The best of times, the worst of times


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THESE are the best of times and the worst of times, times when we are presented drastically different scenarios and hear sharply contrasting stories. Pouring over educational statistics from a variety of sources – Census and Sample Surveys (NFHS, NSSO) – one feels upbeat about the progress in literacy levels and primary school enrolment in the decade of the 1990s. So too when we read government documents that bestow elementary education as a fundamental right, allocate substantial funds to elementary education and reiterate commitment to close all gender and social equity gaps in accessing quality education. All seems to be on track with Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan. Yet, if one travels around the country, in rural hamlets and urban slums, the ground situation seems a far cry from national or even state level statistics.

Let me start with the more promising areas of the country. During a visit to EGS (Education Guarantee Scheme) and government primary schools in Raisen district of Madhya Pradesh (November 2003), I found a lot of children in school, packed to the brim in a brightly coloured building. Teachers were having to manage over 50 children of different classes in the same room, trying to maintain some semblance of order. Browsing through their notebooks and observing their work it was obvious that many of them – even in class III and IV – could barely read and write. Yes children are definitely coming to school and yes the teachers are also present, but one is left wondering how many will actually complete the primary cycle with requisite skills.

Similarly, I made a surprise stopover in a few government primary schools in Banswara district of Rajasthan in February 2004. Again, government primary schools were functioning, children were there in full force, and teachers were present, yet it is difficult to say if learning was happening. Parents lamented that in the old days even a class V child could read newspapers, but now even a matric pass could not do so! The scenario in Babu land was no different – enrolment of children between the ages of 6-14 stands at 96%; the state dropout rate is as high as 72% between classes I-X.

Given the multi-grade teaching situation in a majority of primary schools, especially in rural/backward areas, the actual teaching time is fairly low. Single and two teacher schools are more prevalent in areas where literacy levels are low and where most of the children are first generation school goers. In some states like Rajasthan the number and intensity of non-teaching duties of teachers (oversee self-help groups, surveys and campaigns, human and cattle census) has increased in the last five years. Teachers in Ajmer (August 2003) admit that actual teaching is as low as 140 days in some schools. The tragedy is not that there is no demand for education or that people do not recognise the value of education in the overall growth and development of their children. Rather that children who do enrol are pushed from one grade to the next, thanks to the no-detention policy. After five years they emerge with rudimentary skills, if at all.



Let us turn to a region that has seen many innovative efforts in the last 15 years. I visited a number of schools and alternative educational programmes in Korta block of Udaipur district of Rajasthan in August 2003. The Lok Jumbish Parishad has been working in this block for several years, running a number of alternative education centres (Sahaj Shiksha Kendra, Balika Shikshan Kendra). A few well-known NGOs of Rajasthan (Astha, Sewa Mandir) also work in this area. Yet, nearly all social development indicators – immunisation, child mortality, infant mortality, and maternal mortality – are well below state average. Korta is remains one of the most backward blocks of Rajasthan, recording a dismal literacy rate of 37.55% for males and a shocking 11.44% for females (Census 2001).

The education department and Lok Jumbish project personnel admit that many formal primary schools do not function as teachers are either not available or absent. What is worse is that the actual teaching time is abysmally low – in schools we visited, each group of children (in a multi-grade situation) were taught for as little as 25 minutes a day and 140 days in the year. The worst were the night schools that officially run for two to three hours in dim light. We were informed that over two-thirds of children attending night schools are girls! Discussions with women in the area revealed that they want to send their children – girls and boys – to school, but are at a loss in a situation where schools are dysfunctional. As a result of the ‘political correctness’ associated with women’s empowerment, there is a tremendous push for residential bridge courses for girls and parents ask why such residential camps are not being organized for boys. All this in an area where we are often told that poverty, children’s workload and social barriers come in the way of enrolment and regular participation.



In a recent study analysing the factors that facilitate or impede successful primary school completion among children in diverse poverty situations in Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh, we observed that most children in classes III, IV and V were neither able to read fluently from their textbooks, nor could they solve simple addition or subtraction sums. Most children in class II were unable to recognise alphabets or numerals; children in class III were also unable to read, write or count, though they knew certain lessons by rote.

‘Earlier class II pass students could read postcards, now they can’t even write their names,’ complained a father during the focus group discussions (FGD) in urban Sitapur district of Uttar Pradesh. ‘What is the use of sending him to school? I pulled him out after class IV and he now helps me with my work.’ The situation was not dramatically different in Karnataka or in Andhra Pradesh. Yes, a few more could read, but on further investigation we realised that children with literate parents (especially mother) or those who attend private tuition classes were the ones most able to read.



Children who are first generation school goers barely manage to recognise alphabets and can, at best, read a few words. Group discussions in the community revealed that parents feel that the quality of teaching has declined, that the community teachers do not really care if the children of the poor learn to read or not. Also, teachers are not made accountable for learning outcomes of children, especially in the primary and middle schools where there are no board examinations.

