By Humra Laeeq
While launching a scheme aimed at improving nutrition among malnourished children in Uttar Pradesh (UP) a year ago, former chief minister Akhilesh Yadav found himself in a classroom where only one girl could read her Hindi textbook. He suspended the Basic Education Officer of the district shortly afterwards. While this is significant, systematic reform is necessary to fix India’s education system.
New milestones in primary education
Up to 96% in 2016 from a pre-Independence enrollment of 32% in primary schools, India has boasted of massive improvements in its education system. Recognising that by 2020 India would house the world’s largest concentration of youth population, the enforcement of the Right to Education Act in 2009 made primary education up to class VIII free of cost. By 2011, three-quarters of the minors were literate. Today, there is a school within 1 kilometre of most children. On the surface, it seems like India has little to worry about. Perhaps such impressive statistics paint an almost rosy picture.
Quality—not quantity—is lacking
Universalization of primary education involves three important domains: provision, enrollment, and retention. For reasons that are as nuanced and diverse as the country itself, India has failed to retain its students in a quality educative environment. The ASER, an annual statistical report published by Pratham NGO, stated in 2016 that only one out of ten children in class II can read from their language textbooks.
The overall picture is also worrying. Rural India’s figures for arithmetics have remained consistently low over the last few years. Eight-year-olds demonstrated an inability to execute two-digit subtraction. Economically suffering states like UP and Bihar are suffering from the dropout phenomenon. According to the District Information System for Education (DISE) 2014-15, many primary school children drop out before they reach class V.
Why such a divide?
A linguistically diverse nation with more than 100 languages as “mother tongues” means that primary education can never be easy. Getting teachers to communicate in and understand a “mother tongue” and yet teach in the official language is a difficult task. Native teachers are in short supply given that the average literacy rate is 75%. Add to that the poor competence and the under-qualification of many, and the difficulty becomes clear.
The pass percentage in the Teacher Eligibility Test (TET), the mandatory government aptitude test, has reached 15% at most. Even among those who pass, absenteeism and adoption of rote-learning pedagogy by teachers leave students at a disadvantage. Curriculums are shaped in a manner unsuitable to the competency level of students, as some 6-7-year-olds are unable to recognise numbers 0 through 9. Minute fractions of schools have electricity and water supply, separate toilets for girls, and proper building structure. Under such constraints, children are made the victims of pathetic school conditions.
When prejudice plays a part
Logistical issues like these might be generic in most third-world countries in Asia and Africa. But India has another layer of hardship to overcome. Teachers reinforce the brightest children in the class, which can be a function of caste privilege or religious favouritism, thereby ignoring the majority of pupils in a class. Amartya Sen calls India “the country of first boys” with good reason. Gender prejudices show when families remove only girls from education and cringe at the poor sanitation facilities at schools.
India is the fourth largest economy in the world, yet houses one-third of the poor. Child labour under the age of 14 is illegal. However, parents still withdraw children from school due to consistently low performance and employ them in informal, industrial, or domestic sectors. They see it as a ‘more-hands-more-work’ ideology where education isn’t necessarily meritorious. Unfortunately, they are right. For these children, inadequate provisions block the path to achieving merit. It is not hard to spot children of rural migrants in urban spaces employed in domestic sectors.
The government’s response
At the release of ASER 2016 in Delhi, Modi government’s chief economic advisor Arvind Subramanian said that education will not change unless it is “politically successful” to focus on it. Since the demand for quality education is not at par with that of roads and bridges, changes will not be effected. This way perhaps the system ‘will remain so’— not because investment in education is ‘politically unsuccessful’, but because the oblivious 9-year old cannot assert his or her fundamental rights against the weight of roads and bridges.
Whose responsibility is it?
The government cannot wash its hands off the responsibility to educate its citizens. To ensure effectiveness, there should be random look-overs by senior government officials. This can be ensured through statutory laws to regulate flawless operation in quality teaching and standard facilities. Problems like attendance and infrastructure will automatically straighten. This is because the government officials will pay close attention if doing so is in their own interest. Teacher assessments and TET criteria need to be revised and similar in tone to the ASER. Performance reports should be regularly submitted to the Education Ministry.
Perhaps private and local players can step up at the point when the state fails to provide. NGOs like the Azim Premji Foundation and corporations like Educom and Medialabs have worked in content creation, teacher training, and classroom learning in digitalized methods in an aim to achieve effective learning.
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