Saturday, October 18, 2008

No lessons being learnt

DNA, Mumbai, October 16, 2008

In Loharpura village, Nawada district, south Bihar, over 500 children crowd into half a dozen classrooms in under-construction buildings of a government school. This is the local primary and middle school with classes from standards 1 to 8. Yet there are only four teachers, including the school's principal. By law, there should be four teachers for the primary and 10 for the middle school.

For over a year, children in the primary division have not been served the hot mid-day meal mandated by the Supreme Court. That's because there are no supplies, says the principal. An inspector who surveys 20 schools in the district confirms that none of the schools received supplies for a year. The parents of the children who are listening in to the conversation want to know who is eating up the share of the grain en route? Also, according to law, children should get school uniforms. Have they got these? No, because there are no supplies. Most of the kids come from Dalit families.

This story is not peculiar to Bihar. In every Indian state with low literacy rates, the situation is similar. Schools without teachers, sometimes without buildings, usually without electricity and unable to get even what has been mandated because of entrenched systems of corruption that siphon off development funds.

In nearby Sikandra, the two-storey school building painted a bright pink. Here the full quota of teachers is available and khichdi, the mid-day meal is being cooked. But there is no water, no toilets? That's because the water pump installed outside the school cannot be used as a part was stolen within days of installation. Another pump inside the school building has also been vandalised. So there is water, but it cannot be pumped up. And the toilets built with development funds by a mukhiya who is honest cannot be used as the doors have been stolen and toilets pans smashed.

In thousands of government primary schools and municipal schools across this country, children are enrolled in primary schools. But they learn very little, certainly not enough to lift them out of the poverty and discrimination that has been the fate of their parents. As per data gathered by the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) by Pratham, an organisation that works on the right to education, enrolment has improved but the quality of education has not.

ASER 2007 confirms that there has been a dramatic improvement in enrolment thanks to campaigns like the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan and other efforts, and also a marked improvement in the provision of mid-day meals in government primary schools because of sustained pressure from civil society organisations that moved the Supreme Court. However, the quality of education leaves much to be desired.

According to the ASER survey, 40 per cent of children in Standard V in government primary schools could not read Standard two textbooks and 60 per cent of Standard V students cannot do simple mathematical division. In Standard 2, only 9 per cent were able to read and 60 per cent unable to recognise numbers from 10-99.

Even if more children go to school, and get a reasonably nourishing mid-day meal and uniforms, will it make a difference in terms of their chances to compete later on in life with those who have benefited from a better quality education?

Of course, there is a great variation within states and Bihar, predictably, is at the bottom in terms of both enrolment and quality of education. But what the ASER survey emphasises is that better infrastructure or higher enrolment, are simply not enough unless the quality of teaching improves. It would help if schools had enough teachers who were trained to ensure that the children learn.

(To read the rest of the article, click on the link above)

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