By Mini Shrinivasan
According to the 2001
Census, 65 per cent of Indians are literate. And almost every child now
has access to a school, with around 95 per cent of our rural population
having a primary school within one kilometre of their habitation. This
is a significant achievement. But the big questions are: does the
socio-economic condition of children allow them to go to those schools?
How many drop out within a year or two? And what is the quality of
education available at these schools?
school for every child / The big
questions / Why are
children not in school? / The
quality of education/ Who is
accountable? / Political
and economic climate / Priorities
The 2001 Census
figures show that the literacy rate in India has improved further to
65.38 per cent. The gap between male and female literacy is also
decreasing with the figures now standing at 75.85 and 54.16 per cent
respectively. There is, however, a wide disparity in the literacy rates
of different states - Kerala has achieved 90 per cent literacy while
Bihar has only 38.5 per cent. (http://www.accu.or.jp/litdbase/stats/ind/index.htm)
On India's 50th
anniversary of independence, we scored another 50. Fifty per cent of
the population was literate by that time, against 18 per cent in 1947.
Do we have 50 per
cent literacy? Or 50 per cent illiteracy?
FOR EVERY CHILD
The links between
education and reduction in the rate of population growth, between
education of women and family health, between education and equitable
economic growth etc are by now well-documented in many third world
countries. Elementary education is considered a basic developmental
right of every child. Article 45 of the Indian Constitution states
that, "The State shall strive to provide free and compulsory education
to all citizens up to the age of 14." At present, all political parties
have expressed their commitment to convert this Directive Principle
into the Fundamental Right to Education. This famous 83rd Amendment,
introduced in 1997, has not yet been enacted, but hopefully will soon
Meanwhile, in the 50
years since the Constitution was adopted, access to elementary
education has indeed increased dramatically. The Sixth All India
Educational Survey (NCERT, 1993) states that there were 570,455 primary
schools (schools up to class IV or V) in India by 1993 and 705,834
schools with primary sections. There were 162,805 upper primary schools
(schools up to class VII) and 224,544 schools with upper primary
sections. By 1993, 94.45 per cent of the rural population already had
access to a primary school or section within one kilometre of their
habitation and 84.98 per cent of the rural population had access to
upper primary schooling facilities within three kilometres of their
habitation. When we look at the daunting size of this country and its
population, this is no mean achievement. It needs to be firmly kept in
mind as an indication of the successes possible through the commitment
of successive governments to providing elementary education to the
children of India.
The management of
these schools is a vast and varied patchwork of agencies, both
government and non-government. Basically, while the Centre is
responsible for providing general direction in terms of educational
policy and curriculum, education is predominantly a state subject, and
the running of this vast school network is the responsibility of
individual state governments. This is done in two ways: either by
directly running schools, or by supporting privately-run schools
through grants. A very small number of schools in each state are
completely independent of government funding, and only these can really
be called private schools.
Broadly, the vast
majority of the population, both rural and urban, sends its children to
government-run schools, as these are free, ie they do not charge fees.
However, given that the quality of education in these schools is
usually quite poor, the fast-increasing middle class prefers to send
its children to the government-aided, privately-run schools. The third
category, the private schools, caters to the elite upper-class
If one were to
identify the single most important achievement in the field of
education by the government in the post-Independence era, it would have
to be putting a school within reach of almost every child.
Of course, a school
within reach is not the end - it is only the beginning. The significant
- Does the
socio-economic situation make it possible for that child to actually go
- Is what
happens there attractive and relevant enough to keep that child in
school for at least seven years?
- In these seven
years, does the child gain anything of significance and value in her
While there is an
increasingly apparent focus on these issues, both in government and in
civil society, the answers to these questions are at present an
alarming but definite NO.
Consider these facts:
- In 1993,
enrollment in Class Five was 54.63 per cent of enrollment in Class One.
rates are officially admitted to be as high as 35 per cent.
independent tests of achievement levels continue to show dismally low
levels of achievement in the basic literacy skills.
The access to
education that the girl-child has is another area of concern.
CED Documentation is for your personal
reference and study only
- It is
estimated that for every 100 girls that enroll in school in rural
India, 40 will reach class IV, 18 will reach class VIII, nine will
reach class IX, and only one will make it to class XII.
- Though the
national rates of female and male literacy show a decreasing
difference, states like Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh,
Rajasthan and West Bengal still have several districts where female
literacy is less than 30 per cent. (http://www.indianngos.com/issue/miscissuee-l/literacyarticle.htm)
This is because,
given restricted resources, it is the education of the boy-child that
is given priority.
WHY ARE CHILDREN NOT IN SCHOOL?
Do children fail to attend school because they are forced by economic
circumstances to work? Or do they work because the system allows them
to stay out of school, which is boring and irrelevant to their lives in
any case? The truth, surprisingly, lies closer to the latter statement.
