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Updated: December 19, 2009 15:36 IST

Learning from successes and failures

Amartya Sen
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In this February 2009 file photo, Nobel laureate Amartya Sen unveils the ‘Child Report’ on West Bengal
The Hindu In this February 2009 file photo, Nobel laureate Amartya Sen unveils the ‘Child Report’ on West Bengal" prepared by Pratichi Trust in Kolkata. Photo: Arunangsu Roy Chowdhury

Pratichi Trust (India) was established a decade ago, along with Pratichi Trust (Bangladesh). The latter has been concentrating on the social progress of girls and young women: it has worked particularly on supporting and training young women journalists reporting from rural Bangladesh. In India, the work has mainly focussed on advancing primary education and elementary health care, along with a few other activities such as providing disaster relief.

Though Pratichi Trust (India) has a programme of establishing new schools (the Pratichi School in Orissa is functioning actively and well), our main work in the field of education has been to examine, assess and scrutinise the schooling system in operation in the eastern part of India, beginning with West Bengal and a part of Jharkhand. We have surveyed a number of schools in the region. Though the overall picture cannot be considered, in any rigorous sense, representative of the region, there is enough information in these studies to arrive at some general judgments about successes and failures, and for us to form an understanding of the principal problems that face primary school education in this region and how they can be addressed in order to attempt remedying the adversities.

Empirical surveys

Our first set of surveys of randomly selected primary schools from six districts of West Bengal was done in 2001-02. We resurveyed the same schools to check how, and whether, things are moving forward, and where they stand, in 2008-09. This report presents our latest findings, with an assessment of the situation today compared with what was observed seven years earlier.

The first set of studies led us to offer recommendations about necessary changes for the enhancement of primary education in the region. The action plans were based, among other issues, on the following diagnoses:

* the critical need to work with the teachers’ unions to advance the role and effectiveness of school teachers, including the reduction of teacher absenteeism and helping teachers to pay special attention to children from disadvantaged families;

* the importance of regular and constructive use of parent-teacher committees, particularly to increase communication of teachers with parents from economically and social disadvantaged families;

* the necessity to serve cooked mid-day meals both to advance elementary education and improve child nutrition (the reasons for the often-neglected complementarity of child nourishment and elementary education were investigated in earlier reports);

* the need to reverse the decay of the inspection system for schools (which is severely under-used and sometimes entirely defunct);

* the importance of providing more educational facilities in some schools and particularly in the Sishu Shiksha Kendras (SSKs) and ensuring prompt payment of salaries and making other administrative improvements;

* the need to discourage the growing dependence of school children on private tuitions to supplement educational arrangements in the schools: various means to achieve this were suggested.

Cooperative efforts

A number of our recommendations — though not all — have been carried out in the intervening period. While some of the recommendations broke fresh ground, others provided reasoned support for independently developed, but new, efforts by the State and Central governments in these fields (for example, the provision of cooked midday meals and the use of parent-teacher meetings). Our approach has been one of collaboration with, as well as mutual critique of, the work of agencies dedicated to the improvement of school education, including Central and State governments, and teachers’ unions, and we have been rewarded by the engagement and cooperation of all the parties involved.

Having worked with the primary teachers’ unions (in particular with the ABPTA and the DPSC), we had the benefit also of exchanging views and analyses with the union leadership, in pursuit of a fuller understanding of the problems and prospects of primary education in the State. In joint meetings the Pratichi Trust had with the Unions, large numbers of primary school teachers actively participated. Our understanding of the problems have benefited from the cooperation of teachers’ unions, and they in turn have done much to help implement a number of our recommendations.

We have held each year a fairly large meeting of teachers, parents, educational activists and experts. These have generated important suggestions to improve school education in West Bengal, on which we have drawn for further enquiry. Parents and teachers joined us in these meetings to present their own analyses.

Curricular overload

The meetings we have had with parents, teachers, unions, government servants, and NGOs working in similar or related areas, among others, helped us to pay special attention to important features in the ongoing schooling arrangements that need re-examination and reform, and to supplement the findings of our own surveys and investigation. For example, one of the important issues taken up more fully in this report deals with the content of the official curriculum, and the load very young children have to bear. The official demands typically insist on home-based study after school hours, often in excessive and unreasonable ways (particularly unreasonable for families in which the parents have not had the benefit of going to school themselves). As is discussed in the report, the apparently unshakable dependence on private tuition of primary school children has a strong connection with the unrealism of the overloaded curricular content.

