According to the ‘EFA Global Monitoring Report 2010’ (UNESCO), India’s rank was 105 among 128 countries. And it continues to figure, along with a bunch of African and one or two Asian countries, such as Pakistan and Bangladesh, in the group of countries with a low educational development index (EDI). In 2001 also India ranked 105 among 127 countries. In 2007 India was behind not only countries such as Norway, Japan and Germany that figure at the top, but also several Latin American, African and Asian developing countries. These countries, which are economically poorer than India, include Zambia, Kenya, Ghana, Bhutan, Maldives and Cambodia. Only a score of countries such as Madagascar, Laos, Malawi, Burundi, Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan and Niger are behind India.

All this would be quite puzzling to those who also read at the same time that there has been tremendous progress in India in recent years. That there are variations in the methodology adopted over the years by UNESCO, or that there are problems relating to data, or that there are certain inherent weaknesses in interpreting international rankings of this kind, do not, and should not, console serious policy-makers.

The enrolment ratio in primary education — both gross and net enrolment ratios — has improved over the years. The ‘adjusted’ net enrolment ratio in primary education is 94 per cent in 2007 (this includes children of the relevant age group enrolled in primary or secondary schools), according to the Global Monitoring Report. National data reports present a similar estimate. This figure is much higher than that in Sweden, Switzerland, and many countries that belong to the groups that have high and medium EDI figures. It represents substantial progress over the years.

But India’s performance with respect to all the other three components of EDI, namely, adult literacy, gender-specific EFA (Education for All) index, and “survival rate” to Grade V, is indeed appalling. The gender index is only 0.84 in India, compared to figures above 0.9 in all countries of high and medium EDI countries (except Zambia); only 66 per cent of adults in India are literate, compared to above 80 per cent in most countries that figure among the high and medium EDI groups.

Perhaps the most worrisome of all is the poor survival rate. Only 66 per cent of the children enrolled in Grade I survive to Grade V in India, that is, as much as 34 per cent of the children enrolled in Grade I drop out before reaching Grade V. In all probability they drop out without acquiring any level of progress with respect to the basic three R’s, contributing to the numbers of out-of-school children, to child labour and to the mass of the illiterate population. The survival rate is above 0.9 in most countries with medium and high EDI. A 90 to 95 per cent net enrolment ratio will have no meaning if there is also a 34 per cent dropout rate. Rapid progress in net enrolment ratio is possible, but a more important challenge is to ensure that the children enrolled in schools progress through the system to complete the given cycle of schooling and even beyond.

Earlier research has shown that children drop out of school for three kinds of reasons. The first reason given is that schools are not attractive. A second reason involves economic constraints (poverty, direct costs of schooling and child labour) that do not allow continuation in schools. Thirdly, there are reasons including the lack of a tradition of going to or continuing in schools.

Unattractive school facilities represent the most important reason that pushes children out of schools. Economic constraints also matter very much, though they matter more for enrolment of children in schools than for their continuation in schools. ‘Other’ reasons are not that important.

How attractive are the primary schools? According to the latest statistics available from the Flash Statistics and Analytical Reports on Elementary Education in India (District Information System for Education, published by the National University of Educational Planning and Administration in 2009-10), on an average there are only three classrooms per primary school in India, and there are only three teachers per school. About 14 per cent of the schools have a single classroom each, and single-teacher schools constitute a similar proportion. While the national norm is one teacher for every 40 students in primary schools, 30 per cent of the schools have a ratio above this norm. In some States like Bihar the ratio at the State level is 1:59, where there are 92 students on average per classroom. Only 85 per cent of the schools in the country have drinking water facilities; 37 per cent do not have toilets; only 44 per cent have separate toilet facilities for girls. Hardly one-fourth have electricity connection; only 5.7 per cent have a computer. Hardly half the schools have any medical facilities. About 32 per cent of the primary schools require major or minor repairs to buildings and so on. Many of these figures are national averages. The actual picture at disaggregated levels — regional and by social and economic groups of population — could be more disturbing.

The picture is indeed disturbing as much progress is claimed in the recent years. For example, after the launch in 2002 of the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA) by the Government of India, which was preceded by investment in elementary education under the World Bank-funded project of the DPEP (District Primary Education Project) for about a decade, it is often reported that impressive progress has been made in elementary education in India. This progress is in terms of enrolments, buildings constructed, teachers appointed, amount of grant released/utilised, and so on. Where has all the progress gone?

It may not be altogether correct to state that SSA and other programmes of the Government of India have had no significant impact on the EDI of UNESCO and that they could not change India’s disgraceful relative rank position even by one point. But such a criticism may not look shallow either. Certainly there is a lot to do with respect to improvement of schooling facilities — both physical and human (teacher), and the overall functioning of the system — in order to improve the survival rate. This is necessary to build a strong and meaningful educational edifice in India.

Two statements will be relevant in this context. First, the survival rate of children to the final grade of primary education (sometimes beyond Grade 5) in most of the North American and Western European countries is 99 to 100 per cent; and in these countries the pupil-teacher ratio is below 20. In contrast, the pupil-teacher ratio in Sub-Saharan Africa is 44: it ranges between 24 in Botswana and 90 in the Central African Republic and survival rates hardly touch 70 per cent. Similarly, in India and Pakistan the pupil-teacher ratio is 40 and the survival rates are 67 and 72 per cent respectively. The implication should be clear: a pupil-teacher ratio of around 20 may be taken up as a desirable goal. We need good quality teachers in sufficient numbers. This is a basic prerequisite for quality primary education.

Secondly, when virtually every petroleum outlet in the country, including many in the remote rural areas, could be modernised to international standards, why cannot every primary school be made to match international standards? Operation Blackboard launched after 1986 might have provided basic minimum facilities in most schools, but it has not made schools sufficiently functional and attractive. We may need another such programme to equip schools with beyond the basic minimum level of facilities.

(Jandhyala B.G. Tilak is Professor at the National University of Educational Planning and Administration, New Delhi. e-mail: jtilak@nuepa.org)

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