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Towards getting it write

The real roots of success and failure in board exams lie deeper in a much earlier stage, writes Rukmini Banerji and Wilima Wadhwa.

india Updated: May 29, 2008 21:06 IST

All over the country in May and June, board exams results are being declared and high school graduates are beginning to apply to colleges and universities. For most school systems, performance in competitive examinations is an indicator of the achievement levels or learning levels of children. How children have performed in these exams is a matter of the highest concern to parents, schools and the children. Children’s performance in board examinations in Class 10 or Class 12 is just the visible tip of the iceberg. Invisible are the earlier foundations as well as the trajectories of children’s learning that eventually build up over the years (if children continue through the elementary stage and beyond) up to the secondary stage. Thus, the real roots of success and failure in board exams lie deeper in a much earlier stage.

Debates and discussions over what helps children learn well and achieve better results are not new. In theoretical literature as well as in ordinary conversations, school and home are identified as the two major sources of influence. After board exams are declared, certain schools make headlines for having produced yet another batch of ‘toppers’. The media profile ‘outstanding children’ whose families have been very supportive. Many point to private school results as evidence of the better quality of schooling. Others insist that children who go to private schools either have more educated parents or have parents with higher aspirations. It is also often the case that parents, especially mothers, will stay home to help children with studies. In addition, in urban areas, children go to tuition classes.

Since 2005, the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) of the educational NGO, Pratham, has been generating annual estimates of basic learning (reading and arithmetic) of children across rural India. The report is based on a nationally representative household survey of children’s learning and is meant to generate a representative picture of each district. The 2007 survey samples 567 districts out of a total of 584 and covers over 720,000 children and close to 320,000 households in 16,000 villages. Every year ASER incorporates a core set of questions regarding schooling status and basic learning levels. In 2007, a new question was added: households were asked if children had attended any additional paid tuition classes.

The findings point to interesting trends in villages in India. At the all-India level, about 21 per cent of rural school-going children in the age group of 5-16 years admit to paying for additional classes. However, there is considerable variation across states regarding the prevalence of private schooling and the incidence of ‘taking tuition’. States like Bihar, West Bengal and Orissa have very low enrollment figures in private schools but high incidence of tuition. There are other states like Himachal Pradesh, Rajasthan and Maharashtra that have relatively higher enrollment in private schools, but only a small percentage of children in Class 5 take tuition. Over a third of all children in Class 5 (whether in government or private school) in Kerala have supplemental help in the form of private tuition, whereas in other states like Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu, the proportion of government school children taking tuition is lower.

Within states there is also considerable variation depending on the age of the child and the class the child attends. In states where tuition is very prevalent, the practice starts early. Around 30 per cent children in government schools attending Class 1 in Orissa, Bihar and West Bengal go for tuition even in their first year of school. By Class 8, over 88 per cent of all children are attending tuition classes in addition to going to school.

Overall, there needs to be substantial large-scale improvements in children’s ability to do basic tasks in reading, arithmetic and writing. Much of this must be achieved in school. In the increasingly competitive environment of school education in India, it is not easy to disentangle the differential influences of different factors on children’s learning. Is tuition a mechanism for compensating for poor quality schooling? The performance of Bihar’s children in achievement tests, whether in ASER type household surveys or in the NCERT’s school-based tests, has always been surprising, especially given the poor provision of schooling until recent years. Perhaps it is the strength of tuition that fuelled Bihar’s surprising performance.

However it is also conceivable that tuition provides a pathway for providing additional inputs. In Kerala, the provision of schooling (teachers, schools, classrooms) has been adequate relative to many other states for many years. In addition, mothers in Kerala are much more educated than elsewhere. In this context, the role of tuition needs to be better understood.

ASER 2007 asked one simple question about tuition. But the results of ASER 2007 suggest the standard distinctions between government schooling and private schooling are inadequate. There is a more complex story to be explored — of the interplay between the type of schools, family background and the role of tuition in children’s learning and achievement in India.

Rukmini Banerji has worked in primary education for many years with Pratham. Wilima Wadhwa is an econometrician. Both are part of the ASER team.