HOW would you feel if half of the buses and trains supposed to be running on a particular day were cancelled at random every day of the year? And how long do you think such disruption could continue until it created an uproar in Parliament and the national media? At most a day or two. Yet, a similar disruption in the daily lives of children has been happening quietly for years on end. In rural North India, about half of the time, there is no teaching going on in primary schools.
This was one of the key findings of the PROBE survey conducted in 1996-97 in Hindi-speaking States. A resurvey conducted 10 years later (in 2006) found that nothing had changed in this respect half of the government schools still had no teaching activity when the investigators arrived. Whatever else had changed, classroom-activity levels had not improved.
This pathetic state of affairs threatens to ruin the lives and future of children in India who come to school with eager hopes. In a functioning democracy, this would be a major national concern. Yet, little notice has been taken of it in the corridors of power. The rhetoric of elementary education as a fundamental right goes along with a stubborn failure to make the schooling system work.
The schooling situation, however, is not immutable. In fact, many positive changes have taken place over the past decade. There is clear evidence of this from the two surveys mentioned earlier.
To start with, school participation has improved dramatically. Twenty per cent of children in the 6-12 age group were out of school in 1996. In 2006, we found that hardly 5 per cent of such children were not enrolled in school. For the first time, the goal of universal school participation appeared to be within reach.
Along with this, stark social disparities in school enrolment have virtually disappeared at the primary level, whether it is the gap between boys and girls or that between children from different castes. Enrolment rates among Scheduled Caste children (94 per cent) and Muslim children (95 per cent) were as high as the sample average for all children (95 per cent). Enrolment among Scheduled Tribe children, however, was lower, at 89 per cent.
Further, this surge in school participation reflects a range of positive initiatives during the past 10 years or so. Some examples follow.
Schooling infrastructure has expanded rapidly. There was an impressive increase in the number of primary schools between 1996 and 2006. One out of every four government schools in existence today was set up in the last decade. And schools today have more and better facilities and amenities. For instance, the proportion of schools with at least two pucca rooms went up from 26 per cent in 1996 to 84 per cent in 2006. Nearly three-fourths of all schools now have drinking water facilities. Toilets have been constructed in over 60 per cent of all schools.
School incentives are reaching many more. This has reduced the costs of schooling and contributed to higher school participation. For instance, free textbooks and uniforms are being widely provided in schools today. In 1996, free uniforms were provided in only 10 per cent of primary schools. By 2006, they were provided in more than half the schools. Similarly, in 1996, fewer than half the schools reported distribution of free textbooks. Today, almost all schools 99 per cent do so.
School meals are also in place in most schools and they are a big hit. In 1996, the dry ration scheme was operational in 63 per cent of the primary schools. By 2006, the dry ration scheme had been replaced by hot, cooked meals. These were served regularly in 84 per cent of the schools we visited. Children enjoy the meals, and this has definitely contributed to the surge in enrolment. Midday meals were, however, least regular in Bihar and Jharkhand, where leakages are reported to have been large enough to bring the programme to a halt in half the schools surveyed.
No doubt, some of these achievements have been facilitated by the overall economic growth, the improvements in parental literacy and the rapid expansion of infrastructure and connectivity.
But they also reflect a range of public initiatives, such as the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (launched in 2002), Supreme Court orders on midday meals, and stronger campaigns for the right to education.
Dedicated efforts from many committed officials, parents, teachers, unions and communities have also contributed to the new vibrancy of elementary schooling in India. It is this renewed momentum that gives hope in the possibility of injecting new life into the classroom as well.
While school participation has sharply risen in the past 10 years, classroom activity has not improved. This problem has several aspects.
Enrolment does not mean attendance
To begin with, enrolment does not mean attendance. Almost everywhere, we found that childrens attendance as noted in the school register was far below the enrolment. Only around 66 per cent of children enrolled in the primary classes were marked present. And actual attendance, as observed by the field investigators, was even lower. Some children are only nominally enrolled; others are enrolled in both government and private schools; and still others attend only irregularly.
Schools were generally functional (an achievement of sorts, compared with the situation in 1996), but there were still instances where children could not attend school even if they wished. In a school in a tribal hamlet in Bhabua in Bihar, the school remained closed for three consecutive days as the head-teacher had not come.
