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FEW sectors, in the last two decades, have received as much concerted attention as school education. Starting with the National Policy on Education, 1986, all the way to the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan and the Right to Education Act in 2009, governments have tried hard to actualize the goal of Education for All. Equally critical has been the Supreme Court’s intervention in the midday meal scheme, amendments to the law on child labour, and the abolition of corporal punishment. Alongside, we have witnessed an enormous increase in the financial allocations for elementary education.

While all this has without doubt changed the Indian education landscape, and for the better, as the recently published Probe Revisited: A Report on Elementary Education in India, OUP, 2011, based on a detailed survey of seven Hindi belt states carried out in 2006 makes clear, progress remains uneven. Even as close to 95% children are enrolled in school, a huge increase since the earlier Probe survey of 1996, ‘in rural North India, about half of the time, no teaching takes place in primary schools,’ On this count, at least, little has changed. A significant proportion of government schools continue to be plagued by old problems – indifferent infrastructure, irregular teacher attendance, poor quality of teaching – cumulatively resulting in unsatisfactory learning outcomes. To state sharply, when parents and children, particularly from the poor and marginalized strata, see that children are learning little and there is little hope of future benefits from schooling, there is growing despondency.

The picture, however, is not all bleak. Enrolment has indeed gone up and school infrastructure and facilities are today much better. As many as 86% schools report a functional midday meal schemes and close to three-fourths of the schools have village education committees, indicating greater social participation. Most important, the gender, caste and religious gaps in school attendance have narrowed.

Even accounting for the differential progress across states and regions, the Probe Report highlights a range of concerns that, despite new schemes and programmes, and legislative changes, the policy makers find difficult to tackle Some of the difficulties arise from the surge in enrolment which means that more children from disadvantaged backgrounds are now in school. Since, unlike their better-off cohorts, they cannot rely on family support, they require far greater attention and care in schools. This, unfortunately, is missing, in part because of a severe inadequacy of trained teachers, prevalence of mindless rote learning and the persistence of a discriminatory environment.

A vast majority of the teachers in government schools are drawn from more privileged social groups. They are also unionized. A combination of tenurial security and pre-existing social bias makes them less accountable to poorer parents and children. The end result – actual attendance is far below enrolment and attendance does not automatically translate into learning. Even village education committees, usually marked by unequal power relations, are unable to ensure accountability. Clearly, the thrust towards hiring contract teachers (with lower pay and qualifications) has only resulted in swelling numbers (affecting teacher-pupil ratios) without improving quality and learning outcomes.

One fallout of this unsatisfactory experience is the exponential growth in private schools, catering not only to the unmet demand for schooling but often drawing away students from government schools. Clearly, parents feel that they will serve clients better and be more accountable for fear of losing clientele. Incidentally, this trend is noticeable not just in urban areas but also in larger villages, even though many private schools do not match government schools in terms of infrastructure, financial resources and trained teachers.

While it is true that classroom activity levels and achievements of basic literacy and numeracy are often better in private as compared to government schools, the quality varies a great deal. More important, though less noticed, is the fact that a privatized school system is fundamentally inequitable, accessible only to those with an ability to pay. Invariably, private schools cater more to those from a higher caste and class background and more boys than girls. A policy reliance on privatization cannot thus be a solution.

This then is the quandary. Private schools, quality apart, cater to the relatively privileged. Efforts at significantly improving the quality of government schools despite numerous schemes have so far not yielded desired results. The proposal, implicit in the RTE Act, to illegalize and close down all schools (mainly private) not meeting statutory parameters may further worsen the situation. Unless government schools can be made to work better, relying merely on larger allocations and fine sounding policy pronouncements will not help.

Harsh Sethi