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Improving education for India’s children

Over the last decade, India has made a number of commitments towards ensuring children have universal access to primary and secondary education. For example, the recent Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act 2009 has made education compulsory for all children up to the age of 14 years.

The country is also committed to achieving the United Nations (UN) Millennium Development Goals (MDG) of universal primary education and eliminating gender disparity by 2015. Working towards these goals, several central and state government programmes have been set up to encourage school enrolment and retention. However some educational experts in India believe the focus should not only be on ensuring children are in school, but also on improving the quality of education once they are there.

Last week, the Guardian reported on some disturbing results about primary pupils’ levels of attainment uncovered by Pratham, a non-governmental organisation (NGO) in India. Six years ago, the director of the NGO, Rukmini Banerji, was frustrated that government assessments of schools did not cover all districts and were conducted only once every three to four years. Therefore, his organisation set out to do a broader study of primary schools by using volunteers to check on the levels of learning. This revealed that around half of primary children were unable to read at a reasonable standard after five years of schooling and many were unable to do basic maths.

Pratham now carries out an annual survey across all 600 educational districts in India. This is conducted by 25,000 volunteers from partner organisations, such as women’s groups and universities. The volunteers train for two days and then visit dozens of villages, where they ask children to perform simple tests in their homes. This volunteer assessment scheme, known as the Aser programme, covers 700,000 children. Over the past six years it has helped to expose many schools offering an ineffective education, even where funding is not an issue. In some cases, the problem is lack of training amongst teachers or absenteeism, since teachers’ salaries are so low and some take on other jobs. The volunteers also visit the schools to check on the presence of teachers and on facilities like textbooks and water. Lack of adequate facilities has also been shown to have an appreciable impact on the children’s achievements and drop-out rates from school.

The Aser programme has been such a success in exposing low educational standards, it has inspired similar schemes in other countries, such as Uganda, Kenya, Pakistan and Tanzania. Nicknamed the “rickshaw method”, supporters of the scheme say not only does it allow for a broader and more detailed assessment of learning across a country, it also helps to engage parents (even where the adults themselves are illiterate) in their children’s education and involve them with their community schools.

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