Attendance does not imply learning
Even in functional schools, levels of teaching activity were abysmally low. One reason is the widespread shortage of teachers. Even though there was a major increase in the number of teachers appointed, the pupil-teacher ratio in the survey areas showed little improvement over the years. The proportion of schools with only one teacher appointed also showed no improvement in the 10 years. It remained at 12 per cent. While additional teachers have been appointed in the earlier group of single-teacher schools, many of the new schools currently being opened are single-teacher schools.
The situation is aggravated by the fact that teachers are often absent, or come late and leave early. The survey found that an additional 21 per cent of schools were functioning as single-teacher schools because of teacher absenteeism on the day of the unannounced visit by the investigators.
Even in cases where teachers were present, they were not necessarily teaching. In one instance, the head-teacher was on leave and three of the remaining five teachers who were present were standing in the playground and talking among themselves when the investigators reached the school. Some children were sitting on benches and chatting, while others were roaming around the school campus. As mentioned earlier, such instances (where schools were devoid of teaching activity at the time of the investigators visit) were found in close to half of all schools surveyed. But there were also many schools where some teachers were teaching and some were not.
Teaching activity is particularly limited for the very young those enrolled in Classes 1 and 2. Instead of being given extra attention to equip them with self-confidence as they negotiate a new and alien terrain, these young children were largely ignored. Children in older classes were more likely to be taught (see below).
Learning is not enlightenment
Even in schools where teaching was going on, children were getting a raw deal. Mindless rote learning still dominated the classroom. We came across children chanting mathematical tables for several hours. Children read paragraphs from their book after having memorised it. When asked even a simple question, they faltered; when asked to read anything outside the text, they often could not. We frequently found children copying blindly from the blackboard or the textbook without comprehending it.
It is therefore not surprising that children learnt little in most schools. Even in terms of the elementary 3 Rs (reading, writing and arithmetic), learning achievements were very poor. We found that 80 per cent of the children in Classes 4 or 5 could do simple addition and 60 per cent could do simple subtraction. However, when it came to even single digit multiplication, the proportion dropped to 55 per cent. And only half could do a simple division by 5. Further, a large proportion of children was unable to read and write, or answer simple questions, even after four or five years at school. For instance, nearly 62 per cent of children studying in Class 4 or 5 in a government school could not read a simple story. And more than 80 per cent could not write the answer to a simple question. Unfortunately, years of schooling and grades completed continue to remain an unreliable guide to what children learn and know.
Is there any quick fix to revive classroom activity in Indian schools? Some have been tried but with limited results.
During the last 10 years, there have been mass appointments of local contract teachers (shiksha karmis, shiksha mitras, para-teachers, and so on) at salaries far below those paid to permanent teachers in the same government schools. In the government primary schools surveyed, contract teachers accounted for nearly 40 per cent of all teachers. Local selection by the gram panchayats and the contractual nature of their appointment were expected to make these teachers more accountable. Many State governments also saw this as a means of expanding teacher cadres at a relatively low cost.
Educationists, however, have raised several concerns about contract teachers. In the initial stages, contract teachers were appointed to assist regular teachers, who were more experienced. But in many schools now, contract teachers handle pupils on their own. Most new recruits get trained through distance education and short bursts of in-service training. Without adequate qualifications, training and support, teaching standards are unlikely to be high.
The survey also found that the majority of contract teachers were from the more privileged social groups. Such recruits are unlikely to be accountable to parents and children from the less privileged social groups. The presumption that gram panchayats will hold them accountable on behalf of the parents is often misplaced, as panchayat leaders themselves often identify more with the contract teachers than with the underprivileged children.
Permanent teachers often fail to fulfil their mandate. But to replace them with contractual staff is no guarantee of better results. In some of the schools surveyed, the contract teachers were certainly more active than the permanent staff; but there were other schools where they were protected by influential people in the village and were highly unaccountable. Their limited qualifications, inadequate training and low salaries also affected the quality of their work.
Token community participation
Another possible basis of greater teacher accountability is community involvement in school management. Under Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, decentralised management was promoted through the setting up of different community organisations and committees, including village education committees (VECs), school monitoring committees (SMCs) and school education committees (SECs). In fact, it was found that almost all schools 96 per cent of them had such committees in place. In many cases, the committees had worked to improve physical infrastructure in the school, select contract teachers and supervise midday meals.
