It is the same old story this year. The latest Annual Status of Education Report paints a sorry picture of the school-level education. Qualitatively, there has been no improvement in the year under review. Conducted by Pratham, a non-profit, the tenth report underlines the poor learning levels of all ages of children in rural schools throughout the country. Though enrolment levels are considerably high at 96.7 per cent for 6-14 years age group, it is what they learn or do not learn that is most worrying. For instance, less than half of Class V children can barely read a Class II lesson. And only one-fourth of children in Class III can read a Class II lesson. Again, only a quarter of children in Class V could barely read and understand a sentence or two of simple English. Even basic arithmetic solutions proved difficult for nearly half of Class VIII students. Despite the Right to Education, there was not much improvement in learning outcomes. There was a marked preference for private schools even among the poorer sections of students. This stemmed from the feeling among parents that private schools imparted better education than state-run schools. That even private schools are essentially money-making enterprises, barring, of course, some who are genuinely devoted to good education, is lost on most parents. What the Pratham report highlights yet again is the woeful failure of the state to effect improvements in various aspects of educational infrastructure. To begin with the most essential, the truth is that teachers themselves are not up to scratch in a vast majority of cases. An objective test of teachers sometime ago had reported how primary school teachers were deeply steeped in ignorance about simple matters such as the name of the President of India or the state governor. Or how a good percentage of teachers in Bihar and UP were unable to solve Class VIII arithmetic questions. The level of teaching even in the big metros in government-run schools cannot be better simply because there are no objective in-service tests of their skills and there are no incentives for better performance, such as quicker promotion and out-of-turn pay-raises, etc. Admittedly, the teaching level must reflect the poor quality of graduates and post-graduates being churned out by various degree-manufacturing factories going by the generic name of universities. Intensive teacher-training courses for all those on the payrolls of state education departments might be of some help in improving the quality of school-level teaching. Also, it is equally true that there is now truancy not only among students, but among the teaching staff as well. Entrenched vested interests in educational bureaucracies in the states perpetuate below-par teaching standards. Even teacher recruitment defies minimum standards with political and bureaucratic interference and corruption influencing it openly. Both the UPA and the NDA have sought to emphasise a minimum standard of learning at Class I and II, but this cannot be achieved without the provision of basic infrastructure.
Even in the national capital, there are government-run schools, which lack basic amenities such as a separate toilet for girl students, pukka buildings in a number of schools, playground for children, etc. Even pupil-teacher ratios are skewed in most schools, with overcrowding being the norm rather than the exception. Though Tamil Nadu has registered improvement both in attendance and learning following the success of the mid-day meal scheme, the situation in the Hindi hinterland is particularly grim. Despite successive HRD ministers making much to-do over the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan and the NDA about ‘Padhe Bharat Badhe Bharat’, the truth is that improvements at the teacher and student levels, where it should matter most, have been virtually non-existent. Instead of engaging herself in peripheral issues, HRD Minister Smriti Irani should concentrate on improving the quality of school teaching. And on the provision of basic minimum funds for primary school education. Opening new IIMs and new IITs would eventually prove less fruitful if learning at the school-level continues to be poor. A regular monitoring of teachers’ capabilities can be the first essential step to improve learning in the country’s schools.
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