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.