From the free bicycle scheme for school-going girls, the flagship programme of his first term, to providing free tablets to women to promote digital literacy ahead of the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, the Nitish Kumar government’s focus on education in the past 15 years has paid rich electoral dividends for his party.
However, an analysis of Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) reports shows that learning outcomes among school students in the poll-bound state have fallen in the past six years. In fact, over the years, ASER reports have consistently borne out that schools in Bihar are failing to teach students what they should be learning. As per the 2018 report, less than half (about 41%) of students in Class 5 in Bihar could read texts meant for the level of Class 2; the national average was 50.5%. Bihar has shown a decline even as the national average has been rising.
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On the contrary, under Nitish Kumar, Bihar has shown remarkable improvement in facilities such as playgrounds, libraries, toilets and drinking water at government schools since 2010.
In his poll campaign, Grand Alliance Chief Minister nominee Tejashwi Yadav has targeted Nitish for ignoring Bihar’s “real issues” of “padhayi (education), kamayi (earning), sinchai (irrigation), dawai (medicine).”
To reinforce his commitment to education in the state, Nitish announced last month that he would waive off education loans of beneficiaries of his government’s Student Credit Card Scheme. He also announced a 15% hike in basic salaries of contractual teachers.
The ASER report for 2018 underlined that one out of two students in Bihar lacked reading abilities expected not just of their grade but also of classes junior to theirs. Six years ago, in 2012, this figure was 3% higher, at 44.4%. It rose to 48.1% in 2014, but then dropped sharply to 41.8 in 2016 and 41.2% in 2018.
Overall, there has been a 3.2% decline in reading ability among students of Class 5 of the state. The national average on reading outcomes, on the other hand, has registered an improvement from 46.9% in 2012 to 50.5% in 2018.
Unsurprisingly, the learning deficit seen among students in elementary school carries forward to senior classes. In Class 8, 71.4% of the students could read texts meant for Class 2 — down from 80.7% in 2012. While nationally reading abilities among Class 8 students have also dropped — from 76.5% to 73% over six years — the decrease is not as sharp as Bihar’s.
The decline in reading skills is entirely due to the performance of government school students, pulling down the overall percentage despite private school students showing improvement over time. The gap between private and government school students at Class 5 level over the years is two-three times, narrowing a bit by Class 8.
The learning deficit is even worse in Maths, with 70% of Class 5 students not being able to do simple division — though it is marginally better than the national average of 72%. Among Class 8 students, 57% have age-appropriate numeracy skills as opposed to 67% in 2012. Nationally, 44% of the Class 8 students could do simple division in 2018 as opposed to 48.1% in 2012.
Showing the improvement in school facilities, ASER reports show that almost 90% of the rural schools had drinking water in 2018, compared to 79% in 2010. The proportion of rural schools with usable toilets improved from 34% in 2010 to 76% in 2018, while schools which served mid-day meals on the day of the ASER team’s visit increased from 57% to 85% in the eight years.
However, as per experts, factors such as above usually affect enrolment figures, and learning outcomes rarely improve without the quality of teaching being improved.
Incidentally, 3.5 lakh contractual teachers across over 40,000 schools in the state, appointed by panchayat and local bodies, have been on strike. Two months ago, Nitish announced a slew of benefits for them, with those appointed since 2006 getting a 15% hike in basic salary.
ASER is a rapid assessment survey conducted across rural households covering both private and government school students by NGO Pratham.