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New Delhi: Concerned over poor learning standards in schools, the human resource development (HRD) ministry on Tuesday launched a new scheme to improve mathematics and language skills of students across India and vowed to plug the infrastructure gaps in all schools by utilizing portions of corporate social responsibility (CSR) funds.

In a meeting with state education secretaries, HRD minister Smriti Irani launched an ambitious project that aims to inculcate early reading habits, writing and mathematics skills among schoolchildren. It will help improve numeracy and develop their reasoning ability. As part of the scheme, every year, 500 hours will be devoted at the elementary level to improve language skills and 300 hours for mathematics.

“(Irani) requested states for the roll out of this programme...with the strong resolve so that children in early grades acquire proficiency in writing, reading and comprehension that would enable them to progress to higher classes with the confidence of good education," the ministry said in a statement.

During 2014-15, the central government will give 2,352.57 crore to states and Union territories for quality enhancement programmes.

Poor learning outcome is a huge problem and several studies in the recent past have highlighted that despite more children enrolling in schools due to enabling provisions like Right To Education, Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan and Mid-day Meal programme, they are not learning the basics. According to the 2013 Annual Status of Education Report by education non-profit Pratham, more than half of Class V students cannot even read Class II texts. A similar concern was raised by Unesco in one of its research papers in January.

Irani also asked all the state education secretaries to make sure that all schools have toilets for girls by July 2015. This follows Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Independence Day speech on providing toilet facilities in all schools.

“The minister told states that need for extra finance will be looked into by the centre," said an HRD ministry official, who attended the meeting. Toilets in schools is a key problem: 47% of schools in the country do not have separate toilets for girls, increasing their chances of dropping out or facing regular difficulties, Mint reported on 19 June.

School education secretary Rajarshi Bhattacharya told reporters that the ministry’s analysis show that 50% of the schools without toilets are in the six states of Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha and West Bengal.

The ministry, officials said, is working to tap the CSR funds under the new Companies Act to build toilets and other school infrastructure. Modi floated the idea in his 15 August speech.

The ministry also asked the states to focus on female literacy in most backward districts where female literacy is below 50%. According to official data, there are 90-odd districts where female literacy is below 50% and around 20 districts with a female literacy rate under 40%, much below the national female literacy average of 65.46%. Most of these are in tribal or Naxal belts. “The central government wants to give special attention to these districts to uplift these women’s standard of living," said the ministry official.

Bhattacharya also said that they are asking all the universities in the states to upgrade their teacher education departments so that the country can get well qualified teachers. India’s school sector is facing a shortage of half a million teachers but less than 10% of aspirants appearing for the central teacher eligibility test have managed to qualify.

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