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Universal Literacy-Impediments

Article 45 of the directive principles of state policy proclaims, ‘The state shall endeavor to provide, within a period of 10 years from the commencement of the Constitution, for free and compulsory education for all children until they complete the age of 14.’ After a full six decades, these Constitutional provisions remain faulted, that too, grossly. Close to 50% of the Indian population, this day, remain illiterate. Sensing inadequacy of the dictates of the Directive Principles, the 86th amendment of the Constitution and consequential Right to Children to Free and Compulsory Education of primary schooling by 2007; 8 years of elementary schooling by 2010.

The Right to Education Act can be regarded as one vital piece of legislation to ensure access for all children to quality schooling. It also enjoins the States to ensure every neighborhood a school. It is no more a statutory right under the Act, but a Constitutional right to quality schooling. The HRD Minister talks about the education policy standing on three pillars:

i) Access, ensured by the Right to information Act;

ii) Inclusiveness, provided by a provision in the Act which says private schools must take in 25% of students from neighborhoods belonging to disadvantaged sections of society from class I, and

iii) Quality, claimed to be ensured by the qualification of the teachers. Mr. Kapil Sibal even has the indulgence to claim that the 73rd and the 74th Amendments of the Constitution have put the local panchayats responsible for managing the schools by comprising 75% of the local community.

So far so good. While the proportion of literate children in the 6-14 age group has gone up over the decades, the proportion of dropouts still remain an area of great concern. The Annual Status of Education Report’”2008, on Bihar, a study in association with PRATHAM, an NGO, based in Delhi, estimate the national average of enrolment at 75.4% in 2005. Surprisingly, it was noticed that the rate had gone down to 72.2% in 2008. Bihar, quite contrary to its most educationally backward State tag, recorded a better achievement’”enrolment pc rose from 72 in 2005 to 83.6 in 2008, much higher than the national average. The dropout ratio of girls in 11-14 age groups is pegged at just 8% in 2008, a feat by any comparison.

For a sizeable chunk of children, standard II or V remains the last qualification in their life-time, that too with unimaginably dismal knowledge. The HRD Ministry admits that for every 100 children that go to school, only 13 reach College, and it terms this a ‘National Disaster’. Even by 2020, the Ministry projects a dismal 30% to ‘˜compulsorily reach’ college. Despite these claims and hopes, the ground reality is daunting. Many of those enumerated as literate in the Census, are barely able to inscribe their signature. While one rejoices at the official statistics of the Gross Enrolment Ratio (GER) at the secondary level, improving from 19% in 1990-91, to 40% in 2004-05, one cannot lose sight of the remaining 60%, a huge backlog by any standard. The earlier target of achieving universal literacy by 2010 has already become a case of false expectation. A staggering 70 lakh children in 6-14 age groups were out of school in 2006.

Quality-wise, the situation is worse still. Pratham did a study-Annual Status of Education Report on Primary Education. The revelations are shocking and could be an eye opener for the educational planners and managers. Some interesting findings reported were:

i) 25% of Standard I students in Assam cannot read simple English,

ii) 80% of Standard II students in Assam, again, have trouble in doing elementary subtraction,

iii) 66% of standard II students in Tripura, cannot read Class I text,

iv) 50% of standard I students in Manipur cannot identify English alphabet.

A case of a village called Nadna, 10 km from IIT, Kharagpur, a symbol of the country’s knowledge economy, is heart-rending. The literacy rate is just around 20% or less in the vicinity and that is only a statistical average; the reality is that many of the girls have never been to school. Reason’”the parents have other things to think of and school is certainly not in the priority list. There could be many Nadnas in the country which has a recorded literacy figure of 65% in 2001. In the North East States, though Assam; Meghalaya and Arunachal Pradesh have literacy pc lower than the national average and recalling that these are averages, the challenges for total literacy are enormous.

The HRD Ministry trumpets about well planned interventions for quality teaching in place. They should hopefully be keeping in mind their own findings in earnest. In a report on Elementary education in the country by NUEPA-Ministry of HRD, 2007-08, from a study of a sample of 1.25 lakh schools in 624 districts across 36 States and UTs, the major findings are conspicuous by the enormity of ghastly shortcomings. In Arunachal Pradesh, 67% of the primary schools are run by a single teacher, an average 14% of schools in the country have just one teacher. How does one expect the teacher teaching language, arithmetic, English, going by the standard of such teachers. Absurd! 14% schools have teacher-pupil ratio of 1:60 though the desirable target is 1:40.

Are the children encouraged or coerced to learn the three Rs, likely to finish schooling for life, after reaching standard IV or V in safe hands? For majority of these, the primary stage is the last stage of education, mostly in the municipal run pathsalas, the more elite private schools out of bound. The National Policy on Education (NPE), 1986 emphasizes the need for laying down minimum levels of learning for each stage of school education as a prerequisite for setting performance goals for the teachers. Prof Dave Committee laid down minimum levels of learning for all the pupils who complete primary stage of education to provide provision for equal access and conditions of success to all children irrespective of caste, creed, location or sex. Such a step would help equip children who complete primary education with minimum essential learning outcomes that would enable them to understand their environment more meaningfully and to function as socially useful and contributing adults.

