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Education is the key to unlocking India’s economic future. In the next few decades, we may have one of the world’s largest young workforces ready to contribute to the economy. But will these young men and women be adequately trained and qualified? Will they possess the knowledge, the confidence and the creativity to fulfil their potential, and the potential of our nation? Sadly, we know very little that can help us answer these questions. The Quality of Education Survey (QES) conducted in India’s “top schools" by Educational Initiatives and Wipro Applying Thought in Schools gives us some valuable insights and provides food for thought as we ponder these questions.

Art, music, dance, drama, debates and sports are important for the all-round development of a child. The most successful people in almost any discipline in the world are often found to have an artistic pursuit or a hobby that fuels their creativity and productivity in their profession of choice. What opportunities do our children have to engage in such co-scholastic activities that ought to take place along with rigorous academic training? According to QES, these opportunities may be limited even in India’s best schools. Nearly 20% of students in these “top schools" report that they do not get any opportunities to participate in dance, dramatics or debates. The principals of these schools agree that arts and sports are important for building confidence, self-control, solidarity and teamwork, but when it comes to execution, the attention given to these activities leaves a lot to be desired.

File photo of schoolchildren of 11th and 12th standard of Ramjas school,R K Puram, Delhi playing basketball on the school grounds. Photo by Madhu Kapparath

Some may argue that a focus on arts and sports is misplaced for a poor nation such as ours, where children are often struggling with basic reading, writing and arithmetic skills. But such a position is short-sighted. What do we tell a young college graduate who in spite of repeated efforts is unable to find a job because he cannot communicate confidently and effectively? How do we counteract the claims that India will only be good at producing the low- and mid-level “cogs in the wheel", but the truly creative ideas and innovations on the world stage will continue to come from nations such as the US, where education is allowed to be more liberal and broadly defined?

There is another interesting link that the report makes with what we know about education and educating from international research—the importance of home background and parental involvement for learning. The results showed that children whose homes are well-equipped with books, children who have access to a computer and the Internet, children who engage in non-textbook reading regularly—all perform better in language, mathematics and science. How do we make sense of these relationships? Does it mean that if we were to simply provide every family with a few books, or give each household a computer and Internet connection, all our children will become proficient learners? The answer, as you may well imagine, is no. The extra books or access to technology are may be helpful in their own right, but more importantly they may be an “indicator" or a “proxy" for the parents’ overall ability and willingness to engage in their children’s education. Indeed, the report finds, as is known from other countries, that children who talk regularly with their parents about their day-to-day school experiences and challenges tend to also be better performers. There is a commitment and engagement that parents can bring to educating their child that is irreplaceable.

Surely, all parents are keen to provide the very best for their children. But are all parents equally well-resourced and well-equipped to fulfil their dreams for their children? In our nation, with alarming rates of adult illiteracy and poverty, the answer to this question is, unfortunately, no. Every society has its share of rich and poor, educated and uneducated individuals. But as a nation, we are facing something seriously worrisome if close to 35% of the mothers of our schoolgoing children may not even have basic reading and writing skills. One only has to imagine the struggles and frustrations of such a mother as she tries to meaningfully and confidently participate in her child’s schooling experiences. The children in the survey are from educated and well-off families, yet they were unable to keep up with the international standards of performance. If the QES tests were given to children from homes with fewer facilities and less-educated parents, it is not hard to conjecture that their performance may have been far worse.

The current picture looks grim. Both insides our schools and in our homes there is a lot left to be done to help our children become creative and productive citizens of the future. But there is also some good news. The good news is that we are increasingly committed as a nation to define, measure and understand what teaching and learning look like in our schools. Generating this understanding is the very first step in figuring out how we may fix the parts of our system that are not working, and how we may provide extra support to the less-privileged children. We have taken that first step: the road ahead is long, but the journey has begun.

Amita Chudgar is an assistant professor at the College of Education at Michigan State University, US.

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Updated: 15 Dec 2011, 09:32 PM IST
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