It is rare for a guest to be so candid, so bold to tell the hosts some honest truths. But Tharman Shanmugaratnam, Deputy Prime Minister of Singapore, did just that. He told a power-packed audience at Vigyan Bhavan that “schools are the biggest crisis in India” and that “it is a crisis that cannot be justified”. His observation is scarcely an unknown fact. What made it attention-worthy is the manner in which he contextualised it. He observed that “the biggest gap between India and East Asia” is the broken-down system of education. The state of education is unjustifiable and haunts aspiring India.
The quality of quantity is best illustrated by the ASER Reports of the past decade. ASER 2004 informed us that four of 10 students between Class II and V in government schools could not read level 1 basic text and over six of 10 students could not read level II text. It also reported that five of 10 students could not do subtraction or division. ASER 2014 informs us that over five of 10 students in Class V—and a quarter of students in Class VIII—cannot read Class II text. Just over 26 per cent of students in Class V can do division—and only 44 per cent of those in Class VIII could do a three-digit by one division. The findings are worrisome. Madhav Chavan of Pratham makes a stark observation in the 2014 ASER Report: “A hundred million children have gone through the schools in the last decade without basic reading and math skills.”
It is not that money has not been spent on education. Between 2004 and 2014, allocations for education —Centre plus states—quadrupled from `84,111 crore to `3,95,000 crore. Yet outcomes of quality and quantity elude India. Five decades after the Kothari Commission, the phenomenon of dropouts persists. The HRD Ministry informed Parliament recently that nearly 62 lakh children dropped out at the primary level in 2013-14. The failure is most visible in rural India—over 35 per cent not literate, 14 per cent have below primary level literacy, and only three in 100 are graduates.
The paradox is that even as the government ramped up spending, more parents are sending children to private schools—from 16 per cent in 2005 to 30 per cent in 2015 and estimated to touch 50 per cent by 2020. According to NSSO, every fourth school student is also attending private coaching classes. There is no dearth of programmes either. In fact, one suspects, there are too many of them—Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, Rashtriya Madhyamik Shiksha Abhiyan, Rashtriya Uchch Shiksha Abhiyan, Padhe Bharat Badhe Bharat Model School Scheme and so on.
That the children are not doing well is both an issue of quantity and quality. Consider this: Over one lakh schools across India have just one teacher—between them, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan have over 48,000 single-teacher schools. Across India, over five lakh teacher posts lie vacant. Even those schools with teachers suffer from teacher absenteeism. According to World Bank studies, one in four teachers is frequently absent. There is physical absence and absence of accountability. Even when present, teachers are programmed by the system to focus on completing the syllabus, and not necessarily on learning outcomes.
For decades, governments in India have taken refuge in the alley of alibis—about diversity, complexity and scale. And even lack of resources. Thailand and Indonesia, much smaller economies with lesser resources, have shamed India with literacy rates of 94 per cent and 84 per cent, way before the dawn of the new millennium. As for scale, China in the 1980s had a literacy rate higher than India has today. That this is not an issue of resources is better proved by the Kerala model. In every decade, Kerala has outdone not just India but also China.
The rot in the landscape stems from the divorce of accountability and the absence of autonomy. The systemic issues are aggravated by the placement of education in the concurrent list. The First Administrative Reforms Commission (1966) had observed that the role of the Union government in areas which are covered by the state list of subjects in the Constitution should be largely that of a ‘pioneer, guide, disseminator of information, overall planning and evaluator’. That was not to be and education was pitchforked into the concurrent list. At the operational level, the focus should have been about learning outcomes. Instead, it has been about buildings and budgets. The need for autonomy—for states and schools—has been repeatedly made. The case for accountability and autonomy is settled in logic and validated by success stories elsewhere. Yet the transition is thwarted.
The causal reasons for the flailing state of education are many —from the rather casual approach of political class to complex issues that determine learning. That said, the failures of the past decade dictate exit from the business as usual mindset. The first principle must be to fix the structural flaws —for the Centre to facilitate autonomy of policy for states, which translates into facilitation to achieve learning outcomes. The states on their part too must enshrine autonomy to local governments with a similar objective.
At the operational level, schools, teachers and governments must embrace technology. Absenteeism of teachers, for instance, will not disappear. How about inducting technology, introducing virtual teaching by the best in the states with locally recruited minders? How about making skills training a part of school curriculum?
How about incentivising schools and teachers? The BJP is in power in a dozen states. It has the opportunity to invest in the future. How about seeking help from NITI Aayog and pushing the chief ministers of these states to create models of innovation that further the cause of learning?
The aspiration of Reform, Perform and Transform is a noble intent. Education would be a good place to start. Shanmugaratnam observed that the Modi Sarkar is batting on a good wicket. He urged the government to graduate from singles and hit boundaries. The advice to eschew incrementalism and adopt radical change to achieve transformation is well-intentioned and well-timed.
Shankkar aiyar Author of Accidental India: A History of the Nation’s Passage through Crisis and Change