In India, Schooling Isn't Always Education: Choudhury

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By Chandrahas Choudhury

In April 2010, India finally joined the ranks of nations that make education a fundamental right of every child. The year before, Parliament had passed The Right to Education Act, which makes it incumbent on the state to provide free and compulsory education to every child between the ages of 6 and 14.

The Act seeks to ensure that a family's poverty -- and India is home to a substantial number of the world's poorest people -- doesn't prevent a child from acquiring basic literacy and numerical competence. It also follows 10 years of work by Sarva Siksha Abhiyan ("Movement for The Education of All"), a massive government program begun in 2001 to build new schools across the country, improve existing ones, and achieve universal enrolment of Indian children.

This would seem to be one of the most exciting stories about India today. The Act envisions a massive push, in a country bursting with wasted human capital, to ensure that all Indian children are given the necessary foundation for a secure adult life. It is rooted in the conviction that universal public education is one of the essential responsibilities of a state toward its citizens.

The state has shown a commitment to supplying the necessary funds. In February, Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee increased the government's outlay on school education by 40 percent. On Nov. 11, the anniversary of the birth of Maulana Azad, India's first education minister, a letter by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh emphasizing this renewed commitment to education was read aloud at thousands of schools. In his charming letter, the prime minister went back to his own childhood:

Education is a magic wand that can help us meet any challenge. Education is necessary not only because it can get us jobs or status in society. Education is essential as it enables us to build a new world. It is magical because it helps us rediscover ourselves.

Education gave me a new life. I went to school in a village that had no electricity; I studied under an earthen oil lamp. My village did not have pukka roads [concrete roads] or fast vehicles to take me to school. I would walk miles to reach my school. I worked as hard as I could and the nation has always rewarded me for my efforts. I owe to education, everything that I have achieved in the journey of my life. This is why I believe that education can help us realise our aspirations.

During my childhood, elementary education was not free; nor did children have a fundamental right to education, as they do today. In the India of today, every child, without discrimination, has the right to education. [...] You should study hard, ask as many questions as you can, and seek answers to those questions. I promise that India will provide opportunities to all of you to fulfill your hopes and dreams.

But would an average 14-year-old in India be able to read the prime minister's letter, if not in English, then in a language of his or her choice? The evidence seems to suggest, distressingly, that he or she might not. The most common story of primary education in India is of children arriving in schools and then, almost from the very beginning, falling further and further behind, achieving a fragile and unusable semi-literacy, or soon dropping out altogether. The Indian child's first encounter with the state is too often marked by this experience of frustration, discontent and failure.

Only two weeks before the prime minister's office sent out his letter, India's leading non-governmental organization in the field of education, Pratham, released its annual Status of Education report, called "Inside Primary Schools." It tracked 30,000 Indian children in primary schools across five states for one year, and says:

The Government of India has implemented a range of initiatives to ensure that schooling is indeed accessible to all children. Over the past decade, India’s annual budget for elementary education has risen steadily, and is currently Rs. 21,000 crore. Basic school infrastructure has been put in place across the country: classrooms and toilets have been built, in many states thousands of teachers have been hired, and most villages now have a school within one kilometre. This remarkable push towards universal coverage has led to more than 96% of all children being enrolled in school. For a country as large and complex as India, these are no mean achievements.

Yet very often, we forget that schools and teachers have no intrinsic value in and of themselves. They exist to help children learn. Literacy and numeracy are essential components of learning, the basic building blocks without which desired schooling outcomes, however defined, cannot take place. Yet despite massive investments in primary education, many children are not acquiring even basic abilities in reading and arithmetic. The Annual Status of Education Report (ASeR), conducted each year since 2005 in all rural districts of the country, shows that in 2010, [only] 53% of Std 5 children in rural India could read a Std 2 level text and 36% could solve a three digit by one digit division problem.

Or, as Parth J Shah put it in an essay about the respective merits of public and private schools, a heated debate in India:

The fundamental flaw [in the Right to Education Act] is the focus on inputs -- school infrastructure, teacher qualifications and training, teaching aids -- and none at all on the outcomes. Despite the consensus that the biggest challenge for all government schemes is the accountability for the outcomes, the Act simply ignores the issue of learning achievements of students. It guarantees schooling but not education.

