The UNESCO report on the out-of-school children in India should serve as a wake-up call for the country, which harps on reaping demographic dividends
UNESCO’s Education for All (EFA) Global Monitoring Report punctures India’s tall claim of making giant progress in providing elementary education through the Sarva Shiksha Aviyan (SSA). If anything the previous UPA government’s flagship programme has floundered, making a mockery of the Right to Education. The SSA’s objective, getting all children to school “in a time-bound manner”, will take much longer than 2015, the EFA’s deadline. With 1.4 million kids no longer attending school, the country fares worse than Nepal, Vietnam, Ghana, Nicaragua and Morocco — all economically weaker nations than India, which have been successful in decreasing the out-of-school population with a slew of measures.
These countries adopted effective techniques ranging from abolishing school fees (Burundi) to introducing a new curriculum aimed at disadvantaged learners (Vietnam), encouraging teaching in local language (Morocco) and effecting social cash transfers (Nicaragua). India, on the other hand, had slashed its education budget, reducing aid to primary education by $278 million between 2010 and 2012. A change of heart then prompted the Centre to earmark Rs27,258 crore for SSA in the 2013-14 budget while increasing education spend by 17 per cent over the previous year. But the damage has already been done. Now India ranks alongside Indonesia, Nigeria, Pakistan and Sudan, with UNESCO’s focus shifting to South Asia and sub-Saharan countries, where little progress has been made in terms of universalisation of elementary education.
In India, particularly, the situation is complex, demanding a lot more than just pumping Central aid (money) to states tasked with implementation. It requires a close monitoring of progress at the grassroots level. Most government schools in the vast rural landscape are deprived of basic amenities like drinking water, classrooms and teaching kits such as blackboards. Civic schools in cities and towns are only a shade better. Most girl students opt out of schools for lack of toilet facilities. The mid-day meal scheme has turned out to be a disaster, with children falling ill from food poisoning. Making matters even worse is the shortage of qualified teaching staff at the elementary level. The Bihar government’s fiasco in the massive recruitment drive shows a blatant disregard to the cause of primary education. Nearly 20,000 people in the state bagged teaching posts by furnishing fake degrees; around 2,800 teachers failed to pass a competency test twice.
The irony is state governments are focussed only on enrolment, paying scant attention to other equally important matters of curriculum and pedagogy. Consequently, the quality of education imparted in government schools has suffered. The studies conducted by Pratham, a non-profit organisation, have turned the spotlight on poor learning outcomes. The ninth annual status of education report released in 2013 states that “the proportion of all children in Class V who can read a Class II level text decreased each year from 2009 to 2012, dropping from 52.8 per cent in 2009 to 46.9 per cent in 2012, and remains virtually the same in 2013 at 47 per cent”. It also rued the widening gulf between government and private institutions. In 2013, compared to only 19 per cent class III students in government schools who could do basic arithmetic like subtraction, private schools with around 43 per cent children capable of performing the same task, fared much better.
The efforts on human resource building by the new Modi government are bound to suffer if they fail to address the needs of primary education. If the base is compromised, an edifice, however strong it may appear, stands extremely vulnerable.