Liberating Learning

As the Sun had its last loveliest smile, winter, the loneliest season of the year has already begun. With almost every facet of life hit by its harshness, education occupies the top slot. Likely to be announced soon, do vacations end the vagaries of the weather, writes Tasavur Mushtaq

Comparatively calm for the remaining period of the year, issues concerning education erupt elusively with the end of September equinox. A month later, it reaches its zenith in late November. With mercury plummeting more and more, voices get shriller. Proposals are propagated to pressure the winter vacations of educational institutions.  Given the attention, it seems to be the only issue, once a year that schools and students face in Kashmir. However, the government has its way to wield power. Inviting both, bouquets and brickbats, the delay in the decision leaves stakeholders watching the weatherman, watchfully.

If the latest and the last conversation of the Director of School Education Kashmir (DSEK), Tasaduq Hussain Mir with the media is recollected, he said the decision to shut schools has been left to the weather conditions. “Winter vacations in Kashmir valley are subject to the weather conditions,” Mir said, adding that “the school Education Department will take a call on winter vacations only when the weather conditions deteriorate or there will be minus temperatures here.”

If senior officials of DSEK are believed, the aim to extend class work is always aimed to “fill the learning gaps”. Elaborating on “weather conditions”, an official said, it means “heavy snowfall”, which will make the movement difficult.

Interestingly, a few days later, the department submitted the winter vacation proposal for schools in a phased manner from December 1, 2022, to the government. The last closure of classes as per the proposal had been scheduled for December 10, 2022, a few days ahead of what was proposed last year.

A process is followed for every file in the system, which usually takes its own time. However, in this case, within the next 24 hours, the government decided to have vacations in a phased manner from December 6, and the last phase would commence on December 19, 2022.

The Practice

An age-old practice, this routine resumes annually. Over the years, closing schools have emerged as more important an exercise than actually running them. If the last statement of DSEK is taken at face value, there is no reason to doubt the good intention. But there is a general perception, records may substantiate that for almost every influential individual in the system of the erstwhile state, there is a teacher at home. It was more visible when Darbar used to move, fully and formally.

Early or delayed vacations are a subsidiary issue. A part of an academic calendar. In any case, a matter of a few days. But the kind of attention it gets from people, professionals and politicians shows our misplaced priorities. As uncertainties loom large, vacations, otherwise an administrative issue has emerged as more of a power tussle, leaving our children in chaos.

The Problems

With almost 11 months of the year over, there is always an attempt to fill the “learning gaps”, in the last leg. On the contrary, “infrastructural gaps” continue to mock the official machinery for decades now.

Going by the ground reality, a cursory look, there is a complete mismatch between the educational institutions, managed by two different entities in Kashmir. Diagonal to each other, interestingly the decisions are taken by those where lies the ownership of weaknesses. Every year, like the harshness of the weather, there is little change in the state and status of schools.

In any case, Srinagar is not the yardstick, even if it has a better picture to put forward. Think about a student studying in a rural region. The first tragedy he faces is when trees shed their leaves in the fall. He loses his last resort, which had been his shade in the scorching heat. Out in the open to study, he struggles with the winter vagaries. Not only before vacations but even long after when schools resume their operations in spring.

Caught between safety and the school, like the weather, the life of a student becomes unpredictable. The dip in temperature is not proportional to the predictions of the weatherman. Promises do not postpone the predicament.

Face to face with other worries of life, a primary class student in Mati Handoo village of Kokernag is oblivious to the benefits someone is talking about in Srinagar. Neither, this makes sense to a kid in Machil. He is careless about your calculations. It is just a burden on him. He will understand the “gaps” only when he will have the learning in the first place. And that too for the remaining part of the year as well. In this crisis, teachers don’t make a separate row, they are part of this picture, pathetically.

On the other side of the story, in vogue till the mid-seventies, the March session has been implemented in Kashmir. With this order, the annual examinations for this year have been shifted to March 2023. The wisdom of this decision is to sync the academic calendar of Jammu and Kashmir with the National Academic Calendar. Indeed, a thought-out decision. But given the geographical disadvantages and tedious topography of the valley being taken into the consideration, the initiative is likely to have impediments, at least initially.