The pervasiveness on the ground of this focus on schooling rather than education is a paradox that threatens to make the Right to Education Act yet another instance of high-minded policy drafted by the state as much in its own interest as that of its citizens. The way in which the expansion of this system works for the benefit of everybody except the children who are its stated targets was explained in 2009 by the economist Lant Pritchett:

In every country in the world there is an “access axis” that dominates education policy. There is a powerful coalition focusing on “business-as-usual” expansion of existing systems. The temptations are near irresistible: politicians get to hire more teachers, contractors get to build more buildings, teachers’ unions get more members, and government officials get more projects to manage. Beautifully, all of this can be wrapped in high-minded rhetoric about human rights for the Left and promoting the economy for the Right. The “access axis” has the additional advantage that those who bear the brunt of its policies are children, mostly of the rural, the poor and the powerless, who are trapped in brutal and ineffective schools without effective alternatives and robbed of their life chances through poor quality education.

As the Pratham report on the state of primary education in India outlines, there are many reasons primary education in India has been trapped in a negative equilibrium (even if at higher levels India possesses some of the most brilliant students in the world). Students from different grades are often herded together in one class, making it difficult for the teacher to parcel out his or her time and attention. Teaching methods can be antiquated; textbooks too ambitious in the demands they make on a child; and in some states there is a culture of teacher absenteeism. Less than half of the rural households surveyed had any print material available at home, meaning that children were limited to exercising their reading only in class time. Twenty percent of the children surveyed were first-generation schoolgoers, meaning that their parents didn't have the capability to provide a second, all-important layer of education and supervision. At each grade level, most children start at a point well below that of their textbooks, thereby falling further and further behind. All these discrete processes need greater scrutiny, as much as larger matters of funding and legislation.

Indeed, one of the problems with elementary education -- up to the age of 14 -- in India is a specific cultural mindset. The education system promotes competitiveness from an early stage, and rather than privileging universal coverage is focused on producing a bunch of "toppers" who will go on to higher things. I remember from my own experience of going to a government-subsidized convent school in Mumbai that in class there always seemed to be two groups of students, one assumed by teachers to be interested in learning, and the other made up of those deemed underachieving and unimproveable. As the years went by, very few students crossed the line between groups.

In an essay in the Hindustan Times called "Learning Curbs," Abhijit Banerjee, co-author of a much-lauded book this year called Poor Economics, brought out the various facets of this "irrational elitism":

Everyone in the system -- teachers, parents or administrators -- share the premise that education is not meant to benefit the average student in the average school. The goal of education, in this view, is to permit the most successful students to get through the difficult exams that get thrown at them and hit the jackpot of a government job or a place in an engineering school. The rest, unavoidably, will just drop out.

[...] Yet, there is no evidence that education only benefits those who make it to the top. In fact, to the extent that there is any evidence, it seems like the gains from getting to Class 4 rather than never going to school, are in proportional terms about the same as the gain from getting from Class 8 to Class 12. One can see why the average parent may not appreciate this: after all, when you leave at Class 4 there is no piece of paper you can take with you. But the ability to read a little or to do some basic arithmetic does make you more productive at farming or shop-keeping or whatever else you end up doing.

And in an interview in the Indian Express, Pritchett supplied an overview of the peculiarities of the Indian education system and how it perpetuates the class divide:

I think one of the key features of the Indian economy is between the elite that have a good education and the rest of the population that don't. In the labour market for people with good education, wages are going up... But if you are really going to a school but not getting any education, you are really not equipping these children to work productively in a modern economy.

[...] If you look at which are the countries that produce the most 15-year-olds in the global top 10 per cent, India is right up there. Crude calculations are that they produce about 100,000 students a year in the global top 10 per cent. People are then reluctant to believe that the same economy that is producing 100,000 a year in the global top 10 per cent is also churning out millions with zero skills.

One of the things that’s going on and I think accounts for a lot of the problem is that the teachers and the school system are under pressure to get through a curriculum that really is moving too fast. [...] So until you stop the system of teaching to the curriculum, and start the system of teaching to the student, I think it’s just hopeless.

As the many guidelines for schools and teachers contained in the Right to Education Act come into force in the coming years, it is to be hoped that the amount of useful feedback now widely available about the elementary education system will be used to supply, after several decades of failed attempts, a universal basic education that is not just a right but also a fact.

(Chandrahas Choudhury, a novelist, is the New Delhi correspondent for the World View blog. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the author of this blog post: Chandrahas Choudhury at chandrahas.choudhury@gmail.com

To contact the editor responsible for this post: Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net

-0- Nov/16/2011 15:10 GMT