One of the
eye-opening findings in the Public Report on Basic Education, the PROBE
report, (OUP 1999: brief summary available on www.ashanet.org) is that
only one to five per cent of out-of-school children are actually
involved in earning significant wages. Many of the children working up
to eight hours a day were not earning any significant income as they
were involved in jobs like looking after their siblings, cattle grazing
etc. and not in wage-earning labour. Another surprising and heartening
finding was that 98 per cent of parents felt that education was
necessary for boys, and 89 per cent felt it was necessary for girls.
It is not
factual, therefore, to cite poverty and ignorance as the main causes
for poor school attendance and large-scale drop outs.
The increase in
drop out rates can also be due to the unattractiveness of the school
and teaching processes. The PROBE report recorded startling data about
the lack of or dysfunctional state of basic amenities in many schools.
As many as 52 per cent lacked playgrounds, 89 per cent did not have
toilets and 59 per cent did not have drinking water. As for teaching
aids, 26 per cent did not have blackboards, 59 per cent had no access
to maps and charts, 67 per cent lacked any kind of teaching kits, and
75 per cent had no toys for the children. In 77 per cent of the
schools, there were no libraries.
also noted that when the team dropped in at the schools, only 53 per
cent of the teachers were actually involved in teaching. The rest were
either in the head teachers' rooms, or standing outside the class,
talking with other teachers, or involved in other non-teaching
child-rights organisations are very clear about one thing: free,
compulsory and quality elementary education is the first and most
important step in the fight to eradicate child labour. In The Child
and State in India (OUP, 1991), Myron Weiner makes clear the
direct impact that compulsory education policies have had on reduction
of child labour in other developing countries. While one may take issue
with his thesis that the vast gap between official rhetoric and policy
on child labour is a deliberate attempt by all sections of the middle
class to maintain the status quo, there is no question that
unless the State takes it upon itself to ensure that each child is in
school, child labour is going to continue unabated. (See
www.labourfile.org, Campaign Against Child Labour, CACL)
public demand for the passing of the 83rd amendment is an essential
step to make this a reality. Critics of this move have rightly pointed
out that given what actually happens in most schools, this is not
something we want to force on our children through the Constitution!
So, the issue of the quality of education needs to be tackled
QUALITY OF EDUCATION
The basic school curriculum has evolved from colonial times, and 'what
is to be taught' remains in essence a colonial view, deliberately
disassociated from whatever knowledge and skills already existed in
India. It is hardly surprising that the large proportion of what is
taught is completely alien and alienating to the average Indian child.
The hapless middle class child doggedly goes through school anyway,
because she or he has no choice. However, the poor child, the
first-generation learner, often takes the easy way out and stays away.
This is not
to say that we need to have a different curriculum for the rich and for
the poor -- definitely not. The children of the poor cannot be
shortchanged in the name of local relevance, non-formal education, etc.
In fact, a lot of confusion and well-intentioned bumbling is going on
in this area right now. For example, 'non-formal education' is often
posited against 'formal schooling', implying that the latter is
stifling, irrelevant and undesirable by definition, and that the former
is necessarily good. Obviously this is not the case. If made truly
relevant, interesting, child-centred and attractive to learners and
parents, formal schooling can provide the poor child with a solid
educational base that is in no way inferior to that available to her
richer compatriot. On the other hand, non-formal programmes can, and
often do, easily end up being extremely loose, without specific
targets, and finally cheat the child of even basic literacy skills.
provide equity in basic education, what is needed is a combination of
the best of both approaches. On the solid framework of a core
curriculum needs to be built a child-friendly, locally-relevant
structure that is welcoming and appealing for the first-generation
The government has been making great efforts in the past few years to
improve this situation by trying to develop a core curriculum, or
minimum levels of learning, which will ensure a basic equity in
learning, and which can then be adapted locally and made more
meaningful. Government-initiated teacher training programmes also
emphasise 'child-centred, activity-based' learning. New and better
textbooks have been developed by most states. (See www.dpepmis.org )
However, these efforts have by and large been only theoretical. The
vast majority of schools continue to burden the child with vast amounts
of useless information, resulting in a crisis in confidence among rural
and urban learners from poor families.
The issue to be addressed is that the system, though well aware of the
problems and the solutions, remains unaccountable. Teachers and the
school are simply not held responsible for what the average learner
Of great importance in this situation is the increased awareness among
parents, especially poor parents, that they are being shortchanged. A
climate is slowly developing in which parents feel that they can demand
accountability from the system that promises to educate their children,
and can have a say in what and how their children are taught. This is
the most hopeful sign of change, and is being greatly helped along by
community-based organisations and NGOs.
process of decentralisation, which puts increasingly more power in the
hands of local bodies, is a step that can only help this process. For
example, the Village Education Committee is now a statutory body,
consisting of members of the village panchayat (the elected
local government in a village), the village primary school, and local
women's group. Parent-teacher associations at the village level are
also mandatory. Of course, community involvement can also serve to
perpetuate existing casteist and patriarchal attitudes. It is not
enough to put control of education in the hands of existing local
hierarchies; it must be truly in the hands of the people.
POLITICAL AND ECONOMIC CLIMATE
Primary education, as all basic necessities for the poor in India, is
inextricably bound up with the existing political and economic climate.
