Not for the children

Our educational system seems tailored for its administrators. Students, teachers take second place. The main problem, as in other fields, is the abysmal quality of governance, with politics permeating every aspect of educational administration.

Written by T S R Subramanian | Published:June 27, 2017 2:30 am
indian education system, india school quality,  hindus education, politics-governance-education, indian education, indian school education system, india news, indian express Illustration by C R Sasikumar

In December last year, the PEW Research Centre in New York, a think-tank focusing on public issues released a research study, with findings of a comparison of schooling standards in over 90 countries. The study, ‘Region and Education Around the World’ , focuses on “educational attainment” among the major religions of the world. Its startling conclusion is that Hindus have the “lowest” level of “educational attainment” in the world, and the Indian school educational system is at the bottom of the international league, along with that in Sub-Saharan Africa. The study uses parameters prescribed by the UNESCO for assessing schooling standards, and number of years of schooling as the proxy for education accomplishment, not taking into account the quality of education on offer. The “Christian” average is 9.3 years of schooling, 7.9 years for “Buddhists”, while Muslims and Hindus of the world undergo 5.6 years of schooling against the global average of 7.7 years.

The findings of a 2011 study by R.J. Barro of Harvard University and J.W. Lee of Korea University are in conformity with the PEW assessment of Indian school standards. Some years ago, PISA, the measurement standard adopted in Europe and utilised in a large number of countries, studied Indian school quality in two states. The depressing conclusion of the 110-country study was that India ranked second last — beating only Kyrgyzstan in the honours list. Apparently, it is easy to shoot the messenger than accept bad news — India pulled out of the PISA study, thereafter. Alas, the Indian authorities have no reach to ban PEW or Harvard.

The bad news does not end there. The Annual Status of Education Report conducted by Pratham, an Indian NGO with some credibility, had assessed in 2014 that 75 per cent of all children in Class III, over 50 per cent in Class V and over 25 per cent in Class VIII could not read texts meant for Class II. Further, reading levels for all children enrolled in government schools in Class V showed a decline between 2010 and 2012. National Survey Sample results in 2015 indicated sharp decline in learning outcomes in mathematics, science and English in the secondary schools. A recent study in Delhi has come out with the finding that only 54 per cent of the city’s children can read something — it could be only a sentence. One will have to be extremely obtuse to not realise that the Indian school education system is in terrible shape — even if it is not the worst in the world.

There is ample evidence that the Indian child is as good a learner as any in the world. Indeed, Indian Americans are among the highly educated communities in the US, according to PEW. It is just sheer lack of basic opportunity that has kept the Indian child at very low education standards — a proof of apathy in governance.

What ails the system — well, nearly everything. The main problem, as in other fields, is the abysmal quality of governance, with politics permeating every aspect of educational administration. Factors other than merit play a significant part in the management of affairs; proper governance standards, with adequate incentives, and checks and balances, have not been put in place (deliberately?). The focus of the entire structure at the Centre and the states is on the minister, secretary, and the educational regulatory institutions — not on the student, teacher, principal and school.

The system is not “inclusive” and does not give a second chance to the weaker sections. The fundamentals of teacher management, teacher education and training as well as school governance and management are lacking at every step. The curriculum is rote-oriented and little practical thought has been given to pedagogy at any stage. The school-level data are unreliable. The access promised to the Economically Weaker Sections (EWS) has hardly been implemented. The infrastructure promised in the Right to Education Act (RTE) is scarcely visible on the ground. The list can go on — wherever you look, reforms are urgently-required.

Don’t the policymakers at the Centre and the states — the politicians, the ministers and the bureaucrats — know the ground realities and the depth of the problem? Indeed a few are aware. Others see their association with the education department as transient — they do not want to know or to learn. It is comforting not to know. Those who know the reality do not want to take any initiative which will disturb the strong vested interests which have permeated every element of the education space. The authorities are quite content to be busy handling the day-to-day operational management crises, or happily exercising their patronage whenever they can. Periodical tit-bits of superficial “reforms”, and headlines attracting media publicity is adequate to give the impression that management of the sector is sound, and that “reforms” are being undertaken. In short there is no urge in the Centre or the states to drastically improve the situation of school education.

