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True Situation of Education in India

Half of Indiaís Class 5 children will fail Class 2 test

Source: The Indian Express

New Delhi: Every second child in Class 5 in India canít read a Class 2 text. Less than one child in five can recognize numbers 11 to 99, and more than three out of five canít solve simple division problems.

Overall, after five years of schooling, close to 50 per cent of children are at a level lower than what is expected after two years in school, says India's most authoritative annual report on the state of education in the country.

The Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) 2010, prepared by the NGO Pratham, was released by Vice-President Hamid Ansari today. The survey, covering 7 lakh children in 14,000 villages across 522 districts, reported a substantial increase in school enrolment figures but no visible improvement in the quality of education.

Across the country, the ability of children to deal with elementary arithmetics has declined. A large percentage of middle school children struggled in their everyday dealings with numbers, such as reading a calendar, estimating volume or calculating area.

Only 65.8% of children in Class 1 can recognize numbers 1-9, down from 69.3% in 2009. The percentage of students in Class 3 who can solve two-digit subtraction problems has fallen from 39% in 2009 to 36.5% in 2010. The percentage of Class 5 children who can solve simple division problems has fallen from 38% in 2009 to 35.9% in 2010.

Hope comes from Bihar -- in the last five years, coinciding with the Nitish Kumar government's tenure, the percentage of out-of-school boys in the 11-14 age group has come down to 4.4, girls to 4.6.

In 2006, these numbers were 12.3% and 17.6%. Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh have, in contrast, showed no decline in the percentage of out-of school girls since 2009. Children from Classes 4 and 5 in Bihar were able to solve -- along with children in Kerala -- more problems related to calculations of area than children elsewhere.

Good news also comes from Punjab, where the ability of children to solve arithmetical problems has improved consistently over the past few years.

In 2008, 56.3% of children in Class 2 could recognize numbers up to 100; in 2009, this became 59.6%, and in 2010, 70.4%. In 2008, 66.9% of Class 4 students could perform simple subtraction tasks; in 2010, this is 81.4%.

In Karnataka, the percentage of five-year-olds enrolled in school leaped from 17.1% in 2009 to 67.6% in 2010. Nationally, the percentage of out-of-school children is the lowest since 2005, and the percentage of five-year-olds in schools has increased from 54.6 in 2009 to 62.8 in 2010.

Most schools have reasonable infrastructure in terms of classrooms and other facilities, shows the survey. It also notes that a large proportion of schools meet the bulk of the norms and standards required under the Right to Education Act in terms of pupil-teacher and teacher-classroom ratios, and facilities like playgrounds, libraries, toilets, drinking water and office-cum-stores.


'A nation becomes in its schools and universities'


In the first India Today Aspire Education Summit, India Today Editorial M. J. Akbar said education has consistently been given the short shrift by policymakers and the nation's ruling class.

The last mile in modern India's tryst with destiny is mass education, said India Today Editorial Director M.J. Akbar while delivering the welcome address at the first India Today Aspire Education Summit.

Akbar said education has consistently been given the short shrift by policymakers and the nation's ruling class. Calling it a "sacred trust", he said education must be run like a constitutional authority on the lines of the Election Commission. "A nation becomes what it thinks in its schools and universities," he said.

Dwelling at length on the evolution of systems and institutions of dissemination of knowledge, Akbar said the notion posited by the West that science is their gift to human kind is a "Newton apple tree deception".

"Could the domes of the Taj Mahal have been built without an understanding of gravity?" he said. He, however, acknowledged that where the Ottoman and Mughal ruling elites held on to education as an elite project, modern Europe democratised knowledge through the printing press and the Church. That's where they scored over the rest of the world, he noted.

The motive of education in colonial India, as famously enshrined in Macaulay's agenda of teaching English to the 'natives', was to produce a service class.

Akbar said intellectuals in early twentieth century India saw through the sinister plan: "The Ali brothers, Shaukat and Mohammed, who spearheaded the Khilafat movement in India, asked of the British: why did you educate us if you didn't want us to be free?"

Cutting to the present, Akbar said the key to India's progress is intellectual capital, not financial capital. He said it is heartening that India has made rapid strides in the field of higher education. The road ahead was to ensure that the standards of primary education get a facelift. "Education is the prescription for poverty," he said.


Where knowledge is poor

Krishna Kumar


The role of education in reducing poverty is widely recognised but our planners are yet to realise how the impoverished struggle with a learning process that is unresponsive to their needs

In a society where poverty is far more common than prosperity, one would expect the implications of poverty for education to be widely recognised. What we find, instead, is that poverty is seldom mentioned directly in policy documents on education. Policymakers feel more comfortable using euphemisms like “economically weaker sections,” the “marginalised” or the “deprived” to refer to the poor. No wonder the impact of poverty on children’s life at school and learning is understood rather vaguely not just by educational planners, but teachers too.


The reason poverty must be treated as a factor of education arises from a basic incompatibility between the two. Education necessarily demands long-term horizons. Poverty, on the contrary, compels people to remain embedded in immediate or short-term concerns. India has now recognised eight years of compulsory education as a right of every child, but endemic poverty and social inequality are posing tough constraints in making this law a reality. Elementary education by itself means little; it can only serve as a foundation for further education over many years. The informal economy on which the poor survive forces them to live from day to day. They want to — but usually fail to — plan for the distant future in which their progeny might reap the fruits of education. The children belonging to poor families find it difficult to cope with the regularity that schools demand. This is because hunger, illness and insecurity interrupt their life at home all the time. Their parents have to use most of their energies in order to deal with everyday emergencies.

