Within the government primary school system across the country, the primary focus has been, and continues to be, on the input side—on schools rather than on schooling. The primary questions government schools ask, for instance, are whether children have access to a school and whether children get uniforms, books and mid-day meals. A consistent worry here is that there is little or no information on the actual learning levels of a child prior to her first “public” exam when she, say, reaches class X. By then, it is too late to make course corrections with respect to her quality of education.
Now that the Union government has announced a programme to provide unique identity cards to every Indian—the idea behind Aadhaar is to improve the common man’s access to not just welfare payments, but also everyday social services such as healthcare and education—it’s time to think of bringing this unique approach to primary education.
The only data available so far— consistently on hand every year— for the past five years has been from Pratham’s Annual Status of Education Report. Some key findings for Karnataka, for instance, were that only around 11% children in classes III to V can read English sentences and only 35% children in Bangalore can read English; around 40% of the children between classes I and VIII can read a class II-level text and less than 20% could do simple division in mathematics. This implies that over five million children in Karnataka have no language skills and over twice that number have little or no numeric skills. This pathetic state of affairs threatens to ruin the lives of millions of children in Karnataka and much larger numbers across the country. It would not be entirely out of place if we were to say that the failure of the schools could gradually be the cause for the destruction of democracy in our country.
In the context of the Right to Education Act, which came into effect on 1 April, it is time to relook and see how we as a society could create a primary education system that would serve of the needs of all our children. To make this happen, we believe it is necessary to gather enough data at the child level so that the right levels of interventions are focused on the appropriate target groups; very often it has been said that due to lack of adequate information, it’s the same cohort that continues to reap the benefits of multiple interventions as their beneficiaries, while significant numbers of children are left out.
It is our belief that a universal and unique identification system will help in improving quality outcomes in a significant manner. What this means is that there is a need for a unique identity that is assigned to a child from birth through till the end of her education, and this unique ID will help in ensuring that all her rights as a child are available to her and that she receives quality education.
In our experience in the preschool system, it would be meaningful if data on children regarding their health and learning abilities is maintained so that, at the appropriate age, children are admitted to primary schools and aware of every child’s proficiencies.
In the primary school system, we believe that there is a definite need to track migration issues. For example, children may be enrolled in a rural school and during difficult times the family may migrate to urban areas for livelihood reasons. This means that the child will also be enrolled in an urban school and, therefore, could be counted twice. A unique ID could help avoid these errors.
There is a pressing need to track attendance of both children and teachers in government schools on a regular basis. On visiting schools, it is not uncommon to find one where the declared enrolment and attendance is higher than the actual numbers.
Remedial interventions are required to bring what the system calls “slow learners” to mainstream levels. This means that we need to know who needs help: This is possible only by administering diagnostic baseline tests and logging this data on a child-by-child basis, and then initiating the remedial interventions to wipe out specific legacy problems. Once remedial efforts are completed, children need to be tracked so that we can ensure that their acquired 3R skills—reading, writing, arithmetic—are not lost. Libraries, for instance, are a great vehicle to track children’s proficiencies: It is important to track how many books are being borrowed by each child every month, so that we know which child is not borrowing. These vulnerable children need attention. Beyond primary school, we should be able to track children going to secondary schools or vocational schools or even colleges.
All this is possible by having a unique ID for every child and using this to track her progress through the process of education. However, for this system to work, there is definitely a need for multiple departments within government to use this methodology. The departments of education, women and child development, health and labour, which can track different facets of a child’s life, as a minimum should use such a system. These separate parts of the government should come together to input multiple applications and reports on this common electronic-based system. The success of such an initiative depends on the number of applications in this system: The more the children tracked, the more its utility to public education.
Maybe then India can finally get an end-based education system which gets us the right outcomes.
Ashok Kamath & Gautam John are with the Bangalore-based Akshara Foundation.
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