On January 16, I got the opportunity to attend the release of the third Annual Status of Education Report – Rural 2007(ASER) – by Mr. Montek Singh Ahluwalia, Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission. This report has been brought out by ‘Pratham’, a non-governmental organisation that aims at the universalisation of elementary education keeping with our national goals to achieve this objective by 2010. The event brought back a lot of good memories as also put a lot of things in perspective.
The key finding of the report is that 4.2% of children in the age group of 6-14 are not going to school in rural India, down from 6.6% in 2006. It also estimates that the attendance of children in schools has not improved over the last two years with only about 74% of the children on the school roster attending classes on the day of the visit.
ASER is a household survey in which children are interviewed and assessed at home during weekends. The main objective is to assess whetehr children read, write and can do simple math. This year, ASER volunteers met over 720,000 children in the age group of 3-16 years and visited over 16,000 villages and 13,200 schools throughout the country, covering nearly 570 districts. This effort, facilitated by ‘Pratham’, is carried out by over 500 organizations including NGOs, colleges and universities across India.
Last summer, I was part of an eight member team that travelled to the city of Trivandrum in Kerala to conduct sample surveys along with local school assessment, supported by ‘Pratham’. Our journey took us to many coastal, tribal and slum schools, enabling a personal interaction with the children and the teachers. This experience helped me to learn and to unlearn a lot of things. We assumed (like everyone else) that the state of Kerala had achieved almost 100% literacy and that children would fare extremely well.
We were in for a surprise.
Probably, the state has been able to do that in terms of numbers. Yet, when it came to ground reality, things were quite different. Personally, I was appalled when 10 year old children struggled to read even a simple paragraph or do basic math. This learning brought out the complexity of many other dimensions – the need for quality education, regular assessment, provision of infrastructure, mid-day meals, parental support and community involvement. Later, I realised that our work was just a microcosm of what ‘Pratham’ actually does in an entire year.
ASER volunteers travel the breadth and length of the country, often facing hard terrain and severe climate to reach various government schools and households. They do this with a strong conviction that help can be provided to those children who are lagging behind. Pratham’s functioning is unique in a certain sense. They work alongside the Central and State Governments rather than against it. They believe that to render certain goals possible, the support of the governmental structure is inevitable. Let us not dismiss this assumption since it holds true to a very large extent. For millions of children in our country, their only chance of escaping the drudgery of life and to gain at least a minimal level of learning is through government-run schools. It is perhaps easy for us (who enjoy the luxury of private schools and other resources) to criticize the government for its lack of proper facilities, teachers and poor quality of education. Nonetheless, what needs to be done is to fix the problem rather than circumventing it.
This year’s ASER brings to light stark realities. ‘Pratham’ expects a Std V child to be able to properly read a Std II text. ‘Obviously, why not!’ I guess this is would be an answer that suddenly comes to many of us. However, the truth is that, over 40% children in Std II in rural India cannot even read simple words and about the same proportion of children in Std II cannot recognize numbers beyond 10.
However, mathematics confirms our worst fears. Only 42% children in Std V can divide a three digit number by a one digit number. This is almost exactly the same percentage of children in Std III who can subtract, indicating that about 58% of India’s children are not getting even basic math education.
The report also spreads a bit of sunshine. Many states such as Andhra Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh, Bihar, Nagaland, Punjab and Maharashtra have shown significant progress over the years. Interestingly, ASER also provides the first-ever estimate on English reading ability amongst rural India’s children. In Std 5, 28% of the children can read simple sentences and 31% can read words. In Kerala, over 59% of the children can read simple sentences in English. From the Hindi-speaking belt, Himachal Pradesh matches Kerala in their English-reading ability while Haryana and Bihar also perform relatively well with 47.9% and 41.2% children in Std V, being able to read English sentences.
This time around, they have also recorded the percentage of students attending private tuition classes. Such a trend also reflects the quality of education being provided in schools. ASER 2007 indicates that the proportion of government school children who go to paid tuition classes is about 20%. States with the highest incidence of tuition amongst government school children in Std V are West Bengal (83.3%), Orissa (50.9%), Bihar (42.3%), Kerala (36.8%) and Goa (31.8%). On the other hand, states with less than 5% incidence of tuition amongst government school children in Std V are Chattisgarh, Rajasthan, Uttarakhand, and Himachal Pradesh.
Those reading this report might feel lost in its labyrinth of statistics, yet, the message remains clear.
Almost half the number of school going children in our country are faring quite badly. There are states that are lagging behind in reading and writing skills while mathematics is a problem plaguing everyone. It is not merely about mastering the ability to read fluently. What is more important is to be able to comprehend the text being read. Sometimes, the lack of proper infrastructure also impairs the child’s development.
I witnessed this in many coastal schools in Trivandrum, where the lack of lighting and textbooks was taking a huge toll on the learning process. Very often, we view teachers with an element of suspicion. What needs to be kept in mind is that a large number of parents with a low economic status place an immense amount of trust in these teachers. The horrifying look I saw on many parents’ faces when their child was unable to read or write was indeed heartbreaking. The government school is the only option they have. However, let us not be quick to conclude that private schools are the solution. In fact, students in private schools also do not fare well in these tests. Used to rote learning, students find it difficult to relate to what they learn in situations around them. Subjects like maths are feared the most. It is not always the teachers. The numbers paint a larger picture.
ASER 2007 also highlights the availability of facilities such as toilets, libraries, and mid-day meals at schools. Universal elementary education should not be seen in isolation from these aspects. For a child to remain attentive and healthy, such factors play a crucial role. Their findings point out that the proportion of rural schools (Std 1-4/5) where mid-day meals are served has increased significantly from 71.1% in 2005 to 92.6% in 2007. Availability of useable water and toilet facilities in schools has improved; yet 28% rural schools do not have useable water facilities and 45% schools do not have usable toilets.
My work for one month opened up a whole new world to me. Here I was, visiting places in my hometown that I would have otherwise never even heard of and directly interacting with the very people that we often talk about or read in our classrooms. I was getting details, first hand. It also made me realize how important an asset education is for an economy. We need to do away with the assumption that education is literacy. Education is a powerful tool to gain knowledge only if we train our children to go beyond books and examinations.
Pratham’s work is indeed commendable. 720,000 children might seem a small figure in comparison with our population but it is a big number nonetheless. Their purpose has been to inform the government, civil society and various individuals about the plight of education in India. The real success, for all of us, lies in the development of these children.
Trust me; the best moments are when children smile in realization that they can read and write whatever it is that they want to.Ultimately, it boils down to that.
I guess, the Pratham motto sums it up aptly, “To ensure that every child is going to school….and learning well”
However, for this we each need to come together.
(I am grateful to Mr. Ronald Abraham, ‘Pratham’, for his valuable inputs)