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Bricks in the Wall: How far does RTE go?

Despite rising student enrollment and falling dropout rates across India, education infrastructure remains the biggest speedbump on the road to literacy for all, writes Shiralie Chaturvedi.

SHIRALIE CHATURVEDI  10th Sep 2011

espite being one of the fastest-growing economies in the world, India faces several barriers to her socio-economic development. One of the glaring problems is in the education sector, where old social paradigms still have a strong impact. In 2009, in an effort to boost literacy levels, both Houses of Parliament passed the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, which made it mandatory for every child in the 5-14 age group to be educated, and for free. But have we been making genuine progress since then? Thursday 8th September was World Literacy Day, as good a time as any to examine why India continues to have the largest illiterate population of any nation in the world.
Over the past few years, a number of governmental and nongovernmental projects have been introduced to improve the level of education in India. There have been mixed reports regarding the efficacy of the Sarv Shiksha Abhiyan launched by during the UPA government’s first tenure. The efforts of the myriad NGOs that work in this field are sometimes worthy of support and sometimes not. But what is undeniable is that despite the passing of the RTE (Right to Education) Bill the national levels of enrollment in schools has remained stagnant, neither rising nor falling.

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It also goes against many prevailing stereotypes, but the most significant improvement in education levels have been seen in states such as Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Rajasthan


But there are positive signs. If we examine things on broader time scale (from 2006 on) the statistics show an upward push in the number of children who are attending school, especially those in the 5-11 age group. Education experts see these numbers as indication that the combined efforts of government and non-government bodies to promote awareness of the importance of education amongst lower-income groups is working. According to the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) for 2010, 71.1% of primary school level children are enrolled in government schools, with only 3.5% of children not attending school. Another heartening statistic is that of student dropouts, which sees a drastic reduction: in 2006, 10% of children between 6-14 were dropping out, while by 2010 that number had been reduced to 5%.


The ASER 2010 report is based on data collected by their huge team of surveyors, who travelled to 522 districts across India. According to ASER 2010, 96.5% of children in the 6-14 age group in rural India were enrolled in school, with enrolment rates in private schools in rural India increasing to 24.3% in 2010 from 21.8% a year ago. This number has been steadily rising since 2005, when the national enrolment rate in rural private schools was only 16.3%. Nationally, the percentage of five-year-olds who were enrolled in schools jumped from 54.6% in 2009 to 62.8% in 2010, with the biggest change in Karnataka, where the percentage soared to 67.6% from just 17.1% in 2009. As far as the education of the girl child is concerned, there was modest improvement, with only 5.9% of girls in the 11-14 age group still out of school, compared with 6.8% in 2009. It also goes against many prevailing stereotypes, but the most significant improvement in education levels have been seen in states such as Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Rajasthan.


But do the statistics paint too rosy a picture? It is important, first, to understand the parameters being used by the government to measure how many children are being educated. Some experts feel the term “education” is used too carelessly. Yamini Aiyar at the Centre for Policy Research explains the difference between education and literacy. “There are many reasons for a lapse in literacy, the prime one being the absence of efficient infrastructure. But we are still not making enough changes to help enforce the laws that can motivate schools to teach these students. The schools are often in very bad shape, and there is also the problem of teacher attendance. Even though many government schools boast of having extremely helpful teachers, the teachers have become less involved. This is primarily because of the absence of a certain air of accountability that is present in private/public schools. Even if the child is eager to study, there isn’t adequate mentorship,” she says.

hile one does not need to have a formal education to be thought of as literate, the converse holds true as well: being enrolled in a school — even attending school on a daily basis — does not mean that one is literate. Only 53.4% of the children in Standard V could read a text that was meant for Standard II students. This means that despite spending five years in school, nearly half the students have not reached the literacy levels you’d expect from a child who has spent two years in school. Apart from this, there also seems to be a slump in children’s ability to do simple mathematics. The proportion of Standard I children who could recognise numbers from 1-9 declined from 69.3% in 2009 to 65.8% in 2010. Similarly, the proportion of children in Standard III who could solve two-digit subtraction problems decreased from 39% to 36.5% in the same period. Standard V students who could do simple division problems also dropped from 38% in 2009 to 35.9% in 2010.


The statistics reveal a mixed picture, and the mountain of work that lies ahead. ASER 2010 found that more than 60% of the 13,000 schools visited satisfied the infrastructure norms specified by the RTE. However, more than half of these schools needed more teachers, while a third required more classrooms. Priyanka Chakravarty, Communications Associate at ASER, explained the lack of infrastructure. She says, “Except for some changes, the overall levels seem stationary. However, I believe progress will happen gradually and not suddenly. Even if students are willing to learn, sometimes the infrastructure doesn’t match expectations. The same holds true for parents, who might be ready to educate their children but face administrative and financial problems.”


The all-India percentage of primary schools (Standard 1-4/5) with all teachers present shows a consistent decrease over three years, falling from 73.7% in 2007 to 69.2% in 2009 and further to 63.4% in 2010. Only 62% of the schools ASER visited had playgrounds and 50% had a boundary wall or fence. While 90% of the institutions visited had toilets, they were usable only in half of these schools. Similarly, although 70% of schools had a separate girls’ toilet, this facility was usable in only 37% of the schools. Of the schools visited, 81% had a kitchen shed and 72% had drinking water available.


But cutting through this statistical gloom is a genuine ray of hope in the form of Teach for India (TFI), an initiative which seeks to bridge the gap between helpful teachers and willing students. Following the Teach for America model, the venture aims to educate children in a holistic manner. Based out of Mumbai, TFI recently opened a Delhi chapter. Natasha Joshi, recruitment manager in Delhi, thinks that the TFI fellows can help develop a culture of education and literacy that is sorely needed in schools catering to underprivileged children. “We try and recruit high calibre fellows. I know high calibre is a relative term but for us it defines those youngsters who are willing to help provide these children with the tools necessary to flourish. Fellows undergo a six-week training programme, after which they are given a deadline; for example, by when they would need to make sure their students are well-versed in the alphabet and metric system. Ours isn’t a one-catch-all policy. We hope to combine funds, infrastructure, students and teachers and form a circle of excellence.” Other groups have been making a steady impact over the years as well, such as the Pencil Project, Udaan, and Delhi University’s National Service Scheme, which places students with a number of smaller education NGOs.


What India needs today is a sense of civic education. Educating people, especially young parents, about the importance of education is vital. Governmental inefficiencies are a notorious speed bump in almost every area of social planning. But waiting for those to disappear means we relegate generation after generation to lives of ignorance and penury. Individuals, families and communities must take as much initiative as they can.

 
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