The impact of globalisation is being acutely felt, with the World Bank
dictating the forms that the so-called 'social safety net' should take.
Enormous externally funded primary education programmes with dubious
benefits are generating a large amount of research and information, but
are only helping to obfuscate the main issues of relevance and
accountability. Large-scale projects targeting girls, backward castes
etc may disguise the fact that public spending on education is
expenditure on education is extremely low (3.5 per cent of GNP) for a
country that has such a large stake in winning the battle against
illiteracy. The share of Plan allocations to education declined from
7.8 per cent in the First Plan to 2.7 per cent in the Sixth Plan.
Though it increased to 4.9 per cent in the Eighth Plan, it is still
well below the First Plan allocation. Similarly, the share of
elementary education decreased from 56 per cent in the First Plan to as
low as 24 per cent in 1966-69. It has since gone up to 42 per cent in
the Eighth Plan, but is still lower than in the First Plan. While it
may be argued that decline in central spending is a step towards
decentralisation, there is a general fear that in the new economic
climate, government spending on primary education will remain stagnant,
or even decrease. This will put education out of the reach of the poor
family since it will fall into private hands where the profitability of
a school will be its major raison d'être.
source of concern is the politicisation of the framing of the national
curriculum. Skewed views of what constitutes 'Indian culture' threaten
to undermine the possibilities of education as a force for liberation
of thought and for social change.
PRIORITIES FOR ACTION
In the light of the situation described above, what are the priorities
before the organisations seeking to improve the opportunities for and
quality of education for all children?
· More transparency
The first priority is to place before the public a clearer picture of
the situation, ensuring a better critical analysis of the reams of
reassuring data that is being constantly generated by the government's
new Educational Management Information Systems machinery. Claims of the
phenomenal success of various schemes for improving enrolment and
attendance, of the amazing improvements in learner achievement, and of
the increased involvement of the 'community', rarely stand up to even
the most cursory critical study. These need to be widely discussed.
report, a detailed and scientific attempt of this kind, has sunk
without a trace after the initial hue and cry. We need to have a more
systematic and large-scale discussion of some of the facts in the
report. For instance, the average number of school-going years for a
female is 1.8 and for a male, 2.9. The report also says that only about
1 to 5 per cent of children who are out of schools are engaged in
wage-earning labour. So what are these children doing and why are they
outside classrooms? How do these facts check out against the claims
· Involvement of those directly
Secondly, the involvement of those sections of the community which have
a stake in a better education for their children, ie the rural and
urban poor and the dalits, needs to be mobilised. This may be
supportive or confrontational, as the local situation demands. In a
democracy that has come of age, there can surely be more instances like
the one in a remote village in Maharashtra where the village people put
a lock on the school and refused to let the teacher enter to sign the
muster until their demands for a better school were met. Community
involvement should not be used as an excuse for the State to shrug off
responsibility in an area that, along with health, is surely the most
important social responsibility of an elected government. The role of
the community and community-based non-government organisations should
be that of demanding the best possible education for their children and
ensuring that they get it. They should support government efforts by
ensuring enrolment and attendance, providing assistance to teachers,
contributing to the improvement of the school building, and keeping
close watch on the quality of education being provided to their
· Creative inputs in curriculum design
The third area where the involvement of non-government agencies will
prove of critical importance is in evolving curricula and pedagogy
suitable for local needs and demands, while keeping in mind the
important issue of equity in educational opportunities. The old
established State institutions for educational research have repeatedly
shown themselves incapable of genuine innovation, being by and large
content with periodically bringing out further batches of 'old wine in
new bottles'. The community-based organisations and people's movements
are not, for the most part, equipped with the technical expertise and
the broader national and international perspectives needed to develop
appropriate curricula and pedagogy for local needs within the larger
mainstream. Specialist technical support organisations, along with
colleges and departments of education and social work in universities,
have a crucial role to play in this area.
This is also the
area where non-government organisations can play a useful and
appropriate role. This would create a space for them to work positively
and dynamically in the field of education, and at the same time ensure
that the government does not abdicate its social responsibility in the
name of structural adjustments, globalisation, privatisation or
whatever new jargon emerges to explain away that abdication.
· Towards total literacy
The National Literacy Mission launched in 1988 aimed at attaining
functional literacy for 100 million people in the age group 15-35 by
the year 1999. The current target is to attain 100 per cent adult
literacy by 2005. The NLM defines a literate person as one who can
"with understanding both read and write a short simple statement on
his/her everyday life." However, it is true that in many cases literacy
ends with being able to sign one's name.
The Total Literacy
Campaign of 1989 in Ernakulam in Kerala state is taken as the model.
The NLM also emphasises Post-Literacy and Continuing Education for the
neo-literate through the establishment of Jan Shikshan Nilayam in 1998.
The goal is to help the neo-literates retain literacy skills and to
establish adult education programmes. Of the people covered under the
programme, 60 per cent are women, 22 per cent are scheduled castes and
13 per cent are scheduled tribes. The effective implementation of these
programmes also needs to be addressed.
www.childrensrightsindia.org, www.unicef.org, www.cry.org)