Fundamental errors in Indian education
By Swati Lodh Kundu
When the Right To Education (RTE) Act was written into the Indian constitution in 2010, the country became 135th where government is responsible and legally bound to educate children between the ages of six and 14.
In other words, children are entitled to education as a fundamental right. The commendable Act, which was approved in April, had all the features required for nation building. As it gave a time frame of three years for implementation and this deadline has passed, it is time to take stock of the success of the Act.
The provisions of the act were strong. For example, if the children cannot reach school for whatever reasons, the school would reach them. There are provisions for providing school buildings that can
withstand all weather, have basic infrastructure like toilets, drinking-water taps, specific teacher-student ratios and teaching materials in each classroom.
The Act is supposed to to provide an umbrella for "all" children, from the "economically weaker section" to those with special needs.
Glancing at the Annual Status of Education Report data shows that the percentage of children enrolled in schools improved from 93% in 2005, to 96.6% in 2010, the year when the Act was implemented, and this went down marginally to 96.5% in 2012.
For more than a decade, the government at each level were responsible for schemes and policies like the mid-day meal scheme and Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA) or "education for all". Through the Right to Education Act, these government offices are also legally bound to meet the expenses to bring a child to school.
While near stability of enrollment number at such high level does indicate success, a bigger question is whether the act has achieved its objective of nation building. Available data suggests regression with regard to the ability of the act to retain students for eight continuous years of study (or dropout rate) and change in learning levels. As per the Annual Status of Education Report survey by Pratham, a non-governmental organization, learning levels have shown steady deterioration.
For Year Five children enrolled in government schools, the percentage of children unable to read Standard II level text increased to 56.2% in 2011 from 49.3% in 2010 and further to 58.3% in 2012. Similarly, a child in Year Three has to learn to do two-digit subtraction.
However, the proportion of children in government schools who can recognize numbers up to 100 correctly has dropped to near 50% from 70% over the past four years, with the real downward turn being distinctly visible after 2010 (incidentally the year when Right to Education Act came into force).
These downward trends are also reflected in Year Five, where a child would be expected to be at least able to solve a division sum. The prime reason for such deterioration in standard is that the Act has ushered in no exam format till Year Eight. This is because of the ill-conceived notion that the dropout rates increase if a student fails a year.
Given the deteriorating scenario in government schools, there is an increasing clamor for private facilities both among the populace in the rural areas and the economically weaker section in urban areas. In the urban areas, every seat reserved for the economically weaker section population in private schools is filled up despite the presence of government-run schools in the vicinity.
In fact, at the all-India level, private school enrollment has been rising steadily since 2006. The percentage of six- to 14-year olds enrolled in private schools rose to 25.6% in 2011 from 18.7% in 2006. By 2012 this number has further increased to 28.3%.
Since 2009, private school enrollment in rural areas has been rising at an annual rate of about 10%. It is conjectured that, if this trend continues, by 2018 India will have 50% of children in rural areas enrolled in private schools. Even, for those who are studying in government school, an increasing proportion of students go for private tuition.
The bigger question is, what is it that parents and students weigh between getting for free books, meals and eight years of education in government schools vis-a-vis their private counterparts?
This can be explained by Maslow's theory of hierarchy of needs. The theory says that every individual has a hierarchy of needs, which has to be fulfilled at each level respectively to motivate them to do the work. At the base are the physiological and safety needs, then social needs, and towards the top are self-esteem and self-actualization needs.
In the context of the Indian education sector, the country has been trying to either mend or provide the basic physiological needs for over 15 years and still counting on them through the mid-day meal scheme, the SSA (education for all) and the now the Right to Education Act. On the other hand, the target customers seem to have the higher order needs to be fulfilled and hence to educate and free themselves from their destitute state.
While the public schools are somehow getting themselves established, private schools are continuously taking away their share of customers from the rural and urban sectors. Assuming that the private schools are better equipped with trained teachers who can impart better quality education, the preference of private over public shows that the free food, meal and books is necessary but not sufficient enough to encourage education.
Continuous spending on basic physiological needs to make education for all a success indicates that while there is no poverty in the educational budget there is poverty in the thought process of policy makers.
Unless there is a clearer focus put on educational outcomes, rather than fulfilling statistical objectives, India's demographic dividend may turn into a curse.