Early this year in Gurgaon, a tractor pulled up in front of a government school. The driver insisted on seeing the principal. It turns out that the old man had sold his land for an astronomical sum of money and was pleading with the principal to recommend a suitable bride for his school dropout son. His logic: only a well-educated daughter-in-law could save his next generations from vices like drinking, gambling and womanising.
Then there’s a painter who came to work at my house and wanted to begin it only late afternoon. His daughter was appearing for board exams and he had decided to forego half a day’s wages to accompany her to the examination centre.
Such examples show where education figures on India’s aspiration list. Perhaps the illiterate ‘aam admi’ understands its value as well as any of us. Just as middle-class parents make any sacrifice for their children to do well in exams, many parents in slums and villages consider education more important than even nutrition. Never mind if a bulk of these children have to study after a hard day’s work and in between chores. Small mercies include free mid-day meals that bring health and happiness as by-products of school attendance. The moot question remains: is our education system anywhere close to meeting our heightened expectations?
Quantity wise, India has made a vital breakthrough in primary school enrolments. We are set to reach Millennium Development Goal (MDG) targets well before 2015. Over 85 per cent children now complete the full course of primary education, according to Unesco 2005 figures. Within the next five years, nine out of 10 children between six and ten years will be in schools. But is there a catch in the numbers?
The enrolment figures draw a rosy picture and lost in the statistics is the rather unnerving quality of education children in rural areas get. Village children in Classes 4-5 often cannot read or write simple sentences or do basic mathematics and their problem-solving abilities are pathetic. By the time they come to the middle level, most either lose interest or are rendered unsuitable for higher classes. According to the latest National Family Health Survey, before they reach 14, attendance drops to 75 per cent and then to 41 per cent in the next three years.
Is there a way to resolve this paradox of high growth, high dropout and low standards? A significant initiative has been taken by one of India’s largest public-private partnership projects, the Annual Status of Education Reports (Rural) or Aser 2007. The report measures what is intended against what is finally delivered. Led by the education NGO Pratham and backed by some of India’s best-known corporate houses, it conducted mid-session checks on reading, writing, learning and arithmetic abilities of over 700,000 children in 16,000 villages with the help of State agencies. The checks included comprehension and problem-solving abilities. According to provisional figures collected from 567 rural districts, about 96 per cent of India’s rural children between six and 14 years go to schools.
And now, the worrisome part. Over 40 per cent children in Class 5 are unable to read Class 2-level text. Although the number has improved by about 5 per cent since 2006, it is ridiculous that such a large number of children progress to the next level without learning basic skills. Nearly 45 per cent of kids enrolled in upper primary classes cannot read their own mother tongue. What can be worse than this? More than 80 per cent of six to eight-year-olds are unable to solve simple problems involving numbers. Over 40 per cent of upper primary kids cannot subtract. In fact, there is hardly any improvement in math-learning abilities over the past three years. Equally dismal are their problem-solving abilities. Over 80 per cent of six to eight-year-olds could not solve simple problems regarding money by subtracting numbers from a sum Rs 50 that they were given.
Parents who sense a problem prefer to send their children to private schools. Unfortunately, the standards are not vastly different there as most of them use the same pool of teachers and rote-learning methods, with the costs being much higher. In about a decade, private schools have more than doubled to almost 20 per cent for junior levels and nearly 25 per cent for middle levels. The number would be a lot higher if we were to include the ubiquitous ‘unrecognised’ schools. In rural areas of many states, up to 40 per cent of all rural children go to private schools.
Another regrettable necessity is private tuitions. In some states, the proportion of government schoolchildren taking private tuitions is as high as 60 per cent. With every higher grade, the use of private tuitions goes up by a percentage point or two even in rural areas. Studies by Pratichi Trust set up by Amartya Sen reveal that private tuitions worsen teaching standards because the relatively affluent — and, therefore, influential — parents settle for tuitions rather than demanding better results in the classrooms.
Unfortunately, the school-inspection system, an old institution for enforcing standards and accountability, has gone from bad to worse in India. The world over, school inspections are central to education policy and they go beyond quality checks. In most developed countries, the inspections are seen as tools of improving teaching standards and learning environments. But in India, the largely vestigial institution is steeped in local power politics. A common occurrence is to report drawbacks and anomalies in a politically correct fashion that defeats the very purpose of checks and balances. On the basis of Pratichi’s experience in rural West Bengal, Sen argues that the issue of quality control in education would reach nowhere without making the system of school inspections effective.
The issues of quality teaching and decent learning environments are directly linked to those of training and attendance of teachers, water, sanitation and teacher-pupil ratios. True, the percentage of schools with no teacher present has gone down from around 4 per cent to below 1 per cent. But schools with all teachers present are still few and far between. Obviously, India’s modest primary education programme is nowhere close to realising its full potential even at low benchmarks.
Studies by Unicef have shown that the lack of clean toilets has a direct link with girls’ drop-out ratios. Unicef projects, in tandem with the Tamil Nadu government, registered a dramatic improvement in attendance of post-puberty girls as soon as clean toilets and incinerators for sanitary napkins were provided at some schools. Based on this experience, the agency has now devised inexpensive toilets for rural schools — although most state government agencies are yet to take notice. For the record, over 25 per cent of India’s rural schools do not have safe drinking water and above 40 per cent lack proper toilets.
India’s impressive school enrolment data could have inadvertently harmed the cause of quality of education. The problem is that the enrolment-focused government agencies are hardly bothered about their customers’ expectations. In fact, so sanguine are some states with the new enrolment data that crucial issues like teaching standards or learning environment are hardly high on the agenda. Now that the aam admi’s expectations have raised the bar and universal primary enrolment looks within reach, we need to develop and share our own best practices of school inspections, community monitoring and social audits of all related services — like meals, water and sanitation — for which government money is being spent.