Life under poverty is unpredictable and prone to sudden losses and traumas. For the poor, there is no such thing as normalcy. Anything can happen anytime, and all you can do is to cope as you suffer. In big cities, municipal authorities can suddenly clear a street of food vendors or bulldoze an unauthorised colony. Next morning, when a child fails to be at school or looks subdued, the teacher shows no curiosity to find out what might have happened to the child’s father or mother the previous afternoon. In rural areas, flood waters can drown hundreds of houses; yet the school is supposed to function and cover the prescribed syllabus! Dams or factories can mean displacement of whole villages. What will happen to children is the least important concern for those in charge of such operations. I once met children in Manibeli, a village that now lies at the bottom of the Sardar Sarovar dam. They had gone through the trauma of seeing their own school vanish under water.

Mid-day meals programme

Poverty also has a corrosive effect on children’s health and mental capacities. Frequent illness, especially on account of stomach-related problems, is common among children who live in conditions characterised by poor sanitation. A recent study has shown how filthy surroundings, in which faecal material mixes with water and food, weaken the capacity to absorb nutrition. Limited resources to eat well and regularly result in a daily cycle of anxiety and low energy which translates into poor attention to the teacher’s expectations. There cannot be better evidence of the relationship between hunger and education than the success of the mid-day meals programme. The fact that this minimalist scheme has actually improved enrolment and retention proves how major a role hunger and malnourishment play in pushing children to drop out of school. Certain State governments have recently administered a dose of deworming medicine, recognising the prevalence of parasites and the impact of this condition on children’s nutritional status, energy and attention.

Vicious cycle

Poverty often leads to children’s involvement in household work and outside activities that might augment the family’s income, on top of their school work. The burden of responsibilities at home or outside directly influences the child’s participation in school life and capacity to fulfil the teacher’s expectations. Teachers of private schools where 25 per cent of the seats are now being given to the “economically weaker sections” (EWS) category seldom know with clarity what life at home means for children in this category. From looking after younger siblings to sweeping the floor and cooking, an EWS girl often shares major tasks her mother is supposed to accomplish on a daily basis. Whether children work at home or outside, their effort to juggle work-related responsibilities with classroom routines makes their life at school porous and thin. Absence from school or inability to focus makes a direct impact on performance. Once a child starts to lag behind others, he or she becomes a relevant object of stereotyping by classmates and teachers. A vicious cycle sets in. Common stereotypes about the poor get invoked in the teacher’s mind and the child’s behaviour resonates and reinforces these stereotypes. Some of these stereotypes are rooted in caste-related beliefs or in religion. Of course, no principal or teacher would ever acknowledge being guided by these stereotypes.

Education alone cannot address poverty. However, it holds an important place among the numerous strategies that a welfare state must adopt to loosen the grip that chronic poverty has on its victims. A recent British study led by Anand Mani shows how poverty saps the energy of its victims. They often fail to keep up with the effort it takes to avail the state’s benefits. The daily struggles and anxieties of life reinforce the cycle of ill-health and missed appointments. In India, the state’s efforts are quite often mainly symbolic. The distribution of iron tablets or syrup to overcome chronic malnutrition among adolescent girls is a good instance. Had the famous mid-day meal been aimed at middle class children, it would have been priced more realistically. Greater flexibility to cope with price rise would have been permitted. Schemes for the poor are themselves so emaciated and stiff that they cannot be expected to make a significant difference in the lives of their beneficiaries.

Nor are strategies to combat poverty sufficiently contextualised or flexible. Rigidity and uniformity are said to be necessary to avoid corruption and misuse. Even a distinction as broad as rural and urban is overlooked when plans to address the educational problems of poor children are designed. Whether a school has drowned in a dam or been blasted by insurgents or it has been demolished because it was collapsing anyhow, the officials in charge make no distinction or find ways to compensate for the loss of classes. Children studying in government schools are deemed to be poor and, therefore, unimportant. I remember visiting a village in Haryana where the children told me that their best teacher had been transferred away two months ahead of the annual examination. All over the country, government school children cope with the absence of their teachers during elections. It is the children who subsidise the cost of democracy while their parents enthusiastically cast their vote, hoping that it will lead to improvement in their lives.

For better training

Teachers can make a significant difference in the educational experience of poor children, but only if their training equips them with the awareness of what poverty means. Our training programmes are so wordy and wasteful, they make no effort to get into specific issues like poverty. A widespread belief in the ideology of social Darwinism prevents teachers from realising that children of the poor are like any other group of children, with individual differences of interest and motivation. According to this ideology, survival is the proof of being the fittest, hence only the exceptional child from a poor family is endowed by nature to succeed. Training courses don’t engage with such attitudes and beliefs. Teachers who work in mixed classrooms don’t expect all children to succeed in their own different ways. They focus on the few who look exceptional; the rest are believed to lack any potential. It is hardly surprising that the system of education makes so little impact on the majority of children from poorer backgrounds.

(The author is professor of education at Delhi University and a former NCERT director. This article is a shorter version of his silver jubilee lecture at the National Institute of Open Schooling.)



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