In shaping personality of a child and in all the effective transactions in day to day life situation, four basic skills have been identified. Listening, speaking, reading and writing have been considered most fundamental input and it is to be seen if the present primary education can cater to these requirements. We can see for ourselves if a standard II student is equipped with knowledge of ‘place value of digits’, or ‘measuring length of hand or foot’. Does a cIass-V pupil comprehend ‘average’ or concept of ‘LCM/HCF’? Similarly, in the areas of ‘language learning’, can a class II student, be able to answer questions of ‘what’ and ‘how’ after listening a brief narrative, or can a class IV student understand simple functional rules of sentence construction? The answer is simple:  majority of them cannot comprehend if at all they succeed in getting promotion to higher classes. In this case how will these students fare in the higher classes, where the structured lessons would become more tuff? The Pratham study reveals the utter failure of the elementary schooling system in poor States.

While the GOI talks about quality teaching and quality schools, which in any case would take decades to yield results, that too in select areas, how do the common students in common schools go about? While the case of average-grade students may be ignored in the absence of any alternative, why should the brighter ones, the more prospective students in the same schools or surroundings be allowed to rot?

Maharashtra has an innovative project which other states could emulate. They pull out brighter students from state-run schools and enroll them in select private schools at state cost. They pay Rs. 60, OOO/-per year per student for boarding, lodging and other expenses. The state earmark Rs.28/- cr for 800 children for classes V to X. This scheme costs huge and many of the states wouldn’t be able to afford. It is in these areas that the GOI can come to the assistance of such states and therefore such students who otherwise would be denied the opportunities to blossom. The HRD Minister, in the India Today Conclave, on the Topic-‘The Future of Education’, philosophized,’ I would say that if a nation wants to be wealthy it must invest in knowledge which means investing in our children. When I look UDon education, I look UD on it as determining India’s future.’ Why should not, then, the Maharashtra Model, or some such ones, be adopted under a new financial assistance program?

In the 9th World Convention of International Confederation of Principals, in Singapore, the Prime Minister, Mr. Lee Hsien Loong, while addressing the principals from 40 countries emphasized,’.. Education is the most vital investment societies could make for the future… Government of Singapore made efforts to motivate good students to take UD teaching… ‘˜’Every one in the HRD Ministry wouldn’t deny such a role for the society. The crux lies in the determination of the planners in allocation of commensurate provision in the budget. A study in the Planning Commission in 2009 broadly projected that the country needs Rs 1.45 lakh crores in the 11 th plan to increase the gross enrolment ratio in secondary education then estimated at 40% to 65%. This ratio simply signifies that 60% of children in the relevant age group are not getting enrolled in schools after elementary level. The Centre simply announced that it was not possible to provide such a large amount from the Government alone. The Centre therefore, toyed with the idea of Private Public Partnership (PPP), to encourage private investment in education. The Centre had plans to set up 2500 model schools in the country during the 11 th Plan under PPP ,50% of the seats in each school would be filled up through Government sponsorship. Another 3500 such schools being set up in the government sector. These schools will come up in each block and the private partner ‘would be chosen through a competitive bidding system. We can only watch with hands crossed, as the prospective private partner won’t be tempted to invest in the more backward states and in rural blocks in the region. The children in this region, then, as in the past, would end up half-literate or worse still, illiterate. The situation will remain the same for any other region in the country.

All said and done, we will miss the bus again. The Economic Survey in 2008-09, summarized the scenario,’ Independent surveys have pointed out the impossibility of achieving universal elementary education by the target date.’ It also, more shockingly, pointed at the low level of achievement of the children passing out of the school system.

What solution is in store for the crores of children in the wilderness? The several measures, initiatives launched by the Centre would for sure not reach the lower strata, as has been the reality so long. Some advanced state like NCR, despite housing the best institutions in the country, and therefore the brightest children, is singularly well placed. In 2009, Delhi CM Sheila Dixit with Knowledge Commission Chairman, Sam Pitroda, released a Blueprint for ‘Implementation of Knowledge Commission Recommendations’. The blueprint provides an Action Plan for reforms in school education, higher education and vocational education with focus on ‘expansion, excellence and access.’ There still are grey areas even in Delhi. A telling revelation is:-of the 25 lakh slum dwellers, 2.5 lakh do not go to schools even this day. Most end up as rag pickers or do manual jobs. The reality, simply put, is that

i) we have a huge backlog of illiterate children;

ii) the facilities, the infrastructure in the schools are far from satisfactory;

iii) the quality of teachers and therefore of schooling is poor;

iv) the government; apart from the lack of passion to achieve, can’t provide adequate funds)

v) the private sector won’t come forward to the rescue of the common children.

What do we do then? For the millions of children in the primary stage of education, only the government-run municipal schools should be the savior, whatever is the condition of these schools. There may not be good teachers; even they may be in short supply, the facility may be in poor shape. The children, however, have no choice; they have to come to these schools, unable to go to the more elite private schools. In such a scenario can’t we think of identifying one or two primary schools, located centrally in a constituency, so that students can reach these without much difficulty? Vie can put in position 2 or 3 good teachers by selection from among the dozen or half dozen schools in the constituency without much difficulty. One of these- could be a hard-task head master and they- the 2 or 3 teachers can take care of the more important subjects. Such schools, one can call these Model Schools or some such nomenclature and the brighter students can be encouraged to go to these schools. This will be, better than the general ones, at least here, some semblance of quality would be achieved, rather than leave everything to rot.

*The article is written by S Kunjabihari Singh

(Courtesy: The Sangai Express)

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