Tripura claims to have achieved the goal of universalisation of elementary education, with almost 100 per cent enrolment, 90 per cent retention and average attendance rates of 80 per cent for primary schools and 77 per cent for upper primary schools. Does that mean that on any random day, if you show up at an elementary school, you are going to find all the children in 6-14 years age group attending school?

Unlikely. A recently tabled CAG audit report that reviewed the performance of elementary education in the state during 2006-2011 shows that there is considerable mismatch between enrolment, attendance, etc. as enumerated in DISE (District Information System for Education) and actual percentages recorded in 60 schools where checks were carried out. On the day of inspection, average attendance was found to be 57 per cent. Not only is this significantly less than what DISE data claims, it was also less than the number present in the previous academic session's attendance registers.

Hidden behind the 'average' figures that paint a rosy picture of universalisation, retention and attendance are stark local variations. Thirty nine per cent of schools in Tripura show attendance rates below 50 per cent. In Dhalai district, with a high proportion of Scheduled Tribes, the attendance figures are quite worrisome.

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But in case one thinks the joint inspection team merely compared statistics in registers and DISE - a very common perception about auditors - you are in for a surprise. CAG's performance audit report spans across 33 pages and tells us that audit teams also held long interviews with teachers to gauge the reasons for low attendance and were told that such low attendance was due to 'less awareness of parents'.

The audit teams attempted to probe the reasons for low attendance and their relationship to learning outcomes, by examining the data more finely. They found that only two schools reported more than 80 per cent attendance and 50 per cent of students securing more than 80 per cent marks. Another 13 schools reported attendance ranging between 50 to 80 per cent and 25 to 50 per cent of students securing more than 80 per cent marks. As many as 45 schools, on the other hand, (75 per cent of the number sampled) showed poor attendance figures and poor learning outcomes.

The auditors also observed that except two schools, all the others had received teaching grants, but during inspection they did not appear to be using the teaching aids in classrooms. Fourteen out of 60 sampled schools didn't receive the Teaching Learning Equipment they were supposed to get as per SSA norms during the last five years. In Dhalai district, most of the children in schools were first generation learners, but none of the schools had provided any special attention to teach slow/weak learners. Thirty four schools did not have a regular head teacher, which meant that teachers had to attend to tasks related to school management, affecting their teaching duties.

The problem of schools not having a regular head teacher is wide-spread. Of the 4386 schools in Tripura, 2810 (64 per cent) do not have regular head teachers. The state needs to urgently promote more teachers into higher positions of responsibility as head teachers. This should not be too difficult, since Tripura has very positive Pupil-Teacher Ratio (PTR) - in 2006 the state had a teacher for every 22 students and in 2011 it improved this ratio by having a teacher for every 18 students.

Impressive numbers on teacher recruitments also come along with poor school infrastructure, deficient training infrastructure, a depressingly low number of teacher educators, and uneven distribution of teachers. In many places, primary and upper primary schools are run in the same building, in morning and afternoon shifts. Thus, each of the schools on average functions for 22 hours a week for 100 to 284 days in an academic session. This is only half the time prescribed as working hours for teachers as per RTE norms viz. 45 hours a week (although the higher figure includes time that teachers have to spend in preparing for class as well).

While recruitment numbers are good, they are also highly uneven. The state has 11 schools where there is only one teacher for more than 100 students. There are also another 105 schools where there is one teacher for 50 to 100 students. Any intervention aiming to bring the PTR closer to the state average in these schools is constrained by policy hurdles. For instance, teachers recruited under SSA can't be transferred. Similarly as the Principal Secretary, Education suggested in a conference to discuss the audit findings, female teachers and teachers with health concerns can't be transferred either.

There is a need to identify schools/locations that have consistently reported adverse PTRs in the last ten years, and find the reasons that de-motivate teachers from accepting postings in these. That will help plan the incentives needed to overcome the hurdles.

Teacher quality remains an area of concern, despite continuous recruitment. As many as 71 per cent of the teachers do not possess the minimum qualifications mandated by the National Council of Teachers' Education. Only 22 per cent of the teachers are properly trained. Lack of Science and Maths teachers is a huge concern in many schools. 783 Upper Primary schools didn't have even a single Maths or Science teacher, and 1149 more didn't have a Maths teacher. In Dhalai, the shortage of teachers was particularly acute - Maths at 66 per cent, and Science at 50 per cent. This has affected learning outcomes in these subjects.

The state government has responded to the audit observations by stating that it is in the final stage of engaging 1000 Science teachers, but there is no word on addressing the shortage of Mathematics teachers. And even where there are teachers, problems eventually crop up; the poor training infrastructure and shortages of teacher educators deny a large number of teachers any in-service training to improve themselves.

On the whole, the education system in the State looks like one that is at best filling up numbers on a checklist, without much attention to any learning outcomes. And even this limited exercise appears incomplete in many places. One can only hope that this performance review triggers a discussion among educationists in the state, and an effort to address the bottlenecks to learning.