Education for all
Since independence in 1947, India has striven towards education for all. A well-educated workforce was crucial to the secular democracy dreamt of by Jawaharlal Nehru. India’s first prime minister saw social inclusion as a vital step in India’s transformation from a nation divided by caste and religion into an egalitarian society in which everyone would prosper. Universal education would signal a break from an age-old culture of privilege which the British colonial system served only to reinforce. Under the Raj, those from wealthy, well-educated backgrounds continued to occupy positions of power in the Indian establishment.
Despite India’s aspirations, the statistics today remain dire. Privilege still rules in a society where the school system is tripartite. The wealthy benefit from a world-class education delivered by a network of prestigious English-language private schools. These institutions offer a range of internationally-recognised qualifications issued by exam boards such as the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) and the Council for the Indian Schools Certificates Examination (CISCE), as well as the International Baccalaureate. Lower down the social scale, children attend moderately respectable state schools which offer government-affiliated qualifications to students from less affluent backgrounds.
The majority of Indian children attend government or municipal schools where infrastructure and equipment is poor to non-existent, teaching dire, and facilities limited. Unicef says that children have the right to one “qualified and trained” teacher for every 30 students. Across India, the average ratio is 34 students per teacher. However, in states such as Jharkhand, Maydha Pradesh and West Bengal, the student-teacher ratio can be as high as 60:1.
This isn’t just a numbers problem either. 2009 estimates suggest that around one third of primary teachers do not have the required minimum qualifications to ensure quality education at a time when engagement is crucial for children facing so many other pressures. “Free and compulsory” education may be a constitutional right today, but in India’s numerous villages and urban slums, children must make do with basic literacy lessons from barely qualified contractual teachers (known in India as “parateachers”).
It is not hard to see why dropout occurs. Nevertheless, the reasons are diffuse. Often, conditions and facilities deter students from attending. Drinking water is available at 84% of Indian schools, but again, this average hides some shocking statistics at the lower end of the scale. In poorer states such as Arunachal Pradesh, Assam and Meghalaya, only half have access to drinking water. Only 65% of schools across India have their own toilets, and this figure is lower in deprived states. In Assam, Meghalaya and Manipur, only one in nine schools have separate toilets for girls.
Lack of drinking water and bad facilities make school an unsafe option. Girls in particular face many dangers if they choose to attend school. On the long journey often required to get there, they risk abduction and trafficking. And with sexual violence against girls not uncommon in India, the absence of single-sex toilets is a real deterrent to school attendance.
Due to the appalling quality of schools across much of rural India, and the risks associated with turning up, dropout is common in an environment where there is little incentive for attendance. A host of other factors, from early marriage to household responsibilities, also results in dropout - for girls especially. Though the majority of children enrol in school age 6, few will complete their education. In rural India, figures from 2011 suggest significant dropout between primary and secondary levels. While primary school attendance is relatively high at 81.5%, attendance at secondary level is just under half. Average figures from urban areas are far from encouraging, but they show far higher primary-to-secondary retention.
A comparison of the worst- and best-performing states tells a similar story. The 2011 census reveals that literacy in Kerala stands at 94%. Nearly half the population of this state are classed as urban. In the predominantly rural state of Bihar, however, average literacy is as low as 62%. Figures for school attendance are hard to come by in the most recent census. But data from 2001 shows that primary attendance in urban Kerala was more than double that of rural Bihar. Five years later, research suggests attendance in Kerala was near universal, while Bihar lagged far behind.
The rural/urban divide is not the only manifestation of unequal access to quality education. Religion, disability and ethnic background all play a part in children’s education prospects. The historically-disadvantaged “Scheduled Tribes” and “Scheduled Castes”, two groups of people whose status is recognised by law, fare particularly badly in school attendance and literacy attainment. Primary literacy for 2004-6 was 14 percentage points down on the national average. Wide disparities separate religious groups as well, with less than 70% of Muslims achieving literacy in the 15-24 age range, compared with nearly 90% of Christians.
