(The second and concluding part of an article on a programme by Pratichi Trust (India) to examine, assess and scrutinise the schooling system in eastern India, beginning with West Bengal and a part of Jharkhand. The first part was published on the Op-Ed page yesterday, December 19.)

Among other factors, class-related disadvantage and its correlates call for a variety of remedial measures

Streamlining and simplifying curricular demands at the primary stage of education would worry some people who see ambitious attempts, even if not successful, as good ways to perform better. We are not against anyone trying to do more than what is required from compulsory school curriculum. If intelligently planned, a reduction of curricular load could still leave open the opportunity for better performing students to try more, particularly at home, perhaps with guidance from teachers. What is argued here is that for normal primary education, “home tasks” should be completely unnecessary (but supplementary study at home would not, of course, be “banned” for those who would want to do more). In particular, the students’ success at examinations and school tests should not have to rely on what they have to do at home, outside the school.

This is the way Europe and America have educated their children in primary schools when they were at the same stage of educational development as India is today, and this is how they still do it across the world right now to make basic school education accessible to all, even though the ability of the families themselves to help young children with home work has grown as the overall population has become more and more literate. Home tasks for schoolchildren begin at various ages across the world, but hardly ever at the very basic stages of early primary education, where the concentration has to be on reading, writing and simple arithmetic. This is where the particular issue of curricular overload in early primary education in India is critically important.

The Pratichi Trust (India) report discusses some issues of overload that are particularly worth addressing. However, for effective planning and implementation, it would be necessary to investigate carefully the issue of syllabus reform for early primary education, bearing in mind the major goal of making children able to learn the elementary skills of the three Rs on which everything else depends. There should be no room here for dependence on -- and demand for -- home tasks for very young children, for which parental help may be necessary (which many parents cannot give), or assistance from private tutors (which most parents cannot afford). There is a great deal of expertise on the subject among teachers and educational experts -- and among many parents -- and it should not be too difficult to rise to the challenge of reasoned curricular reform, with a view to altering fundamentally the dysfunctional system of primary education we have in operation at this time.

No one should expect that the practice of private tuitions would go away with proper curricular reform (the attraction of competitive advantage of the privately tutored would be hard to eradicate). But the basic dependence on private tuition for elementary education -- for what could easily be done in the class -- has to be eliminated through a variety of means, in which curricular reform has to be included. This is a crucial issue that has not been discussed adequately in critically appraising what has gone wrong in the delivery of primary education in India in general, and in West Bengal in particular.

Class divisions

The differential reach of primary education emerges strikingly in our studies. Bearing in mind the fact that belonging to the Scheduled Castes or Scheduled Tribes, and coming from Muslim families, is not merely an indicator of caste or community background, but also, statistically, something of a proxy for class-related handicap, we can use the differences in educational performance of these groups, vis-a-vis others, as partly a reflection of class handicap. It is thus important to note that while 13 per cent of SC children in classes 3 and 4 could not read, and 25 per cent of Muslim children and 29 per cent of ST children could not either. For the rest of the population this proportion was merely 8 per cent.

Similarly, compared with 8 per cent of the group of “others” in classes 3 and 4 who could not write, 13 per cent of SC children, 27 per cent of Muslim children and 43 per cent of ST children could not manage any writing. While there is nothing to celebrate in the fact that 8 per cent of children other than from SC, ST and Muslim families could not read or write, the much higher proportions of educational failure of deprived groups demand concentrated and urgent attention.

Focus on SSKs

This general picture of class-related disadvantage (along with its correlates) calls for a variety of remedial measures. We have stressed in previous reports the importance of having greater facilities in schools and Sishu Shiksha Kendras (SSKs) in which the proportion of class-disadvantaged children is high and which are often neglected in terms of amenities. The SSKs in particular demand special attention, and would need to be upgraded at some stage as regular primary schools, both for the purpose of general enhancement of facilities, but also because SC, ST and Muslim children depend on them disproportionately. Schooling can be a major force in breaking down class barriers, and we have to be especially careful that instead of that, the educational system with differential facilities does not end up perpetuating the rigidity of class boundaries. It is also important to establish minimal norms, such as having at least one teacher per classroom.

The issue of home tasks and private tuition also relates to the question of class divisions. The need for “home tasks” is particularly difficult to meet for parents from disadvantaged classes — these children may be the first generation to receive school education. Parents with the disadvantage of having received little education find it especially difficult to help their children with home tasks. It is not surprising that they long for the ability to engage private tutors for their children, but often they cannot afford to help their kids in this way. The result is not only frustration and despair, but also continued transmission of education backwardness from one generation to the next.

The necessity of “home tasks” for early primary education has to be comprehensively challenged for young children engaged in learning basic reading, writing and arithmetic, in primary schools and SSKs. If the case against home tasks for young children in primary schooling is strong on grounds of educational effectiveness, the case becomes stronger when the impact of the divisiveness of class is taken into account in planning elementary education for all children as a basic human right.

There is no magic bullet to solve the manifold problems faced by primary education in West Bengal (and for that matter in India in general). We need a multi-pronged approach to deal with the diverse sources of educational underachievement. There is nothing defeatist in this recognition. Indeed, the significant improvements that have happened in West Bengal over the last seven years between the surveys of 2001-02 and the resurveys of 2008-09 indicate that informed diagnoses and determined policies can bring about a substantial change rapidly.

Though the new focus of this report has stressed the need for a radical reform of primary school curriculum to make home tasks redundant for very young children and to eradicate the necessity of dependence on private tuition, and has emphasised the importance of taking explicit note of class divisions, the older policy recommendations, presented in our earlier reports, have continuing relevance. Even in those areas in which much success has been achieved, for example in instituting regular arrangements for serving cooked mid-day meals, and in making greater use of parent-teacher meetings, still more can be fruitfully done — to expand their reach and quality. Similarly, the success of SSKs show the positive force of the participation of the wider community in the enterprise of schooling, and that constructive force has to be consolidated, even as the SSKs are ultimately upgraded to regular schools.

We present a variety of recommendations in this report, some of which carry forward what were discussed in earlier reports. We have tried to spell out the reasoning behind them explicitly. We hope they will get attention from the government, the unions, the public and the media, as in the past.

I will end with a special plea for the consideration of two central issues that we have particularly stressed in this report. There is, first, a particular need to recognise the fierce urgency of curricular reform at the primary level to make home tasks redundant and private tuition unnecessary. Secondly, the importance of recognising explicitly the role of class barriers in educational underachievement needs recognition.

These two issues are interrelated. More generally, there is, in fact, a basic complementarity between the different components of the kind of multi-pronged approach for which we are arguing. The complementarity gives us further reason to believe that multi-pronged action based on clear diagnoses will bring major results fairly quickly. There is need for urgency here, since the problems are serious and involve long-standing injustice to millions of young children. Patience can be, alas, another name for continuing injustice.

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