In the midst of gloom over the upcoming global recession, India is described as a rare bright spot, the ‘last BRIC standing’ as Brazil, China and Russia slip into recession. For India, economists are still predicting growth over 7 per cent in 2016, thanks to low oil prices and reliance on domestic markets.
There are reasons however, that I would be more cautious about, particularly about our optimism over India’s long-term growth. And one area that especially concerns me is the state of our education.
Progress in education is foundational – critical for a nation to build a skilled workforce, and also to help people improve their livelihoods as a country grows. Nehru was a visionary on higher education, building premier institutes of higher learning and research, including the IISc, IITs and IIMs. However, he didn’t see primary education as a priority due to the limited resources early governments had, and his focus on science and research based industries. It was in 1986 that the Rajiv Gandhi government emphasised child-centric primary education in a serious way, with the National Policy on Education (NPE) focusing on universal access to and enrolment into schools.
Government interventions and initiatives like the Midday Meal Scheme over the last decade have got many more children into schools. Enrolments have crossed 90 per cent among 6-14 year olds. The network of schools has expanded deep into rural areas and villages across the country.
But the question remains: have we been able to achieve the purpose of these schools? On looking closer, our enrolment numbers are a curtain drawn across a dismal reality. When I travel to Mandya, I see a microcosm of what India’s other education numbers tell me. When I ask parents why they send their children to school, they say, ‘They get bisi oota’ – the children get a hot meal, thanks to the Midday Meal program. When it rains the children don’t go to school since they lack transportation and walk the distance barefoot, a journey that is difficult in bad weather. Questions on whether the children are really learning, go unanswered.
The non-profit ASER effort (Annual Status of Education Report) by Pratham has been conducting a detailed annual survey of learning outcomes among children. It found that even as annual government spend per student rose, learning outcomes didn’t improve. Only 29 per cent of students across India could do questions that involved simple reasoning in ASER tests. Only 22 per cent could solve simple math problems. Among the children in Standard V, half could not read at the Standard II level. The Financial Times, observing the mess, noted that in India, ‘Primary education standards rank alongside Papua New Guinea and crisis-torn Afghanistan and Yemen.’
The absence of learning and low quality of teaching has its impact on the students. The Gross Enrollment Rate in our public schools by the time students hit standard XI falls from over 90 per cent to below 50 per cent.
Dropouts are even higher among our most vulnerable communities – schedule castes and tribes, and minorities. These students are often discriminated against inside the school, such as in the case of the Ghasiya tribe children in Uttar Pradesh, who were, irrespective of age, packed into a single second grade classroom, where the teacher rarely appeared. This discrimination is persistent across states and across different levels of education – the Thorat Committee in 2006 studied the discrimination of Dalit students at AIIMS, and noted hostility and aggression against them in nearly ‘every aspect of their daily life’ – with classmates and faculty, in the hostels and cafeterias.
The education middle-class children have across India is, on the other hand, very different. A majority attend private pre-schools which give these children an early head-start, followed by schools with top-notch infrastructure, teacher quality and extra-curricular activity. It is not an uncommon scene in India to see poorer children walking to their one-room schools, often barefoot, while middle class children are taken to school in private yellow buses. And as each sees the other, the poor children might wonder: why do these kids get opportunities that I don’t?
These inequalities change shape over the years, but persist. The difference in schools at the primary level makes all the difference between learning and not-learning. Later, it results in the difference between not passing in the board exams versus high scores. The expensive after-school tuitions most middle-class students enroll in give them an added advantage in admission exams for premier colleges.
When poor students do get admission in colleges, they continue to struggle due to the shaky training they have received. Their experience with bad schools thus dogs them throughout their lives, never letting them catch up. They rarely get the sought after college placements, careers, or standards of living.
The majority of our children – those outside the purview of the small number of private pre-schools – discover that the education they were offered was a bridge made of paper, taking them nowhere. They grow into young adults who have the worst of both worlds: not enough education to get a good job in a white-collar profession, and also without the fallback his/her parents had with agriculture and farming. What jobs they do get are government subsidised, such as through the MNREGA, or temporary and often hazardous, in occupations like construction. While they eke out a living, they can look around and see how middle-class India lives.
And what happens then? We know, because we are already seeing it happen all around us. The country ends up with a large, justifiably angry working class. They’ve been denied opportunities, their skills and talents and intelligence un-nurtured and ignored. They experience an identity crisis, because without a good job or a degree, they are left with their caste identity. And so they turn to rabble-rouser and demagogue politicians who acknowledge them in this way, and who ride their anger to power, but finally do little to change the fundamentals that have kept the poor, poor.
Education reform is critical to breaking this cycle. Where have we gone wrong? It is clear that the great challenge for us is the hollowing out of our public education system. Funds for education fragment by the time they reach individual schools, and the majority of these funds – more than 60 per cent, across India and 90 per cent in states like Rajasthan – are spent on teacher salaries.
At the same time, government schools are also experiencing a crisis of teacher shortage. There are over 7.7 lakh teaching posts vacant across central and state schools. The shortages of teachers mean that there is one teacher for large, multi-grade government classrooms, complicating teaching quality.
This problem of many schools and little education is both today’s and certainly tomorrow’s crisis. We cannot let down the hundred millions of students in our classrooms. We must work towards ensuring that all our children, irrespective of accidents of birth or background must be given equal learning opportunities to hone themselves. As the economist Abhijit Banerjee puts it, “Poverty is not just a lack of money. It is not having the capability to realise one’s full potential as a human being.” And that’s the danger of bad schools.