Already segregated into two segments, the Kashmir plains will have an examination in mid-March, while the snowbound areas have been scheduled for mid-April. Ideally required to have a single date sheet for the entire process, there are apprehensions that the winter would last longer and consume the examination schedule.  The summer zone of Jammu has no such issue to deal with. An official who spent his entire life in the education sector says, “Would Jammu wait for climatic conditions of Kashmir and allow postponement of examination.”

Besides, the conduct of the examination, the allied activities would have to be carried out in the main academic session. This was not the case until 2021. As reports reveal, more than 500 teachers are deputed to evaluate answer papers of students, and the entire process would be carried out in winter, a lean period, but now the officials said: “that has to be done in the summer months.” The next session would commence, if done smoothly not before June and would culminate in late November, giving around six months of formal functioning to the schools.

The Priority

Always planning to use these months of hibernation productively, barring a “failed” initiative of “winter schooling” once, there has been no forward movement, ever.

In most of Europe, where winter is harsher, schools don’t shut in winter and interestingly take off in summer. It is not only an official dictum but a well-planned decision, supported by a meticulous system. They believe that in winter students can’t go out at ease for recreational activities and thus provide better conditions in schools. Resultantly the less productive time of the year is used in classrooms, and when summers shine, students are out for their vacations. This way, overall development is ensured with comfort and safety.

Though the comparison made is incomparable. But, it could at least give some sort of semblance of how systems function and functionaries act.

There is a need to comprehend that an official order on the table won’t affect the temperature of the place. Similarly, claims don’t make a case.

The Prudence

Proactive during the days when the closure is to be decided, the department has a responsibility of actually running government educational institutions respectfully for an entire year. Besides, managing privately run educational institutions well within the guidelines.

In a place where winter is a permanent feature, a well-planned holiday calendar is required which does not need to be discussed, every day and every year. It is a perpetual phenomenon and needs a permanent solution. Kashmir is not the only place to have winters.

As witnessed, the private players have their way, always. With the huge inflow of students and well-managed infrastructure in place, their presence in the market is related to the return on investment. Off late, many major businessmen have added education to their already vast kitty of business enterprises.  No harm in having better schools managed by private players, but has the government decided to run its schools for only regulatory norms?

Having been entrusted with running more than 10,000 government schools, including 5710 primaries, 3894 middle, 805 secondary, and 378 senior secondary schools, there is a need to include their aspirations and agendas as well before taking decisions. In comparison, private educational institutions are roughly around 2000, taking the percentage to 20 per cent only. It looks more like a government department working for the private sector.

No report would substantiate the claim that whenever a strategic decision was taken, the weightage of the outcome was tilted towards the government schools. Never a voice has been raised to talk about their difficulties. When the snow will melt and winters would be over, privileged ones would go to schools, cameras would roll to click resumption and everything would be claimed hunky-dory. Somewhere, forlorn and faraway, away from the glaze of cameras students of state-owned schools would have their crisis to face. Their winter never ends.

Post Script

Winter in Kashmir is not a sentiment, it is the longest season of the year, which even extends to the margins of March. Wet or dry, there are specific datelines which affect the temperature. Even on a dry day, there can be sub-zero conditions. Or a wet day would offer a positive temperature on a Celsius scale. It is a climatic condition which needs no approval to be wet or dry.

As they say, ‘if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail’. Likewise, a student is not a file, which requires remaining movement across the tables. Progressive measures need to be taken, positively, for whole-year operations.

The men who manage things at the topmost level too were students of their times. Not all of them would be from plains as well. They too have faced terrains and travesties.

Think beyond the contours of cities and towns. The real beneficiary belongs somewhere else. A respectful culture in a class would help children to reciprocate in the same way. The basics need no favours. Providing teachers only is not the job done. Education entails emancipation.

Thought is needed for children who had to endure difficulties around the year. A moment for teachers who have to tread terrains. Beyond the boredom of bureaucracy, there are bountiful beautiful souls, waiting to have better facilities to fight the onslaught of nature, not only now, but forever.

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