level and the administrative responsibility, most often they get caught in the rigmarole of their huge tasks and end up doing a lot of things without a concrete end.
I recall from my interaction with another conscientious BEO from a neighbouring district a few years back when he was in the habit of maintaining a daily diary. A simple analysis of how he was spending his time revealed that nearly two-thirds of his time was consumed in either attending calls from multiple stakeholders or in meetings.
Usually, after a hectic day in the field and attending various meetings, he would get to his office only by around 4 pm in the evening, by which time pending paperwork would await him. He was not at all happy with what he was going through but could do very little to get away from that stressful routine, as many things fell on his plate involuntarily. He had to handle the expectations from him from various quarters including political leaders tactfully.
If the goals of education are to be realized, then teachers and their primary function of educating has to be given the prime of place. Clarity has to emerge among all those involved in the process, from the state to the block and cluster levels, that they exist only to facilitate and support teachers in their role. Selection of right people into such roles and giving them a free hand to perform would go a long way in ensuring quality education for all children.