[Reader-list] Reg: Set - 1
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Tue Jun 15 19:14:53 IST 2010
Article no: 2
Date: *Volume 26 - Issue 06 :: Mar. 14-27, 2009*
* Report card *
K. SHIVA KUMAR,
AND SHYAMSHREE DASGUPTA
* ‘Education for all’ is the policy, but what is the reality?
HOW would you feel if half of the buses and trains supposed to be running on
a particular day were cancelled at random – every day of the year? And how
long do you think such disruption could continue until it created an uproar
in Parliament and the national media? At most a day or two. Yet, a similar
disruption in the daily lives of children has been happening quietly for
years on end. In rural North India, about half of the time, there is no
teaching going on in primary schools.
This was one of the key findings of the “PROBE survey” conducted in 1996-97
in Hindi-speaking States. A resurvey conducted 10 years later (in 2006)
found that nothing had changed in this respect – half of the government
schools still had no teaching activity when the investigators arrived.
Whatever else had changed, classroom-activity levels had not improved.
This pathetic state of affairs threatens to ruin the lives and future of
children in India who come to school with eager hopes. In a functioning
democracy, this would be a major national concern. Yet, little notice has
been taken of it in the corridors of power. The rhetoric of elementary
education as a “fundamental right” goes along with a stubborn failure to
make the schooling system work.
The schooling situation, however, is not immutable. In fact, many positive
changes have taken place over the past decade. There is clear evidence of
this from the two surveys mentioned earlier.
To start with, *school participation* has improved dramatically. Twenty per
cent of children in the 6-12 age group were out of school in 1996. In 2006,
we found that hardly 5 per cent of such children were not enrolled in
school. For the first time, the goal of universal school participation
appeared to be within reach.
Along with this, *stark social disparities* in school enrolment have
virtually disappeared at the primary level, whether it is the gap between
boys and girls or that between children from different castes. Enrolment
rates among Scheduled Caste children (94 per cent) and Muslim children (95
per cent) were as high as the sample average for all children (95 per cent).
Enrolment among Scheduled Tribe children, however, was lower, at 89 per
Further, this surge in school participation reflects a range of positive
initiatives during the past 10 years or so. Some examples follow.
*Schooling infrastructure* has expanded rapidly. There was an impressive
increase in the number of primary schools between 1996 and 2006. One out of
every four government schools in existence today was set up in the last
decade. And schools today have more and better facilities and amenities. For
instance, the proportion of schools with at least two *pucca *rooms went up
from 26 per cent in 1996 to 84 per cent in 2006. Nearly three-fourths of all
schools now have drinking water facilities. Toilets have been constructed in
over 60 per cent of all schools.
*School incentives* are reaching many more. This has reduced the costs of
schooling and contributed to higher school participation. For instance, free
textbooks and uniforms are being widely provided in schools today. In 1996,
free uniforms were provided in only 10 per cent of primary schools. By 2006,
they were provided in more than half the schools. Similarly, in 1996, fewer
than half the schools reported distribution of free textbooks. Today, almost
all schools – 99 per cent – do so.
*School meals* are also in place in most schools and they are a big hit. In
1996, the dry ration scheme was operational in 63 per cent of the primary
schools. By 2006, the dry ration scheme had been replaced by hot, cooked
meals. These were served regularly in 84 per cent of the schools we visited.
Children enjoy the meals, and this has definitely contributed to the surge
in enrolment. Midday meals were, however, least regular in Bihar and
Jharkhand, where leakages are reported to have been large enough to bring
the programme to a halt in half the schools surveyed.
No doubt, some of these achievements have been facilitated by the overall
economic growth, the improvements in parental literacy and the rapid
expansion of infrastructure and connectivity.
But they also reflect a range of public initiatives, such as the Sarva
Shiksha Abhiyan (launched in 2002), Supreme Court orders on midday meals,
and stronger campaigns for the right to education.
Dedicated efforts from many committed officials, parents, teachers, unions
and communities have also contributed to the new vibrancy of elementary
schooling in India. It is this renewed momentum that gives hope in the
possibility of injecting new life into the classroom as well.
While school participation has sharply risen in the past 10 years, classroom
activity has not improved. This problem has several aspects.
*Enrolment does not mean attendance*
To begin with, enrolment does not mean attendance. Almost everywhere, we
found that children’s attendance as noted in the school register was far
below the enrolment. Only around 66 per cent of children enrolled in the
primary classes were marked present. And actual attendance, as observed by
the field investigators, was even lower. Some children are only nominally
enrolled; others are enrolled in both government and private schools; and
still others attend only irregularly.
Schools were generally functional (an achievement of sorts, compared with
the situation in 1996), but there were still instances where children could
not attend school even if they wished. In a school in a tribal hamlet in
Bhabua in Bihar, the school remained closed for three consecutive days as
the head-teacher had not come.
