I do not know if there is God; but I do believe that there is sin. The greatest of all sins is unfulfilled potential. If a child, endowed by nature or God with innate abilities, is not given the opportunity to rise to her full potential because society failed to nurture those abilities through education, it is an unbearable sin. By this yardstick, India today ranks as a most sinful nation.
This observation may seem strange in a country that prides itself of its educational accomplishments. We have our Satya Nadellas and Indra Nooyis; we have our IITs and IIMs. We have our Right to Education Act (RTE); and our school enrolment is near universal at 96 percent! So, what is wrong with our education?
Let us examine the evidence. The Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) is a summary of yearly survey findings of school education by a reputed NGO, Pratham. ASER, started in 2005, surveys rural school-going children in over 600 districts of India, and includes children going to both government and private schools. Year after year, ASER findings are stark and distressing. In 2013, for instance, 53 percent of children in Class 5, and 26 percent in Class 8 could not read a passage of Class 2 without difficulty. In fact, the percentage of children in government schools in Class 5 who can read Class 2 level text has fallen from 50.3 percent to 41.1 percent from 2009 to 2013. In private schools it is marginally better, and remained static at about 63 percent. In arithmetic, among rural children in Class 8, 54 percent cannot divide a three digit number by a single digit; and 30 percent children cannot even subtract a two-digit number from another two-digit number. Again, private schools seem to be little better, but not good enough. In fact, performance is falling in both government and private schools. In Class 5, the proportion of children who can do division fell from 36 percent to 21 percent in government schools and from 46 percent to 39 percent in private schools between 2009 and 2013! It is amazing that the RTE Act has not improved things at all.
Let us see how Indian children fare in comparison with the children in other countries. In the PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) survey of OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation
and Development) in 2009, at the age of 15, India stood 73rd out of 74 nations when children are tested for language, math, science and logic. Shanghai-China, Singapore and Hongkong- China stood first, second and third in that order. Only Kyrgyzstan was ranked lower than India! And the response of Government of India would be amusing, if it is not so tragic; India refused to partner with OECD in further surveys! If our children are not measured against global competition, there would be no comparison, and we can merrily continue to believe in our great achievements, and persist with failed ways!
RTE was enacted in 2009 with great fanfare. Over the past ten years, significant sums (Rs 2,86,000 cr) have been spent on improving school infrastructure and enrolment under Sarva Siksha Abhiyan. There is a midday meal programme in government schools costing about Rs 11,000 cr a year. In addition, state governments spend vast sums (about Rs 2,50,000 cr) on school education every year. Despite all this, our educational outcomes are appalling. Amazingly, enrolment upto class 8 in government schools fell by 9 percent between 2007–08 (13.37 crore) and 2013–14 (12.19 crore)! During the same period, private school enrolment has increased by 40 percent from 5.09 crore to 7.12 crore!
It is reasonable to assume that almost all the children who are in government schools are from poor families. It is equally clear that the recent 40 percent increase in private school enrolment is almost entirely because of poor families admitting their children in those schools and paying fees out of pocket.
RTE specifically discouraged private sector, introduced a Licence Raj in school education, imposed near-
impossible infrastructure standards on private sector, and pumped huge funds into public sector. But the net result is despite RTE, millions of poor families feel compelled to spend vast amounts of money disproportionate to their incomes, and enroll their children in private schools. RTE, instead of focusing on outcomes as much as on enrolment, actually prohibited all kinds of examinations. Instead of promoting competition and choice, the law sought to create a government monopoly. The net result is shift of enrolment of poor children into private sector, and appalling outcomes in education in general.
In this gloomy scenario, the strong demand for quality education and the willingness of parents to sacrifice a great deal to give their children good education, are signs of great hope and dynamism. But we cannot hope for better education by mere increase in private school enrolment. The out-of-pocket tuition expenses are impoverishing many families. Despite such sacrifice, most children are denied meaningful school education. As a result, most ‘educated’ youth lack minimum skills to be employed in a modern economy. In the 21st century world we can no longer pretend that digging pits and filling ditches through manual labour is productive employment. With low skills, our productivity and wages continue to be very low. As a result, poverty continues to plague hundreds of millions of our people. Quality school education and skills are the only way out for eradication of poverty and achievement of high growth rate. Good education is not merely a moral imperative; it is an economic necessity!
What can be done to ensure real quality education to every child? Now RTE is the biggest stumbling block for improvement of school education outcomes. The law prohibits sensible evaluation of students, public-private partnership choice to parents, and state reimbursement of school fees for poor parents. The way to hell is often paved with good intentions! The law needs to be amended to facilitate real improvement of education.
Once RTE becomes an enabler and facilitator, and not an obstacle, we need to design innovative policies and programmes at moderate cost to ensure real education to every child. Let us assume that a third of India’s children belonging to educated, high-income families, and going to high-end private schools, will take care of themselves. The real challenge for the rest of the children is not money; it is quality. The government now is spending Rs 20,000 –
25,000 per child per year on school education. Its Kendriya Vidyalayas are spending about Rs 27,000 per child and are generally respected for their educational outcomes. Therefore we can improve quality without substantial addition to cost.
Two key features will guarantee better outcomes. First, sensible evaluation and stress-free examinations to measure outcomes and define success. All our parents, teachers and school managements want success. RTE now ignores ‘success’ by prohibiting examinations. When we have examinations they are often stressful, measuring rote-learning and ignoring innovation or application, and are prone to rampant copying. If meaningful examinations and evaluation system are introduced and rigorously implemented, outcomes will significantly improve.
The second measure is choice to parents and competition among providers of education — public or private. All private schools conforming to certain standards, subject to a tuition fee ceiling of say Rs 18,000 per year, should be encouraged, preferably in non-profit sector. Parents should be given the choice among schools, and the fee should be reimbursed by government. Government’s role should be largely monitoring outcomes. Each child should also get a reasonable transport subsidy, so that commuting to school is not a burden. Even now, millions of poor children are attending private schools at considerable distances.
Once evaluation and choice are institutionalised, there will be a sea change in educational outcomes. Other measures — consolidation of schools to give economies of scale, proper teacher training, and greater accountability through autonomous district education boards will deepen the process.
India is at the cross-roads. We have a priceless opportunity to impart true education and skills to all our children and create a productive workforce. This will make our demographic dividend real, and catapult India to an economic giant status. The strong demand for education across all sections of society can be harnessed to radically alter the outcomes with little additional cost. The time is ripe for a long-
(The writer is Founder, Lok Satta Party, eminent thinker and educationist.)