Balaiah, a Dalit farmer in drought-affected Mahabubnagar district of Andhra Pradesh wanted a decent, English-medium education for his son that earned him a white-collar, job. However, as part of this quest, in the last three years, his son Shekhar had shifted five schools — all private English-medium schools with fees ranging from Rs 50 to Rs 550 per month. Despite attending school regularly, Shekhar’s efforts to learn seemed to fail miserably. Balaiah was in a fix. To my mind, Balaiah represents the classic dilemma faced by millions of poor parents in India.
Fortunately, Balaiah found a tutor with whose support Shekhar’s academic performance improved soon. The Balaiah story is real. But it leaves us with a few unanswered questions: with no assurance of learning outcomes by both the state-run free schools and privately-managed affordable fee-based schools, what do we assure the children in the much-awaited Right to Education Act (RTE)? Would Shekhar have found a tutor in his village? Or was this an urban luxury? What if the tutor also was ineffective in facilitating learning? How can tutors be accredited?
Children in primary schools in India are not learning. This is evident from a visit to any school in India. This is also evident from the national level dipstick survey of learning levels conducted in the name of ASER annually since 2005. This being the literacy masthead of the nation, what are the key issues the architects of the RTE Act 2009 ought to address? I can think of three issues that will make or mar India’s future.
n What we have to concern ourselves with is how much these children are actually learning. It is important that we, as a nation, measure educational progress in our schools by mapping student learning outcomes to grade-specific competencies. This can be done objectively by a set of simple alpha-numeric tests, and let teachers and school administrators be rewarded or penalised for good or poor outcomes respectively.
n There seems to be a mute acceptance of government schools not being centres of learning. Then why are the ASER results relevant? ASER tested Class V children across the nation on Class II competencies and found that nearly half of them failed. It is this III grade handicap that warrants the declaration of a state of emergency. The nation is rapidly slipping into a comatose state when it comes to assuring learning outcomes to even elementary schoolchildren. The key to this problem lies in innovation. Perhaps having one big school with appropriate teachers at the cluster level, with transport/boarding facilities for faraway children as the way to address the rights perspective is more rewarding instead of having one­school-per-village or school-per-kilometre.
n Having had the experience of supporting learning outcomes across 1,327 schools in 5 states, we at Naandi have arrived at Balaiah’s solution as one of the most irrefutable options to guarantee learning outcomes. And this solution came to us from the most important players in this whole game — the children. They revealed that they needed an additional daily session that would help them grasp all that was taught in class — private tuition. For the last three years Naandi, in partnership with state governments, national and international foundations has been helping them with this additional academic support. In less than 1,000 days, an across-the-board 40 per cent improvement in learning levels on an average annualised basis was noticed.
Can the RTE Act consider a voucher for these children so that they can access tuitions? As a nation, if we can put in another Rs 2,000 per child per year, we can help the current generation of primary school-going children reach grade-specific levels and build a foundation for the future.
Is this too high a price to pay to bequeath the next generation a nation that will guarantee peace with equity?
Manoj Kumar is CEO, Naandi Foundation. The views expressed by the author are personal.