Making kids go to school
Rajiv Desai

Without going into arcane analysis, I want to highlight a report, ASER 2005 (Annual Survey of Education Report), produced by Pratham, the Infosys of NGOs.

Between November 14 and December 20, 2005, more than 20,000 volunteers, egged on by Pratham, fanned out into the romantic rural areas of our fair land to find out how the elementary education system is doing. The government spends hundreds of thousands of crores of rupees on schools for children between six and 14. The Pratham survey was a snapshot of the system at the end of the year 2005.

Among its findings was that nearly 94 per cent of the age group was enrolled in schools and the drop out rate was less than three percent. The statistics gladdened my heart because 13 years ago, I was involved in a UNICEF initiative that advocated universal elementary education.

Our plan was to persuade the government to make education compulsory for children between the ages from six to 14. As such we were concerned about enrolment and dropout rates.

The Pratham survey seems to validate our efforts in the early 1990s and in many ways, suggests that the campaign was wildly successful.

However, Pratham was not focused on enrolment and retention of students; it went a step beyond into assessing how much children learn in government schools. The 2005 year-end survey was limited to rural schools.

Each volunteer administered simple reading, writing and numbers tests to more than 330,000 children in 190,000 households in 485 villages. The tests were conducted at two levels from simple recognition of alphabets and numbers to reading and writing simple paragraphs and doing simple calculations with numbers.

According to ASER, less than a third of school-going children between the ages of seven and 14 could accomplish the first level tests and  fewer managed to achieve the second tier of reading and arithmetic.

About writing skills, Pratham’s Madhav Chavan told me writing skills were difficult to evaluate. “But our experience is that a child who can read, can write,” he said.

The results, while disappointing, are not the story. What’s significant about Pratham’s ASER 2005 is that, for the first time, it has focused attention on measuring outcomes.

As such, it is a pointer to the education bureaucracy that there is need to go beyond simply enrolment and drop out rates; a conspicuous shift away from quantity measures to qualitative ones. I am certain that the government will welcome the report because it overtly committed itself to a governance strategy that focuses not just on outlays but on outcomes.

ASER 2005 also revealed that nearly 80 percent of teachers attend schools regularly. The availability of teachers was a huge concern during the UNICEF campaign for the universalising of elementary education. ASER found that less than 10 per cent of government schools do not have teachers.

Disturbingly, they could be held responsible for the survey’s finding about the inability of the vast majority of school-children to read, write and count. That might be somewhat unfair because learning is a complex process that involves not only children and their teachers but families as well.

Pratham’s survey could well become the breakthrough that helps government in the states and at the Centre demand an accounting for the nearly 55,000 crores they together spend on elementary education.

If the government accepts the ASER findings in the right spirit, it can begin to get away from the quantity approach to issues of quality. These could be teacher issues that go beyond mere attendance to effectiveness; supply and demand concerns that focus on why children do not attend school or drop out; physical facility issues focus not just on school buildings, water and toilets but also include curricula—what children learn.

Judging from what Montek Singh Ahluwalia, deputy chairman of the Planning Commission, said at the ASER release in New Delhi last week, the government has welcomed the Pratham report. Speaking at the event, he said the report could help government policy follow a natural progression: from ensuring that children enroll and remain at school to focus on quality issues such as learning and self-development.

Ahluwalia, who has emerged as the face of governance in the UPA regime, said the survey fits right in with the shift of thinking in government: from outlays to outcomes.
Indeed, ASER 2005 is a step forward in the evolution of government policy in secondary education.

It could help the government re-focus its policy from quantitative considerations to qualitative issues such as learning and curricula. It that’s not development, I don’t know what is.


Daily News & Analysis Tuesday, January 24, 2006 9:07:00 PM

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