Why the state of India’s primary education is shocking

Do you expect a steady migration of students from government to private schools and a rapid fall in quality of education in a country where education is a constitutionally guaranteed fundamental right?

Then, that is the story of rural India, where 70 percent of the country’s population live. Its present and future generations are in a royal mess: poor families are spending a lot of hard-to-find cash to get half-baked education for their children.

Sooner than later, India’s education sector will resemble its crumbling public health system. AFP

Even as the government undertakes to educate all its children under the Right to Education (RTE) Act, private schools are mushrooming in rural India and attract 10 % more students every year, compared to the previous year.

It is such a tragedy that by next year, when UPA seeks fresh mandate for all its welfare schemes, 41 percent of the primary school children will be paying for their education and there is no guarantee that what they learn is of any quality or consequence.

At this rate, sooner than later, India’s education sector will resemble its crumbling public health system in which three-fourth of the people pay for their health expenditure.

The Annual Status of Education Report (ASER 2012) for rural India, released a few days ago by PRATHAM, an NGO, exposes the shocking mess that our school education is in. With longitudinal data from 2008, the report shows how the country is falling into dangerous lows both in terms of quality and the invasion of the private sector.

Let’s look at some key facts of the ASER.

First, on the quality of education:

In 2008, only about 50 percent of Standard 3 students could read a Standard 1 text, but by 2012, it declined to 30 percent - a fall of 16 percent. About 50 percent of the Std 3 kids cannot even correctly recognise digits up to 100, where as they are supposed to learn two digit subtraction. In 2008, about 70 percent of the kids could do this.

Not only that the country is unable to improve the learning skills of half its primary school children, in the last four years, it has fallen to alarming lows. Similar deterioration in standards of education was also noted among Std 5 students.

Importantly, the report notes that the decline is cumulative, which means that the “learning decline” gets accumulated because of neglect over the years. The poor quality of education from Std 1 pulls down their rate of learning progressively so that by the time they are in Std 5, their level of learning is not even comparable to that of Std 2.

The private schools are “relatively unaffected” but their low standards remain low. They have also shown a “downturn” in maths beyond number recognition.

The poor quality of education and rate of decline are however not uniform across India. Some states are low in quality, but are staying where they are (Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh) while some have higher levels of education, which are neither improving nor deteriorating (Himachal Pradesh, Kerala and Punjab).

It also says that the decline is more noticeable since 2010, when the RTE came into effect, indicating targets of blanket coverage compromising quality and standards.

Second, on privatisation:

The report notes that the private sector is making huge inroads into education in rural India. By 2019, when the RTE would have done a decade, it will be the majority service provider. The private sector involvement will also be strengthened by 25 percent quota of the government (under the RTE Act).

Quoting DISE (District Information System of Education) data, it says that Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Puducherry and Goa have more than 60% of private enrollment in primary schools. Andhra, Maharashtra and Karnataka are at 40 percent, while UP is at 50%. Ironically, the highest private sector enrollment is in Kerala, where successive governments claim commitment to welfare policies, particularly on education and health.

Besides private schools, parents also spend considerable amount of money on private tuitions, making quality education more inaccessible to people without money.

What do these findings tell us?

That the country is in a serious crisis - its quality of school education is startlingly low and is in free fall, while the private sector is exploiting this weakness even in rural India. Although the study doesn’t throw considerable light on the reasons of the decline and possible corrective steps, it does indicate a correlation between the acceleration of the deterioration and the implementation of the RTE Act.

If the correlation is correct, it is clear yet again that a populist and insincere political instrument does more harm than good. When the Act was passed, there were misgivings by many - particularly on the haste, lack of appropriate consultation with all stakeholders and also on the logic of applying a uniform principle across states with huge disparity in coverage and quality of education. In some states such as Kerala, Himachal and Punjab it was evidently superfluous.

Even after two years, it’s still not clear, how the finances are met and if the states are committed at all. The estimates in 2010 for the implementation of RTE was pegged at about Rs 210,000 crores with centre shouldering 68 percent of the burden.

Whether the RTE is being implemented or not, it’s abundantly clear that it is certainly not working. “There has been a feeling that RTE may have led to relaxation of classroom teaching since all exams and assessments are scrapped and no child is to be kept back. Continuous Comprehensive Evaluation(CCE) is now a part of the law and several states are attempting to implement some form of CCE as they understand it,” says the report.

“Does CCE catch this decline? Are teachers equipped to take corrective action as the law prescribes? Is corrective action going to be taken? Given the magnitude of the problem, it will be a good idea to focus just on basics at every standard and not treat it as a "remedial" measure. At this stage, teaching-learning of basic foundational skills should be the main agenda for primary education in India.”

As the report notes there is a national crisis in learning. The quality of education and performance of the students in both government and private schools have to improve and the government has to check the invasion of the sector by private capital.

Higher education has long since been sold out and today it is only the preserve of those with money. With or our without RTE, even the primary school education is moving in the same direction.

If markets are to run the country, why do we need governments?