In all, India’s education system is chronically ailing. Disparities along ethnic, religious, gendered, regional and social lines must be addressed before India’s long-time dream of education for all can become a reality. Serious questions surrounding the quality of education need to be answered. Earlier in the year, India’s Annual Standards of Education Report revealed low school attendance in Bihar. This time, the figures concerned not students, but teachers. In the worst-performing region of a country in which the deficit of decent teachers is as high as 1.2 million, only 78% of teachers were turning up at work in 2012. Bihar education minister P K Shahi admitted that teacher attendance in some schools was less than 50%.
Evidence suggests wage increases have little impact on teacher truancy. Many teachers provide private tuition to boost their salaries, often tutoring children who attend their own classes. Better infrastructure has some influence on teacher attendance. But largely, this is a question of cultural norms. Economists talk about the problem in terms of stigma cost. All absentee teachers incur some stigma when they miss school. Where teacher absenteeism is rare, the stigma cost is high. But where many teachers skip school, the stigma cost is relatively low, making absenteeism acceptable. In this way, the phenomenon becomes self-perpetuating.
Last month, India’s long-standing Midday Meal Scheme made headlines when 22 children, all under the age of 12, died after eating contaminated food in Bihar. More children have enrolled in school since the programme was extended to this state eight years ago, and experts claim attendance is higher as a result. But July’s news shows that it is where such programmes are needed the most that improvements are needed the most. In 2010, a survey of schoolchildren in Bihar revealed that 70% were unhappy with the quality of the food they were served, and 20% said they did not receive a substantial meal. Many schools reported receiving stock in a haphazard and disorganised way. While things have improved since the study was conducted, July’s contamination tragedy and other incidents like it, from deadly kitchen fires to other cases of food poisoning, demonstrate that the incentivisation schemes such as the Midday Meal need some attention.
The Right to Education
Since its election in 2004, the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) has introduced a series of radical education reforms. Most prominent of these is the Rights of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act (usually abbreviated to Right to Education, or RTE), which it passed on re-election in 2009. In the words of the Department of Education, the RTE is designed to ensure “that every child has a right to full time elementary education of satisfactory and equitable quality in a formal school which satisfies certain essential norms and standards”. In other words, every Indian child aged between 6 and 14 years is entitled to free, quality schooling. The RTE also makes clear that it is the duty of central and local state governments to ensure that every child is admitted to school, remains in schools, and benefits from school, right up to age 14.
Alongside the RTE came the Rashtriya Madhyamik Shiksha Abhiyan, or RMSA. The RMSA aims to improve both quality and access to secondary education for 15-18 year olds, with the objective of increasing enrolment from just over half in 2005-6 to 75% by 2017. The RMSA is intended to bring renewed and additional infrastructure, including classrooms, laboratories, drinking water and toilet blocks to Indian schools. The financial burden will be split between state and central governments, with the latter bearing the majority of the cost, particularly in poorer north-eastern states, such as Bihar.
As a result of the RTE and the RMSA, change is happening. Thanks to the RTE, Unicef reports that 11 million more children are enrolled in elementary education, with 99% of India’s rural population living within a kilometre of a primary school. Practically, this means that more children have access to education, and fewer girls have to make long, dangerous journeys to school if they want to learn. Yet 8 million children remain out of school, and their integration remains a challenge. On top of this, a staggering 80 million still drop out before completing their elementary education.
As for secondary education, official figures show real progress is being made, although achievements are some way behind targets. The RMSA aimed to deliver around 11,000 new schools by the end of March 2013, but fewer than 10,000 have been “sanctioned” and only 8,409 are “functional”. The government aimed to “strengthen” 44,000 schools by the same deadline, but is behind by nearly 10,000 - and this includes projects that have only reached the approval stage. And only a small fraction of 179,000 additional teachers planned have actually been deployed.
Clearly, India has a distance left to run. A Unicef background report, issued in 2011, observes that India’s focus is directed too squarely at elementary education. Engagement in early childhood is important in capturing minds and preparing the way for effective education at primary and secondary level. Preschool, the report says, is vital to “appropriate school readiness”.
Unmet targets for primary and secondary education, food poisoning in schools, a non-existent preschool system, low teacher-turnout in Bihar - all this suggests India needs to continue to up its game if it is to tackle illiteracy and low school attendance. However, no one can say that this vast country is not making the right moves in bringing universal education to the millions of children growing up there. Radical and targeted action has made a big difference since 2009, and so long as progress continues, there is much hope for India’s children.
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