There have been changes for the better in the schooling system over the last decade. But the quality of education remains abysmally low for a vast majority of Indian children and we must stop tolerating this.
How would you feel if half of the buses and trains that are supposed to be running on a particular day were cancelled at random � every day of the year? Quite upset, surely (unless you can afford to fly). Yet a similar disruption in the daily lives of children has been quietly happening for years on end, without any fuss: in rural north India, on an average day, there is no teaching activity in about half of the primary schools.
In 1996-1997, the Public Report on Basic Education (PROBE) team surveyed primary schools in about 200 villages in undivided Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Uttar Pradesh. In 2006, we revisited the same areas to find out whether and how the schooling situation had changed over ten years. There were many signs of positive change.
First, school enrolment rates have risen sharply, for example, from 80 to 95 per cent in the age group of 6-12 years. For the first time, the goal of universal school participation is within reach.
Secondly, social disparities in school enrolment have considerably narrowed. For instance, the gap between boys and girls has virtually disappeared at the primary level. Enrolment rates among Scheduled Caste and Muslim children are very close to the sample average � about 95 per cent in each case. Enrolment among Scheduled Tribe children, however, is lower at 89 per cent.
Thirdly, the schooling infrastructure has improved. For instance, the proportion of schools with at least two pucca rooms went up from 26 to 84 per cent between 1996 and 2006. Nearly three-fourths of all primary schools now have drinking water facilities. Toilets have been constructed in over 60 per cent of all schools.
Fourthly, school incentives are reaching many more. To illustrate, free uniforms were provided in barely 10 per cent of primary schools in 1996, but this went up to more than half in 2006. Similarly, the proportion of schools where free textbooks are distributed was less than half in 1996, but close to 100 per cent in 2006.
Fifthly, cooked mid-day meals have been introduced in primary schools � they were in place in 84 per cent of the sample schools. The bulk of the gap was in Bihar, where mid-day meals were still in the process of being initiated at the time of the survey.
Economic growth, rising parental literacy, and the rapid expansion of rural infrastructure and connectivity have certainly facilitated these achievements. But public initiatives such as Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, Supreme Court orders on mid-day meals, and active campaigns for the right to education have also made a major contribution to this new momentum for the universalisation of elementary education.
Having said this, we must highlight the fact that the quality of education remains abysmally low for a vast majority of Indian children. To start with, school enrolment does not mean regular attendance. Almost everywhere, children�s attendance as noted in the school register was far below enrolment. Actual attendance, as observed by field investigators, was even lower.
Further, classroom activity levels are very low. One reason for this is the shortage of teachers. Despite a major increase in the number of teachers appointed, the pupil-teacher ratio in the survey areas has shown little improvement over the years. The proportion of schools with only one teacher appointed has remained much the same � about 12 per cent. In 2006, an additional 21 per cent of schools were functioning as single teacher schools on the day of the survey, due to teacher absenteeism. Aggravating the situation is the fact that teachers often come late and leave early. Even when they are present, they are not necessarily teaching. In half of the sample schools, there was no teaching activity at all when the investigators arrived � in 1996 as well as in 2006.
Even in the active classrooms, pupil achievements were very poor. Teaching methods are dominated by mindless rote learning, for example, chanting endless mathematical tables or reciting without comprehension. It is therefore not surprising that children learn little in most schools. For instance, we found that barely half of the children in Classes 4 and 5 could do single digit multiplication, or a simple division by 5.
No quick fix
Some quick fixes have been tried, but with limited results. One of them is the appointment of "contract teachers," often seen by State governments as a means of expanding teacher cadres at relatively low cost. In the government primary schools surveyed, contract teachers account for nearly 40 per cent of all teachers. Owing to the contractual nature of their appointment, and the fact that they are local residents selected by the Gram Panchayat, these contract teachers were expected to be more accountable than permanent teachers. This has not happened. The inadequate training and low salaries of contract teachers affect the quality of their work. In some schools, they were certainly more active than the permanent staff; but not in others where they were protected by their connections with influential people in the village.
Another way of improving school performance, related to the first, is to promote community involvement and decentralised school management. Most of the schools in our sample had a Village Education Committee or some other committee of this sort. In most cases, these committees have helped to improve the school infrastructure, select contract teachers, and supervise midday meals. However, they have been much less effective in improving the levels of teaching activity. Power in most committees rests 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), representation of parents in these committees tends to be nominal, and their active involvement is rare. The survey found numerous instances where committee members did not even know that their name had been included in the committee.
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.
A third quick fix is greater reliance on private schools. The proliferation of private schools in both urban and rural areas often creates an impression that this is the solution. A closer look at the evidence, however, does not support these expectations. 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 is not always a reflection of better teaching standards; some of them also take advantage of the ignorance of parents, for example, with misleading claims of being "English medium." Further, a privatised schooling system is inherently 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). Private schooling therefore defeats one of the main purposes of �universal elementary education� � breaking the old barriers of class, caste, and gender in Indian society.
Despite the recent mushrooming of private schools, about 80 per cent of school-going children were enrolled in government schools in 2006 � the same as in 1996. This situation is likely to continue in the foreseeable future, which makes it imperative to do something about classroom activity levels in government schools, instead of giving up on them.
The title of 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 last ten years or so. The need of the hour is to consolidate the momentum of positive change and extend it to new areas � particularly those of classroom activity and quality education. The forthcoming Right to Education Act may help. But 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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