Tryst with the Truth of Education in India

1. 9-year-old Vishnu* vacillates between 7, 8, and 9 for the answer to 3+4.

2. 13-year-old Fathima* recites the contents of her Geography text by heart, but she thinks the subject is ‘apne daere se bahaar’ (beyond her scope).

3. 15-year-old Aman* is expected to know elementary algebra to take his Boards\ examinations, but he cannot comprehend the English statements to construct the equations.


*Names changed

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Like any other teenager, I was under the assumption that the public schooling system in India is making a considerable headway; an illusion primarily fostered by media’s portrayal of encouraging growth in school-enrollment rates every quarter year. During the ephemeral course of interactions with children of karamcharis of college, who I met through Social Service League’s Evening Classes initiative, I realized that the lower league school systems in India are plagued with several systemic issues, and India is failing many of the country’s poorest children.

Be it Arithmetic, Grammar, History, Chemistry, Algebra- learning is by rote. I was aghast at how a 10th Grader was impressing solutions to Math problems on her memory (since she was told that she must resort to it to get ‘ache number’ in exams). I asked her why she doesn’t ask her teacher when she cannot grasp a concept, to which came the pat reply, “Ek toh woh Eid ka chaand hai. Aur jab woh aati hain bacchon ke sawaal nahi sunti.’ (One, we get to see her once in a blue moon, and when she comes, she never listens to our questions). The last straw however was her teacher’s notes that declared ‘Sin and Cos and trigonmatric (Spellcheck: trigonometric) angles’. This summarizes the debacle of our education system.

The primary school enrollment rate is at its peak at a staggering 95%. This is unequivocally a commendable feat considering that on the eve of independence the literacy rate in India stood at a paltry 12%. The surge in enrollment is because of the impact of consummate policy decisions, both on the legislative and programmatic front. The Midday Meal Scheme has incentivized parents to send their children to schools, school fees are entirely or partially waived, easing the financial strain on parents. The Right to Education Act, enshrined in Article 21-A of the Constitution which came into effect on 1st April 2010, has upheld the right to full-time, free, and quality elementary education as a fundamental child right. However, the spurt in enrollment rates is a delusive metric of socio-economic progress, at least in the Indian context, and it would be expedient to get hoodwinked by the impressive statistics. Burgeoning enrollment rates are not necessarily an indicator of the education coverage. The other side of the story is the grim reality in which one child in every five primary school going children drop out. Only two out of three children of this age attend school regularly. Of course, there are several other socio-demographic variables at play here; child malnutrition, for instance, linked to cognitive deficits and stunted growth including other devastating consequences has intervening effects on attendance levels.

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Teacher absenteeism is a crucial concern. Impromptu visits to government schools hint that 25% of the workforce is absent from school on any given working day. Teacher absenteeism is often attributed to the lack of incentives for teachers in public schools. It also demoralizes students from attending school and hampers the learning process.

A substantial proportion of teachers in publicly funded schools are ill-trained. The standard of teaching is unsatisfactory. Pedagogical strategies endorse a ‘Drill and Kill’ policy over fostering an environment conducive to meaningful learning. Discussing meaningful learning is probably a tad far-fetched in chaotic classrooms teeming with students of different grades. “Saans lene ki bhi jagah nahi hoti” (there is no place to even breathe), says the 15-year-old. Through the creation of such unpropitious conditions, the quality of education imparted is being compromised upon. A 5th Grader failing at basic arithmetic, a 6th Grader stuttering with simple English sentences or an 8th Grader unable to comprehend the idea of squares of numbers, is testament to the abysmal quality of education delivered in these schools. Comprehensive reports by NGOs like Pratham suggest that about 78% of grade 3 students and 50% of grade 5 students cannot read textbooks designed for Second-Graders. Out of 144 million children studying in 7,14,000 publicly funded schools in India, more than half cannot read simple English or recognize numbers beyond 99.

The pertinent concern of education inequity, or the inequity in the distribution of academic resources remains insufficiently addressed and overlooked. There is a consensus that presence of inequalities undermines the spirit of democracy; banishing differential access to resources is pivotal to the smooth functioning of our democratic order. This could prove detrimental to the economic health of the nation as it poses an essential threat to sustenance of growth rates and impedes on the efficacy of policy measures. The inequity in the distribution of educational resources has far-reaching political and economic implications. Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, in his speech to the Constituent Assembly on November 25th, 1949 forewarned about the prevalence of structured inequalities which could jeopardize the existence of the social order when he said,

“We are going to enter into a life of contradictions. In politics, we will have equality in social and economic rights, we will have inequality…we must remove this contradiction at the earliest possible moment or else those who suffer from inequality will blow up the structure of political democracy which this Assembly has so laboriously built up.”

It has been recognized that education serves the potential to be a democratizing force by reconciling socio-economic disparities in a society highly stratified by caste and class. However, the deplorable state of public education is perilous to the democratic fabric of the nation as it reinforces social contrariety that are to be imperatively exterminated and is also a roadblock in the eradication of poverty.

India International Literacy Day

India has one of the youngest age profiles in the world and by 2030, the median age of the population is likely to be 31.2 years. The demographic dividend, which is touted to give India an edge over other developing nations could yield catastrophic results if the economy fails to create around 12 million jobs annually for the new entrants into the labour market. The opportunities created by the demographic dividend need to be harnessed efficiently for the country to propel growth, employment, and prosperity. The dearth of skill in India’s labour force stemming primarily from the pitfalls in the education system, which is ill equipped to meet the increasing demand for skilled or semi-skilled human resources could erode the asset of a youthful population into a social, economic, and political liability. Bridging these socio-economic differences to pave way for a society characterized by an equitable distribution of resources should be the foremost priority of development. In U.S educator Felix E Schelling’s words,

“True education makes for inequality; the inequality of individuality, the inequality of success, the glorious inequality of talent, of genius; for inequality, not mediocrity, individual superiority, not standardization, is the measure of the progress of the world.”

How long before the liberating force of true education can emancipate us from the shackles of caste, class, creed, religion, or gender? Is India really incapacitated that the basic human right of quality education is perceived as an extravagance for the country’s most impoverished?

Here I enclose with an excerpt from Stephen Spender’s poignant poem An Elementary School Classroom in a Slum:

“This map becomes their window and these windows That shut upon their lives like catacombs, Break O break open till they break the town And show the children to green fields, and make their world Run azure on gold sands, and let their tongues Run naked into books the white and green leaves open History theirs whose language is the sun.”