*Attendance does not imply learning*
Even in functional schools, levels of teaching activity were abysmally low.
One reason is the widespread shortage of teachers. Even though there was a
major increase in the number of teachers appointed, the pupil-teacher ratio
in the survey areas showed little improvement over the years. The proportion
of schools with only one teacher appointed also showed no improvement in the
10 years. It remained at 12 per cent. While additional teachers have been
appointed in the earlier group of single-teacher schools, many of the new
schools currently being opened are single-teacher schools.
The situation is aggravated by the fact that teachers are often absent, or
come late and leave early. The survey found that an additional 21 per cent
of schools were functioning as single-teacher schools because of teacher
absenteeism on the day of the unannounced visit by the investigators.
Even in cases where teachers were present, they were not necessarily
teaching. In one instance, the head-teacher was on leave and three of the
remaining five teachers who were present were standing in the playground and
talking among themselves when the investigators reached the school. Some
children were sitting on benches and chatting, while others were roaming
around the school campus. As mentioned earlier, such instances (where
schools were devoid of teaching activity at the time of the investigators’
visit) were found in close to half of all schools surveyed. But there were
also many schools where some teachers were teaching and some were not.
Teaching activity is particularly limited for the very young – those
enrolled in Classes 1 and 2. Instead of being given extra attention to equip
them with self-confidence as they negotiate a new and alien terrain, these
young children were largely ignored. Children in older classes were more
likely to be taught
Even in schools where teaching was going on, children were getting a raw
deal. Mindless rote learning still dominated the classroom. We came across
children chanting mathematical tables for several hours. Children “read”
paragraphs from their book after having memorised it. When asked even a
simple question, they faltered; when asked to “read” anything outside the
text, they often could not. We frequently found children copying blindly
from the blackboard or the textbook without comprehending it.
It is therefore not surprising that children learnt little in most schools.
Even in terms of the elementary “3 Rs” (reading, writing and arithmetic),
learning achievements were very poor. We found that 80 per cent of the
children in Classes 4 or 5 could do simple addition and 60 per cent could do
simple subtraction. However, when it came to even single digit
multiplication, the proportion dropped to 55 per cent. And only half could
do a simple division by 5. Further, a large proportion of children was
unable to read and write, or answer simple questions, even after four or
five years at school. For instance, nearly 62 per cent of children studying
in Class 4 or 5 in a government school could not read a simple story. And
more than 80 per cent could not write the answer to a simple question.
Unfortunately, years of schooling and grades completed continue to remain an
unreliable guide to what children learn and know.
Is there any “quick fix” to revive classroom activity in Indian schools?
Some have been tried but with limited results.
During the last 10 years, there have been mass appointments of local
“contract teachers” (*shiksha karmis, shiksha mitras*, para-teachers, and so
on) at salaries far below those paid to permanent teachers in the same
government schools. In the government primary schools surveyed, contract
teachers accounted for nearly 40 per cent of all teachers. Local selection
by the gram panchayats and the contractual nature of their appointment were
expected to make these teachers more accountable. Many State governments
also saw this as a means of expanding teacher cadres at a relatively low
Educationists, however, have raised several concerns about contract
teachers. In the initial stages, contract teachers were appointed to assist
regular teachers, who were more experienced. But in many schools now,
contract teachers handle pupils on their own. Most new recruits get trained
through distance education and short bursts of in-service training. Without
adequate qualifications, training and support, teaching standards are
unlikely to be high.
The survey also found that the majority of contract teachers were from the
more privileged social groups. Such recruits are unlikely to be accountable
to parents and children from the less privileged social groups. The
presumption that gram panchayats will hold them accountable on behalf of the
parents is often misplaced, as panchayat leaders themselves often identify
more with the contract teachers than with the underprivileged children.
Permanent teachers often fail to fulfil their mandate. But to replace them
with contractual staff is no guarantee of better results. In some of the
schools surveyed, the contract teachers were certainly more active than the
permanent staff; but there were other schools where they were protected by
influential people in the village and were highly unaccountable. Their
limited qualifications, inadequate training and low salaries also affected
the quality of their work.
*Token community participation*
Another possible basis of greater teacher accountability is community
involvement in school management. Under Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, decentralised
management was promoted through the setting up of different community
organisations and committees, including village education committees (VECs),
school monitoring committees (SMCs) and school education committees (SECs).
In fact, it was found that almost all schools – 96 per cent of them – had
such committees in place. In many cases, the committees had worked to
improve physical infrastructure in the school, select contract teachers and
supervise midday meals.
