Sometime in 2005 we were doing a simple study comparing the learning patterns in urban private schools and rural government schools. In the span of about a month, we visited around half a dozen private, fairly elite schools and an equal number of rural government schools.
In a Class 5 urban school we asked the students this question: “Between sound and light, what travels faster?” About five students answered correctly. When we asked the reason why they said so, there were two answers – it is there in the book and our teachers told us so.
We decided to ask the same question in a Class 5 rural school the same month. With much difficulty only one student answered. He said: “Sound travels faster.” We asked the student the reason for his answer. We were stunned by his reply. The student said: “When I switch on the TV at my home, I can hear the sound first and then the picture.”
The teacher was angry with the student. But most of us were very impressed with the logic that the child gave. He had observed something, analyzed it and arrived at a conclusion based on his thinking. At that stage in his life, he had no idea how the TV functioned and why the picture took time to come alive.
Since then, I have narrated the two incidents to many and asked them, “Which kind of learning would you prefer – the one that we experienced in the urban school or the one by the student in the rural school”? Most people prefer the answer given by the student in the rural government school – though the answer is technically wrong. The question before us is: “What kind of education and learning do we expect from our children?” Do we want them to be able to give the “correct answer” or give “a thoughtful answer?”
We analysed the SSC board examination papers for the past 10 years in five states. The analysis revealed that over 75 per cent of questions were focussed on assessing the rote memorisation of learning. The learning assessment carried out by the Azim Premji Foundation in thousands of schools in six states revealed that only in about 10 per cent of schools, over 60 per cent of students have the learning competencies expected by their respective curricula. The message coming through several other surveys on learning – such as by the NCERT or by ASER, is loud and clear! Despite about seven million government educational functionaries (including teachers) engaged in delivering education across 1.3 million schools for about 220 million children, learning levels are at highly deplorable levels.
Even more interesting is the education delivery funnel. Of the 100 children enrolled in Class 1, just about 39 manage to reach Class 10 and only about 19 of them pass that exam. Further, only around 12 students manage to pursue higher education.
Significant progress has been made during the last 15 years in improving access to schooling. Almost 98 per cent of villages have a primary school within one kilometre. However, there are gaping holes in the area of both ‘quality’ and ‘equity.’
A single-minded focus is now needed to ensure that the 220 million children in school get the kind of education that is envisaged by the National Education Policy. Education that makes learners independent thinkers, empathetic and responsible citizens of our country. Education that enables our children to meet their future successfully.
We must not forget that the government has a constitutional responsibility to provide quality universal education to all children. Over 80 per cent of children are studying in government schools – these are typically children of parents who don’t have the voice and the choice. The debate of public vs private schools is rather irrelevant. Both schools are fairly low on quality and the private schools, at best, are better rote factories since there is some accountability.
On equity–the performance on learning, enrolment and retention between girls and boys, between urban and rural and between the rich and the poor, is 20 percentage points adverse. This has to be addressed urgently through several affirmative actions at the primary school level. Reservations at higher education level is hardly the solution if we don’t correct the situation right at the beginning.
What are the priorities? Plenty. But let me deal with just half a dozen in this piece.
Political will: Not a single political leader makes education a platform for his/her election campaign. Education – unlike electricity, roads and water– is just not on the agenda of politicians. The Right to Education Bill languished for over four years because there was no political will to commit the additional Rs 66,000 crore necessary to implement the Act. I would go to the extent of saying that the percentages are irrelevant – we must do what is necessary – even if it is 15 per cent of the GDP till we get the base levels right.
Administrative reforms: Fundamental reforms are required to address a wide range of issues. The key among them are (a) ensuring the competence of people (b) ensuring that there is a stable tenure for performing functionaries and (c) there has to be accountability for outcomes enabled by some kind of risk reward system that is currently absent. Due to constant leadership instability, even a five-year education vision for any state is rarity. What is scary is that even the top political leadership has expressed their inability to anything in this.
Teacher education: When I was participating in a global education think- tank meeting about three years ago, the 70-plus representatives at the meeting asked the representatives from Finland the reasons for their high quality education. The answer was – invest, invest and invest in teacher education. We have to make dramatic reforms in the curriculum, teaching- learning process and evaluation of teachers. The current 10-month B.Ed course is inadequate and outdated. We must make it very difficult for anyone to become a teacher. The concept of employing ‘contract’ teachers who have no rigorous training has to be banned. We cannot play with the lives of children. The Sixth Pay Commission has significantly addressed the compensation issue.
Education leadership and management: To begin with, have a separate qualification and competence eligibility for the leaders of the 1.3 million schools. Research has repeatedly revealed that a school leader can make or break the quality of education in a school. Similar development efforts are needed for the half million education functionaries who are responsible for ensuring the infrastructure, incentives and teacher- pupil ratios to contribute to quality in the school. They must have the necessary education perspective and competence to deal with the schools.
Examination reforms: “What gets measured is what gets done,” is a well known phenomenon. The primary purpose of any assessment/examination is to find out the extent to which the curricular goals are achieved. Today’s examinations excessively focus on measuring rote learning. Therefore, that is what gets focussed on in the classroom. At the primary education level, the teachers mostly focus on preparing children for the select questions at the end of the lesson. I believe that a well evolved continuous assessment framework can significantly shift the focus to the achievement of curricular goals rather than memorizing knowledge.
Professionalization of education: Unlike professions like medicine, engineering, chartered accountancy, law etc. there is no institutional framework to develop educational professionals in our country. We need thousands of professionals who understand issues such as curriculum, pedagogy, assessment, policy, managing large education systems etc. The emergence of national law schools redefined excellence in law education in India. We must have hundreds of universities and institutions preparing education professionals who can add value to the education in India and create systemic reforms.
The power of education in the socio-economic growth of a nation has been proven beyond doubt. If all our children get the quality of education that is necessary for our development, our performance on several social and development indicators will be radically different.
It is only the government that has the required experience, required people and required financial resources ($15 billion per year are spent) for such a huge nation. And we, the people of India, must exert the necessary pressure on the government to deliver its responsibilities at high quality.
First published by Civil Society