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  Life   More Features  19 Jan 2017  What are India’s kids learning in our schools: A reality check

What are India’s kids learning in our schools: A reality check

Published : Jan 19, 2017, 5:49 am IST
Updated : Jan 19, 2017, 6:38 am IST

Government schools in several states, despite their many flaws, are showing signs of hope.

ASER: Testing what children are learning.
 ASER: Testing what children are learning.

Why is it good politics to make announcements about bridges and expressways but not education of children? Does “capital investment” refer to only infrastructure? Should it also include investment in human capital like improving teachers’ training? Can India really tap its demographic dividend or sustain its economic growth with just 25-30 per cent of its population educationally and technologically equipped to deal with future shocks in the world of work? How does India become a digital, less-cash economy if millions of young people, especially in villages, can’t read or write properly nor do simple two-digit divisions?

These, and many other questions which go to the heart of the choices that India makes in its political economy and development trajectory, animated the thought-provoking discussion at the launch of the 11th Annual Status of Education Report (ASER 2016) at New Delhi Wedesday morning.

The 303-page report was released by ASER volunteers who spoke about their personal experiences while conducting the survey. What really provided food for thought was a discussion among Arvind Subramanian, eminent economist and currently chief economic adviser to the Government of India, Manish Sisodia, deputy chief minister of the Aam Aadmi Party-led Delhi government, who holds the education and the finance portfolio, and Madhav Chavan social activist and co-founder of the educational non-profit, Pratham, which spearheads the ASER reports.

The ASER report is the country’s biggest non-governmental audit of elementary education in rural areas and the only annual national assessment of actual learning outcomes.

Since 2005, the ASER report has held up a mirror to where most of India is headed on the educational front. There was a gap of one year. But ASER is back with its 2016 report which carried out in 17,473 villages in 589 rural districts in the country. It covered some 350, 232 households and 562,305 children in the age group of three and 16.

Where are the bright and dark spots in India in terms of learning and quality education? The key findings in the latest ASER report note that at the national level, enrollment has shot up for all age groups between 2014 and 2016. However, the enrollment story is not universally positive. In some states notably Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Uttar Pradesh, the fraction of out-of-school children ( 6-14) has risen between 2014 and 2016. Of equal concern, is the gender dimension. In Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, the proportion of girls between the ages of 11 and 14 who are out of school remains greater than eight per cent.

Interestingly, at the all-India level, there has been virtually no increase in private school enrollment during the period under review. The states bucking this trend are Uttarakhand, Arunachal Pradesh and Assam.

Government schools in several states, despite their many flaws, are showing signs of hope. Nationally, reading ability has improved in early grades in government schools. Children in primary grades in government schools also appear to now have a better grasp of arithmetic. In 2014, in the country as a whole, 25.4 per cent of grade III children could do a simple two-digit subtraction. That figure has gone up to 27.7 per cent in 2016, according to ASER 2016.

The ability to read English remains unchanged for lower primary grades. There is also very little change in childrens’ attendance in the last two years. The percentage of multigrade classrooms has gone up and there has been improvement in basic amenities in school. Proportion of schools visited by the ASER team, which had functional toilets for girls, has risen from 32.9 per cent in 2010 to 66.7 per cent in 2014 and 61.9 per cent in 2016. This is good news for the government’s Swachchh Bharat campaign. But availability of drinking water tells a more nuanced story — 74.1 per cent of schools that were visited by ASER teams in 2016 had drinking water, down from 75.6 per cent in 2014.

Other insights — fewer schools have libraries now and there has also hardly been any change in the availability of computers in schools since 2014.

What do these masses of figures really tell us about where India is headed educationally at a time when the world is becoming a more difficult and competitive place? And how do these numbers stack up if looked at through the lens of the political economy?

In the coming days, many would attempt to answer these questions after parsing the data in the 300-odd page report. But the panel discussion at the launch offered valuable insights.

ASER does not conduct a survey for Delhi schools. However, Manish Sisodia, Delhi’s education and finance minister said his own surprise visits to schools in the city suggested that one of the key reasons why learning outcomes are not improving speedily is because “Our classrooms are victims to curriculum and finishing the syllabus.”

The emphasis, he said, on rushing through the syllabus and completing it, rather than assessing how much children had absorbed before proceeding to the next level. The AAP government has taken steps towards fulfilling its election promise about making education a priority issue and allocated substantial money to the sector but clearly, challenges remain. A discussion on the quality of education is sorely needed, Mr Sisodia said. It is also the one issue which typically triggers resistance from within the system, he added.

The political class typically likes to invest its energy on things which show instant results. Investments in education and improvements in quality of learning take time. That is one major reason why education has not got the attention it deserves from the political class or policy elite. Mr Subramanian noted that there has been much discussion on governance, law and order etc but this hasn’t been extended to health or education.

“We talk about the effect of infrastructure and technology on the economy. Why do we not talk about the effect of education?” asked Mr Chavan of Pratham. Everyone agreed that the situation needed to change. There were more questions than answers at the panel discussion. But with Budget round the corner, and five Indian states heading for polls soon, it was good that at least, the questions were posed, and the discussants included people who can make change happen.

The writer focuses on development issues in India and emerging economies

Tags: annual status of education report, manish sisodia, capital investment