The idea of providing free and compulsory education to children, aged six to 14, with the enactment of the Right to Education Act (RTE) in 2010, was considered a welcome step for those who can’t afford to send their children to schools. No doubt, the Act has helped in increasing the number of schools with certain infrastructural facilities but it has failed in improving the overall effectiveness of the education system.
The 10th Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) 2014 released by the Pratham Education Foundation last month is a pointer to the kind of education the Act has been able to provide. While it is important to get children enrolled in schools, it is equally important to keep a tab on what they learn and how they use the learning.
Based on a survey in 577 districts and 16,497 villages covering about 3.5 lakh households and 5.70 lakh children, the report is as depressing as the previous ones were. While the enrolment rate has remained over 96 per cent, the schools complying with the RTE pupil-to-teacher ratio increased from 38.9 in 2010 to 49.3 per cent in 2014. The percentage of schools having usable toilets has improved from 47.2 to 65.2. But, there has been no improvement in the students’ learning skills. The report reveals 25 per cent of students enrolled in Class 8 were found incapable of reading textbooks prescribed for Class 2. The number of children, who could not read Class 2 textbooks, increased when the lower classes were surveyed. Forget English, the students weren’t able to read their mother tongue.
A comparison of the current report with past ones shows there is no significant improvement in the reading skills during the last five years in all states, Tamil Nadu being the sole exception.
As regards arithmetic skills, the picture is equally disappointing. In fact, the ability to solve basic division problems has declined during the last eight years in almost all the states except Tamil Nadu. There has also been an increase in the number of children studying in Class 2 who cannot recognise numbers from 0 to 9.
It is amply clear students are being promoted to higher classes without them acquiring any value addition in their learning skills. The provision of enrolling a child in an age-appropriate class is being exploited to the hilt. There is a dearth of facilities for providing special training to out-of-school children. An 11-year-old who has never gone to school shall be enrolled in Class 5, though he has no ability to read or write.
The Act laid down various standards like ideal pupil-teacher ratio, recruitment of teachers with certain minimum qualifications and training requirements, etc. to improve the system, but to no avail. On the contrary, it has become a threat to around three lakh recognised/unrecognised private budget schools lacking funds for huge infrastructural investment. Even if these schools are able to fulfil infrastructural requirements by raising funds, they shall not be able to pay huge salaries to the teachers and staff as per RTE without considerable hike in tuition fees. However, 1.2 million dysfunctional government schools do not come under the RTE and the government doesn’t feel the need to revamp them.
Despite provision of free education, meals, uniform and books offered by the government schools, the parents prefer sending their children to private schools. The study shows the number of children enrolled in private schools has almost doubled in 2014 in some states, compared to 2005 when the first ASER report was published. States like Manipur, Kerala, Haryana, UP and Meghalaya have a private-school enrolment rate of more than 50 per cent. People in rural areas, including those who do not have pucca houses, are forced to pay fees to private tutors for giving that extra edge to their children. This only shows the sad state of affairs in government schools.
A decade ago, Nobel laureate Amartya Sen argued private tuitions create a separate class among students in a school. Most of the private tutors are schoolteachers, teaching albeit to the same students they teach in regular classes. As a result, students take their teachers for granted and concentrate only on a few questions/chapters which their teachers recommend to read for passing exams. In an attempt to score good marks, students end up cramming answers without understanding concepts. As they get promoted, they tend to forget what they learned in lower classes. This only means that our education system promotes “unlearning”.
Besides, teachers are expected to follow a set syllabus for a particular class within a time frame. In other words, learning is facilitated only for children who are able to keep pace with teachers. The slow learners fall behind. Class and unit tests are held to assess a child’s performance, instead of the learning level. Marks are awarded based on a student’s performance on the day of the test. If a few students fail or score less, the teacher is not expected to teach what she already taught a few days ago that the students failed to grasp.
The absence of monitoring of the teaching and learning processes is also one of the major concerns in government-run schools. Most of the monitoring concentrates on enrolment, midday meals, etc. Various monitoring mechanisms like continuous and comprehensive evaluation developed by RTE have been reduced to merely form-filling exercises. Post-RTE, students are being promoted by gradation even if they fail in exams. Though the Act provides for remedial education for such students to bring them on par with their peers, it is hardly followed.
The government expenditure on education has grown from `18,448 crore (2009-10) to `37,150 crore (2013-14) for elementary education, we have around 100 million youngsters who either are “alien” to the education system or are not equipped to face the challenges of life.
It is high time the government thought about reforming the system to plug the loopholes. The intention of the Act was not merely to increase numbers but to improve learning to build a bright future for India. Merely spending money on building infrastructure without adequate improvement in teaching and learning material with a result-oriented approach will not help our young generation. It will only increase the burden on the economy. The demographic dividend we intend to reap shall become a liability.
It is sad that even after 10 years of ASER, our policies continue to emphasise on the financial aspects, rather than on the quality of education. It is unfortunate that it took 60 years for India Inc. to recognise the right to education. Hope it does not take another 60 years to understand how the entire system should work!
The writer is a company secretary and director, communications, Deepalaya. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org