Major reforms imperative

Cong Promise on Education

By Dhurjati Mukherjee

It is indeed good to hear the just released Congress manifesto promising school education to be made free up to Class XII by amending the Right to Education Act. More so, as reports have surfaced that many poor but deserving students cannot complete high schools as they have to pay fees after Class VIII. This augurs well for the somewhat neglected education sector because the party assured to double allocation in this sector to six per cent of GDP till 2023-24. Another significant aspect of the party’s manifesto is the pledge to restore real autonomy in colleges and universities and entrust their regulation, grading and funding to separate organisations.
These reassuring developments come in the midst of widespread reports of lack of quality teaching in schools and colleges as also the lack of initiative of teachers in most of these institutions. Teacher absenteeism accounts for the loss of one quarter of primary school spending. A World Bank report estimated the loss to be a staggering $2 billion a year in the country, just at the primary level. It needs to be mentioned here that the poor and the impoverished sections suffer the most for such absenteeism in school and colleges as they cannot afford private tuition to compensate the loss of institutional teaching.
One may refer here to a recent study by Niti Aayog and Boston Consulting Group which found that though 100 per cent enrolment in primary schools has been largely met, the problem remains in qualitative improvement. Though India has three times more schools than China, nearly 4 lakh schools in our country have less than 50 students and a maximum of two teachers. Around 1.5 crore students study in such unviable schools, as per the study.
The deterioration in quality in publicly-funded institutions, specially in rural and semi-urban areas has been the subject of much discussion but there has been very little intervention to remedy the situation. Not that all teachers lack merit, but the lack of initiative and sometimes the involvement with students are the major reasons. It has been found that as teachers come from relatively well-off backgrounds they cannot communicate effectively and be a friend, philosopher and guide to the poor students, who may need a little more attention.
This point has been reiterated in the latest assessment of how children are faring in schools in rural areas and indicates there has been no improvement in learning outcomes. The picture that emerges from the Annual Status of Education Report, Rural (2018), released in January this year, is one of a moribund system of early schooling in many States, with no remarkable progress from the base year of 2008. Except for a small section at the top of the class, the majority of students have obviously been let down.
It is disturbing that drop-out rates increase as children move up. “Around 30 per cent enrolled in Class I graduate from Class XII. Of those who do, the majority don’t possess requisite skills to be readily employable” stated the Niti Aayog report.
The other distressing factor is the shortage of 10 lakh teachers and what is more disturbing is the fact that distribution has been found to be uneven with urban schools having surplus teachers. Thus without adequate number of teachers, quality standards cannot improve in any way. The report has thus rightly suggested consolidating several schools within a short distance and some headway has been made in States such as Rajasthan and Jharkhand.
The lack of teachers should not be allowed to continue. If States do not have budgetary resources to appoint teachers giving them pay scales, the other alternative would be to hire para teachers, as has been done in Bengal and some other States. This would at least generate some employment while at the same time ensure that teaching of children remains unhindered.
Training of teachers in government schools, specially in rural and backward areas, could go a long way in improving performance of teachers. Certain States have already initiated action in this regard. However, it needs to be mentioned that parental support may not be to the desired extent, specially in rural schools as they are mostly uneducated and cannot help in their ward’s education.
The obvious question at this juncture is why should children of the poor and the economically weaker sections not get quality education that is given in private schools? The Right to Education Act (RTE) was implemented to ensure that all children are assured of education but certain sections of the population do not have the means to send their wards to private schools. While the government is advertising Swachh Bharat Abhiyan on the occasion of year-long celebration of the 150th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi, there is also a necessity to ensure that all children get basic education within a stipulated time frame.
However, though we hear of transformation in education, there is need for schools not just to stick to the formal syllabus but simultaneously train students – say from Class V onwards – on some vocation or skill that could help them earn a living. This has to be seriously considered, keeping in view Gandhiji’s concept of nai talim (new education). It is also a fact that unemployment is quite high in the country and before a student reaches Class X or XII, if he or she is well-versed in some trade, there could be an opportunity to earn something and add to family income.
There is need to seriously examine the somewhat outdated syllabus and make it tuned to current needs and demands so that a student after passing Class X, would be able to carve out a career through skills gained during his years in school. Skills’ training is thus vital and this should form part of the modified syllabus.
Better education is crucial for narrowing inequality gap as also for the country’s long term growth scenario. The story of the demographic dividend can go completely wrong unless we undertake reforms in school education on an urgent footing. While resources are no doubt necessary for upgrading primary education, there is need for sincere monitoring at the district and block levels, which are unfortunately very poor or non-existent. If 100 million children do not learn the basic skills of reading and arithmetic and also gain skills training, it is unlikely that India will grow into a mature economy or a mature democracy.
Importantly, the Congress manifesto has made a big promise. But the question is where the funds would be found to give free education. Plus, ensuring autonomy of institutions is vital, but given past experience political interference defeats the aim. Guess, the Congress will need to cross the bridge when it comes to it. And even if it doesn’t, hope has been raised for the others to seriously give it a thought. — INFA