However, these committees had not been effective in improving the levels of teaching activity. Once again, unequal power relations interfered with the presumed channels of accountability. Power in most committees rested with the president (generally the sarpanch) and the secretary (generally the head-teacher), who need to be held accountable in the first place. With the exception of parent-teacher associations (PTAs), the representation of parents in these committees was found to be nominal and their active involvement was rare. The survey found numerous instances where committee members did not even know that their names had been included in the committee.
Madhya Pradesh was more active than other States in promoting PTAs. Office-bearers of PTAs included the head-teacher as well as elected parents of the children enrolled in the school. While elections were keenly contested, the majority of parents of children enrolled in government schools did not belong to dominant social groups in the village and so found it difficult to play a leadership role or a monitoring role.
This does not detract from the importance of community participation in reviving classroom activity. But active and informed community participation requires much more than token committees, especially in Indias divided and unequal social context.
Another quick fix is greater reliance on private schools. It is widely assumed that private schools function better than government schools because they are accountable to the parents. Indeed, the survival of a private school depends on attracting children, and this requires some classroom activity since parents are unlikely to pay the fees unless their children learn. The fact that private schools are proliferating, not only in urban areas but also in rural areas, often creates an impression that they are the solution.
A closer look at the evidence, however, does not support these rosy expectations. It may well be true that classroom activity levels are often higher in private schools than in government schools. However, the quality of private schools varies a great deal, and the cheaper ones (those that are accessible to poor families) are not very different from government schools. Their success in attracting children often hinges more on deception (for example, misleading claims of being English medium or even convent schools) than on actual quality.
Further, a privatised schooling system is fundamentally inequitable as schooling opportunities depend on ones ability to pay. It also puts girls at a disadvantage: boys accounted for 74 per cent of all children enrolled in private schools in the 2006 survey (compared with 51 per cent of children enrolled in government schools). By perpetuating existing social inequalities, private schooling defeats one of the main purposes of universal elementary education breaking the old barriers of class, caste and gender in Indian society.
Last but not least, it is worth noting that in spite of the recent mushrooming of private schools, the large majority of children in rural India are still in government schools. In fact, according to the surveys mentioned earlier, there was little change in this respect between 1996 and 2006: in both years, about 80 per cent of school-going children were enrolled in government schools.
This situation is likely to continue in the foreseeable future, and makes it imperative to do something about classroom activity levels in government schools instead of giving up on them.
It is interesting that all these quick fixes (contract teaching, community participation and private schools) have capsized on the rock of social inequality. This hurdle needs to be confronted head on if real change is to be achieved.
Ten years ago, the Public Report On Basic Education (PROBE Report based on the PROBE survey) highlighted Himachal Pradeshs remarkable achievements in the field of elementary education, even describing it as a schooling revolution. It was heartening to find, in 2006, that Himachal Pradesh was still doing very well. Indeed, it was found that 99 per cent of all children (in the age group of 6-12 years) were enrolled. And more importantly, 92 per cent of the enrolled children were present in school on the day of the unannounced visit as against 66 per cent in the other States. It was also found that a much lower proportion of schools than in other areas had no teaching activity at the time of the unannounced visit. Interestingly, this success is not based on any quick fix but on responsible management of a traditional schooling system, based on government schools and regular teachers, with a little help from a relatively egalitarian social context.
Only 15 per cent of the teachers were contract teachers. We did not come across persistent evidence of apathy and underperformance. VECs and PTAs were generally functional, and many were engaged in school monitoring as well as other activities. This is not to say that all is well with the schooling system in Himachal Pradesh. For instance, we came across a primary school where there was no teaching activity and another where a single teacher was handling 43 children spread over five classes. Nevertheless, such instances were few.
The last chapter of the PROBE Report, published in 1999, was Change is Possible. In many ways, this assertion has come true. Much has indeed changed for the better in the schooling system during the past 10 years or so. The recent surge in school participation is an outcome of these positive changes. Who would have thought 10 years ago that 95 per cent of Indian children would be in school today, with relatively little difference (at the primary stage) between different communities?
However, rapid change in some areas has gone hand in hand with resilient inertia in others. The absence of any improvement in classroom activity is perhaps the most alarming aspect of this pattern. The need of the hour is to consolidate the momentum of positive change and extend it to new areas particularly that of quality education. Restoring accountability in the schooling system is not a simple matter, but where there is a will, there is a way. The first step is to stop tolerating the gross injustice that is being done to Indian children today. Wasting their time day after day in idle classrooms is nothing short of a crime.