The NFHS data reveals that overall 79% of children in the age group of 6-14 were attending school in 1998-99, up from 69% in 1992-93. School attendance varies across states – more than 90% attend school in Himachal Pradesh and Kerala, while the figure stands at less than 60% in Bihar in the 6-14 age group (NFHS II, 1998). Attendance rates too vary across different age groups – they decline as we move towards higher ages. This is more marked for girls in rural areas, where they decline from 75.1% for 6-10 years, to 61.6% for 11-14 years, and 32.8% for 15-17 years.

This is symptomatic of not only the traditionally backward states like Bihar, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, and Uttar Pradesh, but also for Gujarat, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. This highlights yet again the problematic nature of transition and retention in higher classes for girls, especially in rural areas. (NFHS I and II). The situation is particularly bleak in tribal areas, in urban slums and for children of communities who are at the bottom of the social ladder. The situation in these areas is fairly predictable – extreme poverty, low investment in primary education, low adult literacy, dysfunctional or poorly functioning schools, low learning achievements and high drop out rate.



There are wide discrepancies between the percentage of boys and girls completing primary school – according to NFHS II data, 100% enrolled children completed primary school in Kerala, 82% in Maharashtra and 86% Tamil Nadu as compared to 28% in Bihar, 30% in Rajasthan and 26% in West Bengal. Slightly more than a third of the population in the age group of 9-11 (or in some states 10-12) has completed primary school. Moreover, for girls, socially disadvantaged groups, and those in rural areas, completion rates are lower. The Select Educational Statistics (GOI, 2002) reveal that 59 million children in the 6-14 age group are still out of school, out of which 35 million, i.e., approximately 59% are girls. Equally disturbing is the distribution of out of school children by social group and by location. According to NFHS II, rural girls belonging to disadvantaged groups like SC and ST are perhaps the worst off with a staggering 50% and 56% respectively having dropped out. Male-female differences are highest among the poorest quintiles of our population in both rural and urban areas.

Recent studies point out that schools located in different localities in the same village are endowed differently in terms of infrastructure, teacher-pupil ratio, training and capacity building of teachers. There is also a significant difference in the quality of schools that come directly under the education department and those run by social or tribal welfare departments and more recently alternative schools that come under the purview of panchayats. For example, the primary schools that come under the Adi Dravida Welfare Board in Tamil Nadu do not get the same inputs as those under the education department. Similarly, the Rajiv Gandhi Pathashala schools (Rajasthan) run in a single rented room while the regular primary schools may have up to four rooms! Thankfully, residential schools run under social welfare and tribal departments in Andhra Pradesh are well-endowed. Investment in infrastructure, teacher-pupil ratio, academic inputs (teacher training, teaching learning material) for alternative programmes like EGS, Rajiv Gandhi Pathashala, and Shishu Shiksha Kendra is appreciably less than the regular primary schools.



It is not that the situation is uniformly bad across the country or even for different social groups living in the same area. The real problem is that as we go down the social and economic pyramid, access and quality issues become far more pronounced. The vast numbers of the very poor in rural and urban India have to rely on government schools of different types. The relatively better off in rural and urban India either access better-endowed government schools or opt for private aided and unaided schools.

Let us look at the education scene in the capital, New Delhi. While municipal schools in the resettlement colonies have run down buildings or are housed in torn tents, unmotivated teachers and an indifferent educational environment, special municipal schools like Navyug schools/NDMC schools are better endowed and closely monitored. Almost all government employees – especially class IV and III – send their children to Kendriya Vidyalaya or NDMC schools. Equally, those working in the armed forces too access better-run government schools. As a result, people who have the ability to demand and ensure the proper functioning of ordinary municipal schools have no stake in it. As we go slightly higher in the bureaucracy, officials in government and related agencies send their children to private aided schools that offer reasonable quality education. The crème de la crème opts for elite schools; the government subsidizes some like Sanskriti School by allocating prime land in the heart of the city!

As a result, children at the bottom of the pyramid who enrol in poor quality primary schools have a slim chance of competing with their peers from the higher echelons of society. They drop out earlier and even if they continue, barely learn anything. As a result they are either pushed into lower paying jobs or into the informal sector. Education does not really add much value to their overall development or life skills.



Schooling is fast emerging as a social norm across the country. There is a hunger for education. Uttar Pradesh and Bihar (low literacy areas) have seen an exponential growth in the number of private schools – almost every village/hamlet now boasts of some kind of teaching shop. First generation school goers, who account for an overwhelming proportion of the poorest of the poor, have really no choice. They either have to supplement their education through private tuition or make do with what they learn or, more often, do not.