Indeed, in every public and closed-door education-related meeting, there is no shortage of reference to Saraswati, the goddess of learning, or of pontification on the critical and seminal role played by education in the development of the country. These are pure formalities, with zero intention of converting them to practice. After all, the children have no votes; the parents are not organised and are at the most, able to find fault with the local school, and not go on to the root cause. Who is going to start the transformation of the school sector? No politician or bureaucrat is interested, as it will take at least a decade for results to show.

Major, far reaching, reforms are under way in the economic sector. The present government has commenced important steps to address the black economy and electoral reforms. Only if and when the prime minister starts taking a personal interest will things start moving in the education sector. For India’s medium-term prospects of stability, and for the country to play a rightful role in world affairs, it is imperative that the Centre takes this as a major area for intervention.

The writer is a former Cabinet Secretary

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  1. L
    Jun 28, 2017 at 3:33 am
    Wont be surprised if this tell all by a retired bureaucrat who spent recent post retirement years sucking up to the BJP has sent his kids to the US of A. These clowns when sitting on privelege ran riot over the education system in India. Hocked it off to the private sector and now some crocodile tears so that the government gives him a news assignment. Did he speak up when the BJP was burning down JNU, HCU, Jadavpur and countless other univs? Too late buddy.
    1. S
      Jun 28, 2017 at 2:26 am
      Among the important recommendations of Ramaswami in his book "Innovation for India by India" is that education should be taken out of the hands of bureaucrats, and to make that possible good educators need to be identfied and groomed into becoming education administrators and managers. There are many more specific recommendations in that book that can change the current system into one empowering the next generation in many ways.
      1. A
        Jun 28, 2017 at 1:28 am
        A retired babu finding his conscience. These fellows have spread havoc for the Indian people while they are in service. Largely unaccountable and self serving. They write these articles post retirement. Shameful.
        1. A
          Jun 28, 2017 at 1:25 am
          The Indian educational system is designed to create clerks to serve the Babu Raj. Those entering the private sector are killing themselves with scant regard to workplace HR regulations and a work life balance, for an insatiable appe e to please the master and individual compe iveness. Indian management only follows rules, made elsewhere. Those in the Babudom who are empowered to make rules, do so to benefit themselves by violating the fundamental rights of the people of India. Its a very sad story.
          1. M
            Jun 28, 2017 at 12:03 am
            Author was highest decision maker of India for pretty long years. It is not these ailments are cropped overnight. I respect him but I question him for his role as cabinet secretary of the country that he was knowing but did little to resolve the problem. May be he was busy in other sector
            1. E
              Employ Ment
              Jun 27, 2017 at 9:28 pm
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              1. A
                Jun 27, 2017 at 9:10 pm
                Reading the comments section it seems the system prevailing will continue as the typical Indian frog mentality is rampant. Killing the messenger , at times maiming him , is something we are adept at. That the education system in place is crying for change is obvious but we are busy finding fault and if possible bring in the cow!!!!
                1. D
                  Dr. Prithipaul
                  Jun 27, 2017 at 7:55 pm
                  Since Independence no government has given due importance to Education. It is astonishing that there is so little awareness among the electorate of the inadequacies in the established curricula. The indigenous elites do not even feel the indignity that the best schools and colleges are still run by foreign missionaries. Not even the RSS has a programme for good education. No PM, since Independence, has promoted the building of a Library, or a Museum, or a Cultural Centre. In the 13th year of his term as President Francois Mitte was asked for what would he like to be remembered. He said" "For the 31 monuments which have punctuated my 2 terms: Opera Houses, Libraries, Cultural Centres." During more than 16 years as PM Nehru did not sponsor the creating of a single cultural centre. Even today there is no mention of a cultural or educational centre as an adornment of a smart city. Beauty and High Learning have not yet colonised the minds of the State and Central governing elites.
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