If the amount involved was small, one could have ignored it. But according to IndiaSpend, a non-profit data journalism initiative, India as a country and we as taxpayers spent $94 billion (or Rs 5,86,085 crore) over a decade on primary education.
Despite the huge amount spent, the results speak for themselves. Only a fourth of all children in Class III can read a Class II text fluently, a drop of more than 5 per cent over four years, according to the 2014 Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) report by Pratham, an NGO working in the field of education. A quarter of children in class III could not even recognise numbers between 10 and 99, a drop of 13 per cent over four years. This despite the fact that the annual spend on primary education has doubled in the last few years.
In other words, whatever we are spending is yielding very poor results. A bit like the food subsidy system, the government education system is crumbling. Pumping in more money is clearly not a solution. What then should policy makers do?
There are no easy answers. But recently, while working on an article on a private initiative set up by the Shiv Nadar Foundation - Vidyagyan -, I came across what can be achieved if one puts one's mind to it.
Let me elaborate. Vidyagyan (a private school set up for underprivileged but bright students) offers an education equivalent to what most city children have access to by picking the best and brightest students from districts across the state. Students have access to an English-medium CBSE education and a school campus that offers art, music, sports, computer literacy, a library - essentially everything the student has never seen or been exposed to in the past. The students come from poor families, often being the first member of the family to attend school.
The Vidyagyan model works for many reasons. One, girls who would usually not be sent to school at all get an opportunity to study. Two, by distancing students from their existing set ups, the students have a better chance of continuing their studies. The tendency in many poor families is to withdraw children from school at a certain age when they are needed or able to help out with other activities that help make ends meet. Typically, boys at a certain age will be pulled in for farm labour or help with running small businesses and girls will be pulled into household work. Since the model offers residential schooling, it's a bit like out of sight, out of mind and the child in question manages to continue with his education.
Then, since the students live with each other, peer learning is maximised. Bright students from all over the state are placed in an unfamiliar yet challenging and competitive environment and this brings out the best in them. Students who didn't know they could draw are exhibiting their paintings and those who have never had the opportunity to listen to music are playing instruments.
Three, a world opens out before them that they previously did not know existed or one if they knew existed had never hoped to be a part of. I met students who are studying for the IITs, aspiring doctors, civil services aspirants and even those who are taking the SAT and other tests that may allow them to win scholarships that will help them study overseas. Careers they did not know existed suddenly seem real and achievable. All this was unimaginable for almost all the children while they remained in their village and local schools.
The question that then arises is this : why can't what this private foundation has done be replicated across states in India? And that too at a fraction of what we are already spending on a yearly basis.
There's no denying that a Vidyagyan (or even 10 Vidyagyans) equivalent in every state cannot solve the country's education crisis. It can only pick the brighter, motivated and hungrier students and offer them a chance. But as a start, even this sounds better than what we have managed so far.