A DAUNTING TASK

Via logoon www.deccanherald.com

Ashok Kamath, Dec 28, 2016
IMPROVING EDUCATION SYSTEM :

Increased demand and the cumulative energy of all stakeholders can bring quality into education, and children will get to learn.

Well-known economist Amartya Sen recently said at the London School of Economics (LSE), “India is the only country in the world which is trying to become a global economic power with an uneducated and unhealthy labour force.” Having worked deeply in the eco-system of education in India for over a decade, I have reasons to agree with him. Let’s examine them.

Despite having a mammoth government-funded education system in place, we have an ‘uneducated’ populace. As per the Census of India 2011, our literacy rate is at 74%.

But according to Aspiring Minds National Employability Report, which is based on a study of more than 1,50,000 engineering students who graduated in 2015 from over 650 colleges, 80% of them are unemployable. The reason for this situation can be attributed to lack of quality of education imparted throughout our public education system, which the majority of our population relies on.

To illustrate this, according to India Spend, Rs 1,15,625 crore has been spent on Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA) for universalising elementary education over the last five years. Over the years, we have also built the infrastructure required to service the rural population.

We have also allocated both monetary and human resources. State schools, in reality, have better qualified teachers than low-budget private schools.

The government school teachers get some amount of annual training, and there is a well-defined system in place. Despite this, the outcomes in terms of quality of learning, particularly in the case of math and reading, are not very discernible.

As per the ASER-2014 Report, the All India (rural) figures for basic arithmetic reveal that in 2012, only 26.3% of children in grade 3 could do two-digit subtraction. This number fell to 25.3% in 2014.

The percentage of children in grade 2 who still cannot recognise numbers up to 9 has increased from 11.3% in 2009 to 19.5% in 2014. And this trend persists in all competencies throughout the primary school system.

The reasons for this are not difficult to identify. A large section of our population resides in rural areas and relies on the government school system for its education needs. And it is in principally rural areas where we have failed with regard to education.

For example, in the city of Bengaluru, for every child that goes to the public school system, four children go to the private school system which means there are market force solutions to address needs. In rural communities that is reversed.

As per the latest District Information System for Education (DISE) data, nearly 51.3 million children in India study in grades 4 and 5 in government primary schools. That’s about 10 times the number of all children living in Australia.

Addressing just the education needs of children in grades four and five in any mid-sized state like Karnataka is akin to addressing the needs of an entire country like Kenya or Ghana. The task is evidently huge.

Where do the gaps lie? The oft-quoted response is that it is in the execution and the lack of accountability that the system fails. But is that the full story? A traditional African proverb says, “it takes a village to raise a child.” What does this mean in the context of rural early education in our country?

For starters, it means that parents and teachers have to work together in the interests of the child. Too often we hear parents say that the schools are not performing while teachers complain that parents don’t do their bit for the children.

We need to change this equation. The course of discussion around education has just started to change from enrolment to quality of schooling. School Development and Monitoring Committees (SDMCs) that have two-thirds participation from parents. We need to engage and bring awareness to these committee members about enabling quality.

And this cannot be closed-room discussions. It needs to become a movement and everyone needs to get involved in the process.

Quality of education is far too important for anyone to be left out from the process, be it elected representatives from gram panchayats, members of Parliament, officials from the Education Department or other influencers. Most importantly, parents and community members, and teachers and children themselves should be integral to the process. There has to be a vibrant demand for quality to be infused into the school system.

Political will
This takes investment and political will and greater collaboration. Increased demand and the cumulative energy of all stakeholders can bring quality into education, and children will get to learn.

What else can be done? The media and policy makers alike need to have quality of education on their agenda. We need to constantly talk quality, now that we have achieved desired levels of enrolment.

Today, we can consider that the whole “village” is sleeping and unless we wake up and work together, there is very little chance for change. Our task is huge, our numbers are daunting.

But we are a nation on the move and as Amartya Sen has rightly said, it is only an educated and healthy populace that can get us to real development.

It begins with public education and public health, with quality being the lodestone on which both are based. We have to get our act together and enable a movement. It begins with each of us.

(The writer is chairman, Akshara Foundation, Bengaluru)