By Michelle Cherian
Edited by Sanchita Malhotra, Associate Editor, The Indian Economist
It is a common belief that education of a people’s country is the cornerstone of any nation’s success. Steps specific in that direction have been undertaken by the Indian Government in the past and there are steps which are currently underway too, leading to highly-publicized, well-scrutinised results which are nothing short of a surprise. However, though these results are astounding, education in India, in particular rural education, is still plagued with innumerable problems; problems which seem insurmountable even after 63 years of independence and in light of India’s progressive economic growth.
Here, a brief history of Indian Education becomes mandatory in order to outline its growth or undergrowth, as some might view it. Indian Education draws its origins from the urban methodology of teaching offered at Nalanda and Taxila universities. In the fifteenth century, came the British and with them came the dawn of Western Education, where education was seen as the sphere of only the politically and economically stronger classes. 1947 saw drastic changes in the education policy, wherein the Indian Government not only realised the importance of education in nation-building and forging a sense of national unity, but took measures ahead of that realisation such as a formulation of a directive principle securing free and compulsory education for all between 6-14 years, implementing vocational training at university level and introducing adult education to reduce, if not eradicate, the all-pervasive illiteracy. The year 2009 was indeed revolutionary in the field of Indian Education as it marked the birth of the seventh fundamental right, The Right to Education which directly made the Government responsible for enrolment and attendance of students and is legally enforceable for all children in the age bracket of 6 and 14 years.
All Statistics are not Damned Lies
The Union Government, in 2010, gave top priority to education and increased its budget cap by nearly 24 percentage points. Needless to say, the years following that saw remarkable improvement in Indian education on several fronts. The Annual Status of Education (ASER) report of 2012 displayed gross enrolment ratios soaring as high as 97% in the rural areas. Even the District Information System for Education (DISE) report, 2012, brought good tidings as it depicted 95% of the rural population within 1km of a school, 91% rural schools having arrangements for safe drinking water and 88% rural schools having a building. (https://knowledge.wharton.upenn.edu/article/needs-improvement-despite-progress-indias-primary-education-system-has-a-ways-to-go/)
While these much acclaimed results are indeed reason to smile about, there are several other figures that are cause for alarm, worry and more importantly, an attempt to rethink our strategies. The ASER study carried out also revealed, astonishingly enough, that 48.2% of fifth grade students in rural government schools had difficulty reading and comprehending second-grade text-books, a decline of 15 percentage points from 2005. Eighth graders who could solve simple division problems has also decreased substantially by almost 23 percentage points. The Indian Education pundits suffered a terrible blow when the latest Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) ranked our country at the 63rd position out of the total 64 countries surveyed and analysed. Moreover, DISE suggests that nearly 50% rural schools do not have a girls’ toilet and less than 32% are connected to an electricity grid.
Seems like all this while, we have been playing the wrong cards, is it not the case? The RTE did stimulate enrolment in schools, but only at the cost of quality education. There are several reasons for this happening, which is undoubtedly unfortunate and uncalled for, in the current age and time. Dearth of qualified teachers, lack of motivation among teachers and high levels of teacher absenteeism can be cited as some of the main reasons. Teaching in rural areas is not considered a prospective option by many because the pay is poor and teachers are expected to be actively involved in non-teaching activities in the villages like assisting in data-collection for the national census, staffing polling stations during elections- all of which place significant demands on teachers’ schedules. Studies conducted by UNESCO (2003-2004) have shown that on an average 25% primary school teachers were absent on any given day and the trends have only worsened. This exacerbates the pressure on the teachers present who teach in single-classrooms, typically classes where they are forced to juggle between students from different grades and thus, they fail to give personal attention to probably even one of them. Linguistic Diversity is another problem leading to poor education outcomes, as teachers struggle to account for, not only the different educational abilities of the students but also, the linguistic nuances that affect the students’ comprehension of the subject matter. Lastly, flawed teaching methodology, namely rote learning, is another reason causing us to sacrifice quality in the pursuit of quantity. It has been noted that students at the primary level in the rural areas, are unable to read, write and do basic arithmetic, which their counterparts in urban areas can do; but when asked to copy paragraphs from a textbook, they do it diligently and neatly, almost as if painting a picture.
The Much-Needed Solutions
Numerous efforts are being taken at the individual level and in the form of public-private partnerships. Barefoot College, renowned for training students, who did not have prior education, in rural electrification; 8 Day Academy, which delivers knowledge in a capsule form regarding a variety of skills and the Gurukul School in rural Bihar which functions completely on Internet Access and Skype are shining examples of individual efforts. Pratham, a joint venture between UNESCO and the Municipal Corporation of Mumbai, carries out the ASER study which provides adequate and accurate information needed for reviewing policies and formulating new ones. In addition, the hallmark of its initiatives are in the form of recruitment of volunteers from local communities and training them in effectively running programs like libraries and learning support classes for students. Teach for India, introduced by the Government in 2006, ropes in students at the under-graduate, post-graduate and PHD levels to teach students in rural government schools with the medium of instruction being English, in return for a fellowship.
Though the RTE is a step forward in improving rural education, with increase in enrolment and dramatic reduction of non-teaching duties assigned to government teachers, much needs to be achieved. Our political leaders have to ideate changes and look for new ways to better education, which should be tried and tested in small pockets all over rural India for effective and final Pan-India implementation. English should no longer be seen as a taboo but as a skill-set, without which progress is impossible and employment difficult. The student’s overall development, adjudged by his/her reaction to his physical and emotional environment depends on the difference in family environment and the skills/value systems that are inherited as a result of upbringing. Thus, students in the rural areas would find it difficult to adjust to the milieu of their urban fellowmates and there should not arise any reason to alter that. Though the course structure and curricula will remain of the same standard but the students in rural areas should be taught in their own context, with emphasis on their own experiences.
We should also keep in mind that 88% of Indian students reside in villages and though the pull from the private sector is enormous, many still attend government schools in the rural areas. Thus, there is an urgent need to revamp the teaching methodology in these schools by providing economic and non-economic incentives to the teachers and by not resorting to standardised methods of teaching which work wonders in the urban areas. The mark of a developed nation is a developed population, developed in all ways be it financial or otherwise, and education is the first step to such development. Has the Indian Education dream been fulfilled, one might ask. Euphemistically speaking, “There are miles to go before we sleep”.
Michelle is a student of Economics at St.Stephen’s College, Delhi. She is an ardent writer and takes pleasure in writing on various topical issues such as Economics, politics and world affairs. Development Economics is her region of interest and being an idealist as well as a realist, is convinced that through dedication, hard work and foresight, she can help India achieve great highs, economically and otherwise. Her greatest strength is that she believes in herself and she ascribes her achievements to her family and friends.