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The recently published Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) tests (where India ranked 71 out of 73 nations) sparked a raging controversy about the adequacy of the Indian education system. A lot of the dismay & rage was on the methods of the study. IMO, there are more fundamental issues we need to look at. Here are my musings on that report.

At the outset, let me say that I am not in the least bit surprised that India scored poorly on the PISA. Indian education is in an advanced stage of chronic illness. It will need very serious visionary thinking and political will to make a change. IMO even the well intentioned Right to Education Act is inadequate as I will discuss later. There are three broad issues affecting quality of education in India. They are

  1. Access
  2. Attendance and
  3. Attainment

I may discuss these separately but they are all interlinked.

A large number of school going children are not even able to access schools; note I am not saying good schools. There are many reasons for this

  • Poor infrastructure – few schools especially in rural and remote tribal areas. Those that are there have poor classrooms, no compounds, no latrines and no drinking water facilities.
  • Parents are not certain about the safety of the girl child travelling to school even if it is only 1/2 km away from home.
  • Apparently simple issues like the need to cross a highway / stream on the way to school keeps kids away.
  • Education PyramidThere is a pyramidical structure as one goes from primary schools up to universities. The system is designed to squeeze out students at each stage (secondary, higher secondary, under graduation, post graduation etc) simply because there are not enough seats available. For some strange reason, education planners have always felt that primary education is enough. These are statistics from Ministry of Human Resource Development circa 2004. 
  • In the name of Right to Education, Government has opened satellite schools in remote areas. These schools are often run by ill trained ‘teachers’ who are paid a pittance. They are often single classroom, multi-grade affairs. The reasoning seems to be that it is alright to fob off those living in remote areas with substandard facilities so long as one can tick the box of having provided a school. These substandard schools lead to poorly educated kids which in turn leads to poverty and an illiteracy trap.

Even if the child does get enrolled in a school, there is no guarantee that (s)he will attend. There are number of factors that keep the child away

  • teachers are held accountable for enrolment, seldom for attendance; they don’t see the need to push.
  • the child needs to work, at home or in the family enterprise (farming, trading etc) or in another enterprise to bring in money to help feed the family.
  • the pedagogy is so boring and the subjects so irrelevant that no self-respecting child will be lured to stay on.
  • teachers are often uninterested in teaching. Their knowledge is limited. They are feared by the students and why would they not. In my wanderings around India over 15 years I have seldom seen a classroom where the teacher did not have a cane on the table. There were occasions when he did not have chalk but he always had a cane. I am speaking from the experience of having been in 100s of classrooms across 10 States in India.
  • teacher truancy – if the teacher skips classes with impunity all the time, why would the kid want to go?

This is the most serious. The Indian education system was designed by the British rulers to create clerks to help the few thousand British administrators run a country of 40 million people. It was not designed to promote thought and encourage a culture of curiosity. As a result in most Indian schools, at least in the Public schools system, the kids do not really attain knowledge and skills commensurate with their age. There are reasons that contribute to this

  • The pedagogy is boring and depends so much on being learning by rote.
  • The evaluations, if they happen, are focussed on a child being able to vomit out what (s)he has learnt by heart. Study of history is reduced to dates and study of language to reciting poems.
  • Most of the kids coming in from poorly educated households do not have the atmosphere at home to aid learning. There are no books. Parents are not capable of evaluating whether the kid is learning anything.
  • The curriculum is designed to leave the kid with no skills or perspectives to be able to build a working life.  This is not only at the schooling level. Think about someone with a Bachelors degree; how often does this person manage to leverage what (s)he has learnt into a career? Even fresh engineers need to be retrained by their employers to make them ‘useful’.

It is a grim picture. That some Indians do well is in spite of the system and not because of it.

There is hope though.

  • In the last decade or so private schools have been mushrooming all over India. They are filling up the gaps – in access and quality that are left by government schools. This is not to say that all private schools deliver on quality, but the saving grace is that they are at least a bit more accountable to parents as compared to the public schools. They do end up excluding the poor because of the costs which means the poor kids still have to depend on the government run system.  An interesting sidelight is that most of these schools offer instruction in English; a testament to aspirations .
  • We have begun to recognise that the education system is not delivering. reports like this one and PROBE (Public Report on Basic Education in India) are bringing matters to the fore.
  • Educators are experimenting with new methods of teaching learning.
  • Some day some one with the power to do something will wake up.

Unless policy makers and Indians are serious about education, we are going to end up with million of either uneducated or ‘educated’ yet unemployable youth – a grand recipe for social unrest.