Focus on rural India vital

Education Neglect

By Dhurjati Mukherjee

The New Year calls for reversing the neglect in the education sector. Policies are framed with high sounding targets without a thorough comprehension and understanding of the ground reality at the grass-root levels, specially in backward and remote villages. Moreover, without any increase in the financial allocation in this sector, specially for providing infrastructure facilities, school education in the country is rather poor compared with the emerging economies.
The Annual Status of Education Report (ASER), 2020 published by NGO Pratham, found that enrolment in government schools has risen at the expense of private schools in the villages over the past two years. In its survey regarding the provision of and access to distance education mechanisms in rural India during COVID-19 time when schools are closed, it noted that rural school enrolment found 66.4 per cent of boys and 73 per cent of girls on the rolls of government schools – a rise of over three percentage points.
The shift from private to government schools between 2018 and 2020 may be attributed to financial distress in households and/or permanent school shutdowns among private schools. It also found that the pandemic increased the percentage of children not enrolled in schools from 4 per cent in 2018 to 5.5 per cent in 2020. This has been because many children not bothering to secure admission in Class I with schools remaining closed since late March this year
An assessment of the impact of COVID-19 pandemic on children by UNICEF covering 5773 socio-economically vulnerable families showed that one in every four mothers was not sure of their child going back to school after the pandemic. The assessment was done in seven States. The economic profile of families covered included casual workers, salaried workers and those with no jobs. Results showed that while economic situation of the families under study remain challenging, select government services improved compared with the results of Wave-I in June-July period.
The drop-out rate has been a big challenge and in the current year, this may show a significant increase. As per another data available, in 2018-19 year some success has been noticed in reducing the drop-out rate to 2.72 per cent at the elementary level and 9.74 per cent at the secondary level though the actual figures may not be encouraging. However, the gross enrolment ratio in elementary and secondary education was 91.64 per cent and 79.54 per cent respectively, as per the 75th round household survey by NSSO in 2017-18.
High dropout rates are indeed a great challenge and worse these are on the rise. Keeping the pace of imparting education to all intact, the New Education Policy 2020 aims at achieving 100 per cent gross enrolment ratio in pre-school through secondary school by 2030. Moreover, to make this a success, effective and sufficient infrastructure has to be provided and a proper roadmap is necessary.
In tune with a perceptible change occurring in the nature of work opportunities that is manifest the world over, education also needs to undergo a transformation. There is thus a trend the world over for making education more practical and down to earth and relating it to work and employment. For a country like India, where there is excess workforce, the implementation of such a policy is all the more necessary.
Coming to the question of the much talked about subject of digital learning, it needs to be said that in State government schools attended by the mass of students, digitization i.e. internet connection is enjoyed by only 56% according to the ASER report. The supply of all learning material, online or offline, during lockdown has been inadequate, more so in some States than in others. Nearly two-thirds of rural schoolchildren receive no material whatsoever. Many even lacked textbooks, say 65 per cent in Andhra Pradesh, and 40 per cent in Rajasthan. According to reports, even at the University of Hyderabad, over 10 per cent of students were found to lack smart but this translates to over 18 per cent which did not have proper connectivity.
As pointed out repeatedly, the allocation for education has been very poor over the last few years and, as per UNDP estimates, the total financial requirement for India to reach Sustainable Development Goals by 2030 averages $173 billion per year, far exceeding the current government budget of $76.4 billion a year for education. Government schools spend about Rs 24,000-30,000 per child per annum, while in private schools, 91 per cent of students pay lower than Rs 24,000 per annum. In contrast, the average per student expense in the US is about $13,000 per annum.
With the current regulatory structure and obsession with keeping it ostensibly clean through not-for-profit mechanisms, students are deprived of quality. “Numerous politicians and bureaucrats have expressed that the not-for-profit agenda is a charade. How can we expect institutions to invest Rs 100 crore in setting up schools and not expect a return on their capital?”, says an expert in the field.
Though from the business point of view this makes sense but education has to reach all sections of society and most of those who are yet to get proper and quality education are not in a position to pay. The government has to see the reality and act accordingly. The numerous sub-divisions and blocks need high schools and even colleges, where only a miniscule section can afford private education, send their wards there.
The thrust towards privatisation, ignoring the condition of the masses who study in government schools most of which are in a poor condition, is definitely a wrong decision taken by those who are divorced from grass-root prevailing situation in the country. While sitting in the towers at Delhi and other State capitals, the situation existing in rural schools is difficult to comprehend. Thus, the talk of digital education, which has now a sharp focus, would need to be well-thought out.
The neglect of education in the country has is quite apparent and the obvious sufferers are the poor and the marginalised sections, who do not have proper facilities or the means for better education. This has been aptly revealed in many surveys, all of which urged the need for strict monitoring and training of teachers to take more interest in teaching and developing skills of children. Even private schools in rural areas do not impart quality teaching.
In this scenario, the problem has to be seriously considered with special focus on rural and semi-urban schools and colleges. Only announcement of national policies without any corrective action at the grass-root level will not help the cause of imparting quality education to the masses. To start with, in the ensuing Budget, more resources may be allocated for the education sector. — INFA