‘A dream deferred is a dream denied’. There can’t be a more accurate description of what it means for poor students, many of whom see education as a ticket to a better future, to go through years of primary school without acquiring fundamental reading and arithmetic skills. Unfortunately, as the Annual Survey of Education Report (Aser), 2011, in which Harvard Kennedy Professor Lant Pritchett makes the above comment, shows yet again, the state of India’s primary education is in a truly rickety state, even though the country boasts of a Right to Education (RTE) Act.
The results of the report, the largest annual survey of children in rural India conducted by Pratham, an education non-profit, shows that while enrollment figures continue to be high with almost 96.7% of all 6-14 year olds enrolled in school, there is a decline in basic reading and arithmetic skills in many states. The survey also shows that children’s attendance has declined and more and more parents are opting for private schools. On the infrastructure question, there hasn’t been major changes in buildings, playgrounds or drinking water facilities, even though an increasing number of schools are making provisions for girls’ toilets.
In fact, the Aser report is the third wake-up call for India’s policymakers in the last few months. First, the Quality Education Survey stated that even high-end schools with expensive teaching aids and qualified teachers depend on rote learning. Second, a study by the Internal Students Assessment ranked Indian higher secondary students almost at the bottom of the heap. While the Aser report is not surprising since its previous editions also had similar quality warnings, there seems to have been not much push from the government to change the system and refine RTE goals. In the minds of teachers and bureaucrats, it seems, the scope and meaning of RTE remains enrolling and promoting students without testing their learning skills. But by resorting to such populist measures, they are not only wasting the taxpayers’ money (remember we pay an education cess), they are also harming the future prospects of these young children.
The attraction for private schools also shows that there is a craving for ‘good’ education (though these schools may not be del-ivering it at all) and disenchantment with State schools. Commenting on the report, HRD minister Kapil Sibal said while a level of learning has to emerge, a Government of India minister can’t monitor it. We agree. But at least the minister and his senior officials can drive home the point that quality, and not quantity alone, is what we are looking from our primary education set-up.