The season for the mid-term review of yet another Five-year Plan is here. Government statistics inform us that in 2006, 83% of boys and 77% of girls of 5-14 years were attending school (National Sample Survey Organisation, government of India). Since the commencement of the 11th Plan (2007-12), we have achieved almost universal enrolment at the primary level (classes I–V) with close to 97% children enrolled in schools; the Right to Education Bill was passed and we are informed that this will come into force from 1 April. On the surface, we are all set to achieve the goal of universal elementary education, meaning that all children of 6-14 years will be in school.
But if we look at education statistics and government reports, uncomfortable truths tumble out. Close to 50% of all children who enroll in class I drop out before they reach class VIII; this means one out of two children does not complete the elementary cycle. Among the specific disadvantaged social groups, dropout rates are higher (53.05% for the scheduled castes and 62.54% for the scheduled tribes). Annual status of education report (ASER) (an annual sample survey that tests reading and math abilities of children) in the last five years say that at least 50% of children who reach class V are not able to read a simple class II-level text. Other studies inform us that attendance rates of students and teachers alike have not changed much—teacher absenteeism and low pupil attendance continue to plague our school system.
Photo: Rajkumar / Mint
Accountability Initiative’s budget analysis (Budget Briefs, Education Sector, 2009-10) shows that 44% of the total allocation for education (Rs44,528 crore) went to Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA) and that 64% of the SSA funds come from the education cess. Close to 30% of the allocated funds in 2008-09 was unspent—with 40% allocated for teacher training and 20% allocated for teacher salaries and infrastructure not spent. The report says that one of the endemic problems is financial releases from the Centre to the states in the last quarter—thereby clustering all expenditure in the last few months of the fiscal year. Essentially, the age-old bottleneck of funds released from the Centre to the states remains unaddressed.
Government strategies to fix the education system have been patchy and jerky—they seem to come up with the same solutions in predictable cycles. In order to fix poor learning outcomes, SSA and the 11th Plan decided to make teacher training mandatory. My own research in five states across the country has shown that teacher training is plagued with lack of relevance and endemic corruption. Notwithstanding schemes to enhance accountability of teachers to children and their parents, these mechanisms are on paper and have not made much difference on the ground. The village-level education committees and other parent-teacher forums do not work, the panchayat has little role to play in monitoring teachers and, most importantly, there is no mechanism for grievance redressal.
For several decades now, the middle class has abandoned the government school system. Teacher absenteeism, politicization of teacher management, corruption in the training machine and the no-detention policy (whereby children are automatically promoted up to class V) have made a mockery of education. The “tuition industry” has grown, the problem being most disturbing in West Bengal where ASER found close to 80% pupils taking private tuitions. Performance hinges on the ability of parents to pay; as a result, the very poor may be enrolled, but learn almost nothing. The tuition industry has promoted unregulated and exploitative privatization through the back door, undermining the notion of free education.
So what is the answer to this systemic breakdown in school education? Have our Plans tried to address it?
One body of educationists argues for a common school system where all children attend the neighbourhood school. Others argue that the answer lies in funding education and not schools through vouchers— giving children and their parents a choice to opt for any school in their neighbourhood. Today, we are caught between two extreme positions—with the education bureaucracy and political leadership swinging from one to the other. What India really needs today is not a debating club, but a group of people who are willing to look at ground realities and work out strategies that make sense in such a diverse society. We have to augment supply of different kinds of schools, encouraging more organizations (local bodies, private, not-for-profit) to create schools, run them and provide greater opportunities and greater choice. We have to mobilize additional resources and experiment with localized strategies to enforce accountability of all players— state and non-state.
The need of the hour is to recognize that the intermeshing of the formal system with the informal structures of influence, protection, rent seeking and corruption leads to a widening gap between intentions as spelt out in our Plans and the situation on the ground. The reality is that educational planners and reformers need to factor in the parallel system while assessing the effectiveness of the planning processes. Pretending that patronage networks, employee protection (invincibility of permanent government employees), corruption and rent seeking are aberrations that would fade away is a big mistake. Equally, pretending that what is planned is actually executed is not only foolhardy, but downright dishonest.
Vimala Ramachandran is an educationist based in New Delhi. Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org