Fixing India’s School Education System

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Rajesh Singh
The recent Bihar State education board scandal that gripped the nation’s attention and shook its conscience, has no doubt exposed the State’s pathetic education ecosystem. It has showed up the system’s underbelly where marks at board examinations and certificates (for courses not studied) can be bought for the right price (the amount is decided on the basis of grades desired). Only a year ago, the country was stunned at images of people climbing up walls like Spiderman and passing on answer slips to students appearing for examinations inside a hall in the same State. Then, like in the recent case, the State regime had promised action. There is no doubt that the culpable must be brought to book and that the Bihar Government cannot allow this mockery of education system to go unchecked. However, it would be incorrect to view the incident as a State-specific malady. Other States too have had their ignominious share of mass copying in examinations and the sale of fake mark-sheets and certificates. Indeed, all of this is a manifestation of the rot that has set into the country’s school education system as a whole.
Over the years, Governments, both at the Centre and the States, have been showing a good deal of enthusiasm in the promotion of higher institutions of learning. Union Governments has been on a spree to expand the number of educational ratnas such as the Indian Institutes of Technology and the Indian Institutes of Management, as well as open up All India Institute of Medical Sciences-like medical colleges and hospitals.
The belief behind this drive is that more of these will provide increased access to aspiring students and help shatter the accusation that the best professional institutions have become closed clubs with limited membership. There may be some merit in the argument, though the issue of quality being compromised with a rapid increase in quantity, remains a subject of heated debate and, for many educationists, a serious cause of concern.
But whatever the line of argument one adopts, the fact is that in the zeal to promote higher institutes of learning, Governments have failed to give primary and secondary education system the attention which its deserved — and deserves. This failure, from all accounts, is both shocking and amazing. It is like building the top floors without having adequately secured the foundation. If the general quality of a majority of students passing out of our schools — in rural India especially — is poor (yet it is showed as exemplary in records once money has changed hands), and their cognitive skills are far from satisfactory to enter the higher institutes of learning, this needs to be fixed more urgently than the problem of Indian professional institutes not finding a decent place in the global rankings of the best colleges of the worlds. It needs to be remembered here that not every school pass-out will join a professional institute, but every pass- out will need to put his educational skills to test to mover forward in life. But if those skills themselves are suspect, then there is no hope.
The condition of our primary and secondary education system is alarming — and this is no exaggeration, if only we are willing to address the problem areas instead of being focused solely on numbers that offer solace. For instance, we can take heart from the Annual Status of Education Report of 2014 (ASER 2014) finding that close to 97 per cent children in the age group of 6-14 in rural India have been enrolled in schools; that 2014 was the sixth year in a row when the percentage of such students remained at 96 and above; and that random visits to rural schools by members of Pratham, the NGO which conducts the educational survey and publishes the ASER report, showed that on an average 71 per cent students were found to be in attendance. What these figures indicate are the following:
Over the years, the network of primary and secondary schools has expanded in rural India (which means that children have easier access to schools close to or in their villages); various Government initiatives such as mid-day meals etc to lure students (especially the poor) to schools have fetched dividend; and rural families are increasingly setting aside part of their income to educate their children, even if means sending them to the nearest private schools. What these statistics do not show is the progress in the learning skills of the students and the teaching skills of the tutors.
To understand that, here are the figures from the ASER report of 2014 for rural India (which accounts for 75 per cent of the total illiteracy). The first is that, of all the children enrolled in standard five, as many as 50 per cent cannot read at standard two level. Reading is the most fundamental of the foundational skills that students learn before they proceed higher in their studies. Unfortunately, as the figures show, the foundation on which a structure is to come up, is flawed.
ASER found that the problem is as much existent in private schools in rural India as well, though the gap between Government and private primary and secondary schools has been widening — which means that over a period of time, private schools are turning the corner here while Government schools are stuck with the problem.
This explains why parents even in rural India are seeking increasingly to send their wards to private schools. According to the ASER report, the number of children enrolled in private schools across rural India went up to 30.8 per cent in 2014, as compared to 18.7 in 2006. Interestingly, while most States showed an increase in private school enrolment between 2006-14, the figure dipped in Bihar from 13.7 per cent to 11.2 per cent. This can be partly understood by the increased access to Government schools, but it does not seem to have had any positive impact on the cognitive skills of the students.
