What Arjun should focus on

Indian Express, May 16, 2006

The Human Resource Minister would do a lot better for backward castes,

minorities, the poor and every other underpriviledged section of

Indian society, if instead of focussing on reservations, he focussed

on the quality of the teaching the government is imparting to young

children. Owing to the lack of focus on the quality of teaching, it is

not clear that the "flagship scheme" for education, the Sarva Shiksha

Abhiyan, is leading to children getting educated.

Expenditure on the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan has grown dramatically

from zero in 2001 to Rs.10,000 crore in the latest budget. The claim

that SSA has transformed Indian education rests on evidence that

enrollment has gone up. Enrollment rates have gone up from 80% to

nearly 100%. For most people, there is a sense of relief that finally

all children are going to school. This generates a willingness to sign

big cheques for SSA and to pay the education cess that funds these


However, enrollment could be driven purely by the attraction of the

midday meal. A program that gives out free meals to children is a

noble cause, but enrollment is clearly not enough. Reports about many

government schools reveal distressing pictures of teachers cooking and

children of various ages having a meal, but barely any quality

teaching going on. To avoid wasting time on cooking, sometimes

students are given weekly rations. This can create a gap between

enrollment and attendence. The Annual Status of Education Report

(ASER) by Pratham shows that in Bihar only 52 percent of the enrolled

students were found to be attending schools. In Rajasthan, UP, West

Bengal, Jharkhand, Orissa and Madhya Pradesh this figure was between

60 to 70 percent.

A series of third party studies reveal a grim picture of how much

children learn. This raises doubts about the effectiveness of SSA

beyond enrollment numbers. The ASER study, for example, shows that 44

percent of children in public schools in Std II to V cannot read

simple paragraphs. Nearly 54 percent children cannot do two-digit

subraction problems. Among older childen, 40 percent of the children

in public schools in Std VI to VIII are unable to handle simple

division problems.

This evidence should raise fresh concerns about the extent to which

SSA is successful at providing education. A few weeks ago there were

full page advertisements in national dailies about the success of SSA

in terms of enrollment, number of schools, teachers etc. Let us not

forget that these, including enrollment, are inputs into the process of

education, they are not outcomes. No evidence was provided about more

children being able to read, write or do math as a result. It is

misleading to imply that something is doing well because it uses up

more inputs. A steel company does not boast about its performance by

announcing that it used more power and iron ore. It boasts about the

steel produced. Moreover, it boasts about its profits by producing

more steel at lower costs.

Yet, in the case of SSA the Ministry of Human Resources advertises

that it spent more. More inputs went into the process of education. It

kept quiet about the results. Is SSA only meant to herd poor children

into school buildings by offering them food so that claims about

enrollment figures can be made? An intriguing question is why has no

assessment of SSA been made in terms of the education it has provided?

Why are there no standardised tests run in schools that are receiving

money from the government? Why is no one saying what SSA has achieved

in terms of what children are learning? Who is afraid of what an

assessment of SSA will show?

Another startling fact that the government chooses to keep quiet about

is the extent to which children are moving away from public

schools. After all, the SSA is only focused on government schools. SSA

is jocularly called "Sarkari Shiksha Abhiyan".

In a recent paper titled 'Private schools serving the poor'

James Tooley and Pauline Dixon of the University of Newcastle Upon

Tyne, new evidence has come to light. This study involved 20

researchers combing 20 square kilometres of slums in North Shahdara

(East Delhi).

They report that only 71 out of the 265 schools they found were

government schools. There were 19 private "aided" schools, 102 private

"recognised" schools and 73 private "unrecognised" schools. However,

SSA only worries about the 71 public schools.

Why are people rejecting government schools? Part of the problem might

be a greater responsiveness to what parents want. Only 2 out of the 71

public schools were English-medium, and 57 were exclusively Hindi. But

parents want their children to learn English. Amongst private schools,

only 55 out of 194 schools were exclusively Hindi.

Tooley & Dixon ran standardised tests on 3,495 children, thus

obtaining data for 24 children per school on average.

In Mathematics, the average score in public schools was 24.5 out of

100. Children in private schools averaged above 40.

In languages, the average score in public schools was 14 (English) and

27 (Hindi). The score in private schools was about 50.

This situation full of irony. The government is sending Rs.10,000

crore into public schools through the SSA program. But to a

significant extent, parents are voting with their feet, paying their

own money, and sending their children to private schools, where their

children obtain superior test scores. The fees paid by parents range

from Rs.150 to Rs.600 per month.

In the states of Uttaranchal, Kerala, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Uttar

Pradesh, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, and Rajasthan,

more than 45% of urban children are now in private schools. This is an

astonishing scale of de-facto privatisation of elementary

education. In these states, the role of private schools exceeds the

level of utilisation of private schools found in what is officially

the "fully privatised" education system of Chile.

Maybe, students would be better off if the government restricted

itself to a system for producing and delivering free meals to

children. The money spent on SSA would be better spent if the

government paid parents Rs.300 per month, and leave them to choose a

school for their children.


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