The Right to Education (RTE) law, and the subsequent Supreme Court judgment, has focused attention on the future of school education in India. The judgment on the provision that requires private schools to offer 25 per cent of their seats to economically weaker sections opens new opportunities for the poor, and that is welcome. But in our fiercely hierarchical society, class-conscious private schools may be pressured by intolerant parents to segregate these poor students — and that has to be prevented at all costs.
India’s school education system needs much more than this breaking of class barriers. It has focused so much attention on numbers and enrolment that the quality of education has suffered.
The pace of expansion of the school system to cope with a rapidly rising population of children was such that there are huge deficiencies in the physical facilities in our schools. The Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, on which we are spending about Rs 20,000 crore a year, was meant to correct this. Yet Pratham’s 2011 Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) shows that some 10 years later, 60 per cent of rural schools do not meet the pupil-teacher ratios promised in the RTE law, 50 per cent do not have usable toilets and 25 per cent even lack access to clean drinking water.
Elementary education in the years ahead will face a very different demographic prospect. Between 2001 and 2011, the number of children in the 0-6 age bracket fell from 163.8 million to 158.8 million according to the provisional census results. The absolute number of people below the age of 14 is expected to decline steadily, according to the projections of the Registrar General. This means that the quantitative challenges of elementary education expansion are behind us and we can concentrate on rapid quality improvements. And about time, too!
Recently, results from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) shocked the country by placing student achievements in Tamil Nadu and Himachal Pradesh, who participated in the test on a pilot basis, way below the levels in most other large developing countries.
One metric in PISA is the percentage of students whose competence is above the baseline level that allows them to participate effectively and productively in life. In the reading comprehension test the percentage of students at or above the baseline level of proficiency is abysmally low in Himachal Pradesh (11 per cent) and Tamil Nadu (17 per cent), while the level in countries like Brazil, Indonesia, Mexico and Argentina (BIMA) is within 50 per cent. In Mathematics it is Himachal Pradesh (12 per cent) and Tamil Nadu (15 per cent) against BIMA (23-30 per cent), while in science it is Himachal Pradesh (11 per cent) and Tamil Nadu (16 per cent) against BIMA (34-70 per cent). The OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) average is around 80 per cent for all the tests, and China is more or less at the same level.
Part of the difference could be due to the fact that about a third of the Indian students took the test in a language other than their mother tongue, while in the other countries this proportion is five per cent or less. But despite all the parsing of the results, it is clear that scholastic achievement in our schools is awful compared to other large developing countries. This judgement is borne out by the results reported in Pratham’s 2011 ASER. In rural India, the percentage of Class V students who cannot read a Class II text is 48 per cent; the percentage who cannot do arithmetical divisions is 72 per cent; and, what is most disturbing, the proportion has been rising.
Most of our children go to government-run schools, though a rising proportion of even poor people are opting for fee-charging private schools. Many of these private schools in rural areas are really low-cost shops that are woefully below the norms set in the RTE law. Yet the willingness of parents to pay for poor private education is a damning indictment of the government school system.
The problem lies in our political process. Education is a state subject and is a major source of political patronage, with blatant political interference and even corruption in the process of appointment, promotions and transfers of teachers in government schools. Principals cannot discipline politically connected teachers. Parents exercise little or no influence on the working of schools directly or through their local bodies. Indiscipline is rife. On any given day, 13 per cent of the teachers do not attend school in rural India according to the Pratham survey. The percentage of schools where all teachers were present at the time of the survey was just 51 per cent for elementary schools.
So what can be done to quickly raise the standards of elementary school education?
Each one of us has some idea carried over from our childhood about what makes a school good. My idée fixe is the importance of the principal as a leader who can enthuse students and direct teachers. Teacher training and money for infrastructure are not enough unless schools are led by a principal with vision and commitment to improving the quality of education.
Perhaps training of principals or motivational sessions with experts who do that sort of thing may help. Improved salaries, office equipment and some support staff will go a long way. But the most important requirement is to give principals the space to manage the school with the help of teachers and parents by eliminating the influence of local politicos.
Teacher training, better teaching materials and methods, and computers are also important, and so the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) and the State Councils of Educational Research and Training (SCERTs) should continue to work on this. But the RTE Act emphasis on formal teaching qualifications may make it difficult for many dedicated volunteers, like the ones who work for the admirable Teach for India programme, to continue. This must be corrected. In fact volunteer teaching assistants may be a quick and cost-effective way to raise standards.
The philanthropists who are now devoting serious amounts of money to the improvement of school education can help empower school principals and promote the use of volunteer teaching assistants. Their willingness to experiment and try new ideas, and their insistence on quality and measurable outcomes, will strengthen the hand of a dedicated principal.
The Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan has a goal: every child in school and learning well. So far we have concentrated our resources on the first part of this goal. It is time we paid as much attention to the second part.