There is another insidious pyramid in education. A cursory look at educational statistics of 2001-02 reveals a disturbing picture. There are 6,64,041 recognised primary schools, 2,19,626 upper primary schools and 1,33,492 high schools in India. As we go higher there are only 8737 colleges for general education, 2409 professional institutions and 272 institutions of national importance! (GOI, Department of Education, MHRD website). This essentially implies that there is only one upper primary school for three primary schools and one high school for approximately five primary schools. Since these figures do not include alternative/EGS primary schools, the situation may actually be more alarming. Given that the competition to enrol at higher levels is tougher, children from poor quality government formal and alternative schools are the ones who are left out – almost as if by design.



Opportunities for post middle school or post-secondary vocational/technical/para-professional courses (public health, auxiliary nurse-midwife, animal husbandry, agriculture, child development) are limited (there is no comprehensive information on the number and spread of such institutions). Children who complete middle or even high school are left with almost no opportunity for continuing their education or acquiring employment or self-employment skills that could enable them to eke out a livelihood. Worse, there is no comprehensive policy to address the educational and training needs of educated youth.

Source: GOI, Department of Education, MHRD website, December 2003


The prognosis is clear. Ordinary middle and high school education is not enough. Given the changing scenario in the country – especially with respect to the educational aspirations of people – we have to seriously think about and plan for post-middle school and post-secondary education and training opportunities. Equally, linking education to empowerment (self-esteem/self-confidence), survival (for employment/self-employment), awareness of social, political and community issues and rights as citizens can yield handsome results for a country that is experiencing unprecedented social as well as economic transformation. However, instead of addressing real issues that confront us in a changing world, our educational planners and administrators are still caught in a time warp.



It is indeed the best time to make a decisive shift in the way education is envisioned – the demand side has never looked more promising. The overwhelming evidence emanating from studies done in the last 10 years clearly demonstrates that there is a tremendous demand for education – across the board and among all social groups. Wherever the government has ensured a well-functioning school within reach, enrolment has been high.

What is the way forward? First, access without quality is meaningless and quality is the essence of equity. There is little point in pushing children into schools if we cannot simultaneously gear the system to ensure children acquire reading, writing and cognitive skills appropriate for each level of education. This necessitates a multi-pronged strategy of bringing about changes in curriculum, classroom transactions, teacher training, classroom environment, teacher attitudes and school-community linkages. Working on any one these without addressing related issues does not lead to significant improvement in the learning outcomes of children.

Second, create multiple exit points, from high school onwards whereby children can access a wide range of technical/vocational skills (including agriculture, horticulture, public health, nursing, infrastructure development, credit and banking, natural resource management, and so on). Careful context specific planning has to be based on rigorous exploration of employment or self-employment opportunities and the natural resource base in the region. This is essential if we are to link education and training to productive work.

Such programmes have to be rooted in the knowledge about their area, economic opportunities and social and cultural life of the community. Forging forward linkages is critical because this will act as a suction pump propelling the community to invest in the education of their children. Conversely, an absence of forward linkages could lead to disappointment and disinterest in education per se. A lot more planning is necessary to cater to the varied educational needs of a growing number of elementary school students. Equally, such planning is essential to meet the demands of a fast changing economy.



Third, the challenge before us is so enormous that people in government have to work closely with the business and development community. Strategies have to be context specific – the basket of programmes that may be appropriate for Tamil Nadu or Andhra Pradesh may not work in Bihar and Rajasthan. Current approaches to district planning are woefully inadequate – the state government and district administration needs far greater autonomy to tailor the education system – especially the post-elementary education and training programmes – to the specific social and economic opportunities of the area.

While affirmative action by way of reservations and special provisions does have a role to play, it is more than evident that in the last 55 years people from socially deprived communities (except for a tiny section) have remained at the bottom rung of the economic ladder. Indifferent educational institutions ensure that their literacy, numeracy, cognitive and critical thinking abilities remain poor. They enter adolescence and adulthood with little hope and are quickly sucked into a battle for survival that leaves little room for self-development. This reinforces prevalent ambivalence about appropriateness of formal education beyond the elementary level. India cannot hope to make a breakthrough unless the entire chain that binds education is addressed in totality. Piecemeal approaches have not worked in the past and are unlikely to do so in the future.

Can the government and leaders in civil society meet the challenge?



Yash Aggarwal. 2000. How Many Pupils Complete Primary Education in Five Years. NIEPA, New Delhi.

Government of India, Department of Education, MHRD website. December 2003.

Government of India. 2002. Select Educational Statistics 2000-01. Department of Education, MHRD, New Delhi.

Jyotsna Jha and Dhir Jhingran. 2002. Elementary Education for the Poorest and Other Deprived Groups. Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi.

Pratichi (India) Trust. 2002. The Pratichi Education Report, New Delhi.

PROBE Report. 1999. Public Report on Basic Education in India. Oxford University Press, Delhi.

Vimala Ramachandran. 2002. Gender and Social Equity in Primary Education: hierarchies of access. The European Commission, New Delhi.

Vimala Ramachandran. 2003. Snakes and Ladders: factors that facilitate/impede successful primary school completion. Report submitted to The World Bank, New Delhi.