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Knowing after the learning

The gap between the reach of education and its quality has to be bridged, writes KumKum Dasgupta.

india Updated: Jan 21, 2009 10:38 IST
KumKum Dasgupta

I don’t remember the name of that tiny hamlet in Madhya Pradesh, let alone the name of the school. All I can recollect is this: 20-odd children sitting inside a dimly lit makeshift classroom, loudly reciting multiplication tables. There were no teaching tools available, not even a piece of chalk. Later, when I met the parents, I expected a flurry of complaints. Instead, they said they were happy. At least their children were getting some kind of education, which they never managed to get.

This desire to be educated has now spread quite evenly across the country. The fourth Annual Status of Education Report (ASER), released last week, indicates that there has been a sharp rise in school enrolments in rural India. The overall percentage of out-of-school children has decreased, the only exceptions being Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh. The proportion of 7-10-year-olds not in school is at 2.7 per cent and the proportion of 11-14-year-olds not enrolled is at 6.3 per cent. Interestingly, in Bihar the percentage of 6-14-year-olds out of school has dropped steadily from 13.1 per cent in 2005 to 5.7 per cent in 2008. “It is our comment on the Sarva Siksha Abhiyan (SSA),” says Madhav Chavan, CEO of Pratham, which has facilitated the report.

Though the increased enrolment is something to cheer about, there are still many figures in the education story that still don’t add up. Four years after the UPA levied an education cess, the learning levels in basic reading and arithmetic for children in elementary school show no change in most parts of the country. There have been surprising exceptions though: Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh have made noteworthy progress in basic learning skills.

“In the first phase of the SSA, instead of the quality of education for students, the thrust was on getting the inputs [infrastructure, teaching training] in place,” says Anit Mukherjee, Fellow, National Institute of Public Finance and Policy, New Delhi. “This evidently didn’t translate into better learning for students. The lag in learning outcomes was a direct result of this.”

Even with these weak inputs and their historically backward status, states like Chhattisgarh and MP have been better in enhancing children’s reading abilities than ‘developed’ states like Gujarat, which has the resources to invest in the education sector. One reason could be that the meaning of ‘development’ and its parameters are interpreted differently by different states. The focus of state policy of these ‘developed’ states may be more on investment in industries and roads, but not in education. Or possibly, thanks to job opportunities, getting quality teachers is also a problem in these states.

What is very surprising about Chhattisgarh is that it has done well despite the fact that large tracts are Naxal-affected and there are many parts where state facilities don’t reach the intended beneficiaries. The proportion of children in Standard 3 who can read a Standard 1-level text has increased from 31 per cent in 2007 to 70 per cent in 2008. The proportion of Standard 5 children who could read a Standard 2-level text in 2007 was 58 per cent. In 2008, the figure has gone up to 75 per cent. On the other hand, Jharkhand, another Naxal-affected state, has done poorly. With the challenges being the same, why this disparity? “A lot depends on the initiative of state governments”, says Pratham’s Chavan. “There are many states where teachers and officials are transferred on a regular basis. That affects the SSA. Continuity is very important.”

The report also reveals that states that have had a headstart in education are lagging behind now. Take West Bengal. “Bengal’s finances are in a shambles. The state is caught between trying to change the system and its political compulsions. General social expenditure has come down and that impacted education also even though Ministry of HRD reports show teacher attendance to be the highest in Bengal,” says Anit Mukherjee.

Maintaining quality with quantity is not always an easy task. But that is the only way forward when it comes to education if we really want to become a knowledge economy in its truest sense.