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
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
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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