The second worrisome statistic is that 20 per cent of standard two students could not recognise numbers from 1-9; it was 10 per cent in 2010, which means that things have gone from bad to worse. The situation is not very different for standard three students as well. There are other figures that only reinforce the grim image, and they need no iteration here, for the purpose has been served.
The questions, then are: Why is that despite clear and obvious attempts by the Centre and the State regimes over the years, is the quality of school education in India so abysmal? How and when did the rot set in? There are multiple reasons and the complexity is such that it can defy a clear answer. But if one were to cut through the maze, certain aspects are clear as daylight — and all of these have to do with the governance of our elementary and secondary education system.
The first and the most primary has to do with the competence of teachers. The teaching profession in rural India has become one of the most sought after, given the attractive remuneration and job security it offers. This should have been an incentive for quality teachers to be roped in. But ironically, in State after State, it has led to to the proliferation of corruption, where candidates are willing to pay hefty amounts to be selected — and amount they know they can recover in a few years of working. Political patronage and bureaucratic machinations have led to the mushrooming of middlemen who can get a job for the prospective candidate for a fee.
In other words, while the merited may not always get to teach primary and secondary school teachers in Government schools, the mediocre or the plainly incompetent who pay their pay, becomes tutors. In such a situation, the fate of the students is easy to predict.
Now, add to the corrupted selection process the second reason — the quality of teacher-training — and what one gets is an even more damaging scenario. While there are a number of institutes to train teachers, there is very little of cutting-edge in the training process. When children are encouraged to learn by rote, there is little hope that teachers can be persuaded to shore up their skills and take the trouble to learn.
According to a paper authored by noted academic Dr Ashok J Desai and titled, “Problem of Teacher Education in India”, Government authorities have given very little focus on equipping teachers with new trends in education. The paper also laments the limited role that the National Council for Teacher Training has played in this regard.
The issue her, of course, is: If candidates have joined as teachers by paying their way through and via political patronage, there is little incentive for them to take the trouble to enhance their faculties. The salary and the perks matter for them, which is why they bribed their way.
The third reason for the poor education quality in schools and skill levels, especially the Government-run ones, has to do with the lack of infrastructure. According to a recent study, nearly 60 per cent of Government schools did not have drinking water, while 89 per cent lacked basic toilet facilities. This is enough to put off several thousands of students across the country from regularly attending classes.The lack of adequate classrooms has meant that in many primary and secondary schools governments manage across rural India, students from various standards are clubbed together in a single classroom.
The havoc this can cause to the learning abilities of the child is not difficult to imagine. While it is true that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Swachch Bharat Abhiyaan has made a huge difference here, with lakhs of toilets, especially for girls, being constructed in schools across the country over the last year, there is a long way to go still.
It does appear that our mandarins have been quite content with concentrating on the quantifiable aspects of the education system, such as the number of new schools established, the number of new enrollments, the amount of money allocated to various schemes, the new schemes launched, etc. The reason for this is that quantifiable measures qualify them for rewards, awards and even higher budgetary outlays.
They should be engaging their attention to the quality aspect more seriously than they do today. If they don’t, the white elephant (in terms of performance) that the primary education system has today become, will get bigger.
The disastrous impact of an unwillingness to course correct will be most tellingly felt on the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009 (in fact, there are already many authoritative voices expressing concern over the failure of the RTE). The Act provides for free education to children in the 6-14 age group across the country or up to class eight by the Government.
While the RTE may have over the last half-a-decade contributed to greater student enrolment etc, what we will end up with, in the absence of quality education at the primary level, are hordes of students who are way behind in learning skills, are unable to cope with the pressures of higher learning as they go along (this can, as it has been happening, lead to tragic results), and will be deemed unfit for either industry or academia.
It is to be hoped that the new education policy which the Union Ministry of Human Resource Development is expected to unveil in the coming months, will incorporate the imperative to revamp the country’s elementary and secondary education system. And, let us keep mind the words of the
19th century poet-philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson, while re-shaping the educational ecosystem:
“We are students of words: We are shut up in schools, and colleges, and recitation-rooms, for 10 or 15 years, and come out at last with a bag of wind, a memory of words, and do not
know a thing.”

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