Every morning before their lessons start, about 350 children of the Sellappa primary school gather in the playground and pray. It is not the lord they thank but the central government’s Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, or the Education for All programme, for changing their lives.
It may be a form of indoctrination, but the data shows it is not unjustified. In the past five years, this programme has enabled more than 3.4 lakh new schools to come up, about a third of the 11.96 lakh government schools in India, according to the Delhi-headquartered National University for Educational Planning and Administration.
The programme has also succeeded in raising net enrolment by 12 percentage points in the six years to April 2007, which translates to an additional 1.24 crore children now in schools, of which 52 per cent are girls.
At a time when the Indian government appears helpless and faces public censure for its poor response to floods, terrorist bombs in cities and revolt in Kashmir, the silent success of a publicly funded programme in a vital field like education gives room for optimism and hope.
Over the past seven years, the central government has spent more than Rs 50,000 crore on the programme, which aims to provide elementary education to all children between 6 and 14 years by 2010, with the help of state governments.
R. Murugan, 12, from Sellappa primary school, benefits every day from the initiative. In his prayer, he thanks the programme for his tasty lunch, for lessons on cleanliness and for making him confident overall.
“We call it the ‘Thank you SSA’ prayer,” said K. Sunderashan, the principal. “It is an apolitical prayer in which children are reminded of the benefits of the programme.”
The prayer is not compulsory, M. Kutralingam, Tamil Nadu’s principal secretary responsible for school education was at pains to point out. “There is no directive from the government,” he said. “Some schools may be doing it voluntarily.”
The prayer can be seen as one innovation to help students realise the importance of education, said M. Bhaskaran, education officer of Krishnagiri district, nearly 350km from Chennai, where many schools also recite the prayer.
Quality, not just quantity
By helping schools upgrade their infrastructure and raise the teacher-student ratio, the initiative has also improved the quality of education, said a senior professor at the National University for for Educational Planning and Administration.
This is reflected in improved academic results. Nearly 45 per cent of the girls and slightly over 45 per cent of boys scored more than 60 per cent at class V examination, the university’s report said. “Education is now a reality rather than just a dream,” said Madhav Chavan of the non-profit group Pratham, which has been monitoring the progress of the education programme for past four years. “Many states have adopted innovative methods to make education an interesting learning experience.”