However, these committees had not been effective in improving the levels of
teaching activity. Once again, unequal power relations interfered with the
presumed channels of accountability. Power in most committees rested with
the president (generally the sarpanch) and the secretary (generally the
head-teacher), who need to be held accountable in the first place. With the
exception of parent-teacher associations (PTAs), the representation of
parents in these committees was found to be nominal and their active
involvement was rare. The survey found numerous instances where committee
members did not even know that their names had been included in the
Madhya Pradesh was more active than other States in promoting PTAs.
Office-bearers of PTAs included the head-teacher as well as elected parents
of the children enrolled in the school. While elections were keenly
contested, the majority of parents of children enrolled in government
schools did not belong to dominant social groups in the village and so found
it difficult to play a leadership role or a monitoring role.
This does not detract from the importance of community participation in
reviving classroom activity. But active and informed community participation
requires much more than token committees, especially in India’s divided and
unequal social context.
Another “quick fix” is greater reliance on private schools. It is widely
assumed that private schools function better than government schools because
they are accountable to the parents. Indeed, the survival of a private
school depends on attracting children, and this requires some classroom
activity since parents are unlikely to pay the fees unless their children
learn. The fact that private schools are proliferating, not only in urban
areas but also in rural areas, often creates an impression that they are the
A closer look at the evidence, however, does not support these rosy
expectations. It may well be true that classroom activity levels are often
higher in private schools than in government schools. However, the quality
of private schools varies a great deal, and the “cheaper” ones (those that
are accessible to poor families) are not very different from government
schools. Their success in attracting children often hinges more on deception
(for example, misleading claims of being “English medium” or even “convent”
schools) than on actual quality.
Further, a privatised schooling system is fundamentally inequitable as
schooling opportunities depend on one’s ability to pay. It also puts girls
at a disadvantage: boys accounted for 74 per cent of all children enrolled
in private schools in the 2006 survey (compared with 51 per cent of children
enrolled in government schools). By perpetuating existing social
inequalities, private schooling defeats one of the main purposes of
“universal elementary education” – breaking the old barriers of class, caste
and gender in Indian society.
Last but not least, it is worth noting that in spite of the recent
mushrooming of private schools, the large majority of children in rural
India are still in government schools. In fact, according to the surveys
mentioned earlier, there was little change in this respect between 1996 and
2006: in both years, about 80 per cent of school-going children were
enrolled in government schools.
This situation is likely to continue in the foreseeable future, and makes it
imperative to do something about classroom activity levels in government
schools instead of “giving up” on them.
Himachal Pradesh’s example
It is interesting that all these quick fixes (contract teaching, community
participation and private schools) have capsized on the rock of social
inequality. This hurdle needs to be confronted “head on” if real change is
to be achieved.
Ten years ago, the Public Report On Basic Education (“PROBE Report” based on
the PROBE survey) highlighted Himachal Pradesh’s remarkable achievements in
the field of elementary education, even describing it as a “schooling
revolution”. It was heartening to find, in 2006, that Himachal Pradesh was
still doing very well. Indeed, it was found that 99 per cent of all children
(in the age group of 6-12 years) were enrolled. And more importantly, 92 per
cent of the enrolled children were present in school on the day of the
unannounced visit as against 66 per cent in the other States. It was also
found that a much lower proportion of schools than in other areas had no
teaching activity at the time of the unannounced visit. Interestingly, this
success is not based on any “quick fix” but on responsible management of a
“traditional” schooling system, based on government schools and regular
teachers, with a little help from a relatively egalitarian social context.
Only 15 per cent of the teachers were contract teachers. We did not come
across persistent evidence of apathy and underperformance. VECs and PTAs
were generally functional, and many were engaged in school monitoring as
well as other activities. This is not to say that all is well with the
schooling system in Himachal Pradesh. For instance, we came across a primary
school where there was no teaching activity and another where a single
teacher was handling 43 children spread over five classes. Nevertheless,
such instances were few.
The future of India’s children
The last chapter of the PROBE Report, published in 1999, was “Change is
Possible”. In many ways, this assertion has come true. Much has indeed
changed – for the better – in the schooling system during the past 10 years
or so. The recent surge in school participation is an outcome of these
positive changes. Who would have thought 10 years ago that 95 per cent of
Indian children would be in school today, with relatively little difference
(at the primary stage) between different communities?
However, rapid change in some areas has gone hand in hand with resilient
inertia in others. The absence of any improvement in classroom activity is
perhaps the most alarming aspect of this pattern. The need of the hour is to
consolidate the momentum of positive change and extend it to new areas –
particularly that of quality education. Restoring accountability in the
schooling system is not a simple matter, but “where there is a will, there
is a way”. The first step is to stop tolerating the gross injustice that is
being done to Indian children today. Wasting their time day after day in
idle classrooms is nothing short of a crime.
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