Class disadvantages

A second issue that has repeatedly emerged in our discussions is the importance of recognising the class barriers that divide the school age population. Problems of first-time school education are enormously larger than those faced by children from families with an educated background, at various levels. Also, lack of economic resources and low social standing in established stratification can make it much harder for children from disadvantaged groups to get the facilities and the attention they need to pursue their studies successfully.

Class divisions have a clear connection with caste distinctions but actually go much beyond what is caught in conventional caste-based categorisation. It is of course right that Scheduled Castes (SCs) and Scheduled Tribes (STs) are seen as being, in general, disadvantaged, with very few exceptions. (The exceptions come mainly from particular SC groups and hardly any from STs.) However, to that has to be added the category of the Muslim poor, which for historical reasons is substantially larger as a proportion of all Muslims in West Bengal than in many other States (for example in Uttar Pradesh and Andhra Pradesh). So, even though Muslims as a category cannot be seen as being a disadvantaged group (indeed a lack of adequate class analysis has been responsible for some misleading recent statements on the subject), a large proportion of Muslims in West Bengal do fall in the category of those who are economically and socially disadvantaged in terms of their class background.

Any detailed investigation of the empirical situation brings out the need to go beyond the SC-ST characterisation of social disadvantage to take note of the historically conditioned economic and social disadvantages from which most Muslim families and SC and ST populations historically suffer in this region. These disadvantages make children from those families particularly in need of greater attention and support. Even in interpreting the findings of our surveys, the broader issue of class disadvantage has to be kept in view, as we have tried to do in arriving at our conclusions and recommendations.

Repeat surveys

The recent resurveys give us an opportunity (i) to assess the present state of affairs in primary schooling in West Bengal, (ii) to see whether there have been advances or not, and what remains to be done, and (iii) to examine the effectiveness of the reforms that have been carried out and the changes that have occurred. It gives us pleasure to share our findings with the public, the media and the authorities responsible for schooling, including the government, and the teachers’ unions.

Significant improvements

The main findings in terms of the comparative picture between 2001-02 and 2008-09 are that there have been significant improvements in the performance as well as coverage of primary education in West Bengal over these seven years, and that there still remain defects and infelicities that must be overcome.

There is certainly no case for despondence, and it is particularly important to recognise this fact both because despondence can lead to despair and resignation, and because there are good reasons to see, on the basis of the empirical data, that reasoned efforts, when properly executed, do lead to the achievements at which the efforts cogently aim. However, there is no room for smugness either. Things have moved considerably forward (often related to the reforms that have been carried out by the governments involved, and the cooperation of the unions, which have often substantially supplemented official efforts). However, more needs to be done.

To note the improvements first, there is not only a higher rate of student enrolment, but also a significantly larger average attendance of enrolled students (75 per cent both for primary schools and SSKs - up from 58 and 64 per cent respectively).

Second, though the problem of absentee teachers remains, there is in fact a noticeable fall in the percentage of absentee teachers on the randomly chosen day of our visit (14 per cent in primary schools, down from 20 per cent, and 8 per cent in SSKs, down from 15 per cent). There is also some increase in the number of teachers per school.

Third, the level of parent satisfaction with the performance of teachers has also gone up (from 52 per cent to 64 per cent for primary schools and from 70 per cent to 75 per cent for SSKs), though it is still far from perfect. Parents’ satisfaction with the progress of children is up significantly — from 42 per cent to 71 per cent for primary schools, and from 49 per cent to 73 per cent for SSKs.

Fourth, we were depressed with the 2001-02 results of independent testing of students’ achievements, for example the fact that 30 per cent of the students in classes 3 and 4 could not even write their own names. There has been considerable improvement in this area, and the proportion of students who could not write their names is now down from 30 per cent to 5 per cent.

Fifth, midday meals are now being served in most primary schools and SSKs, and there are clear indications of the benefits of that initiative both in educational and nutritional terms. Indeed, even the increased attendance of students in schools partly reflects the attraction of the school meals, even though the efforts of the teachers’ unions, particularly in reducing teacher absenteeism, has also greatly helped, in many regions.

Sixth, parent-teacher meetings are now much more in use, mostly in the form of mother-teacher committees, though we still have specific suggestions to improve their reach.

Things to do

Significant as the progress has been, there are still big gaps to meet. Even in those fields, already mentioned, in which there have been significant advance, the absolute numbers of the performance indicators bring out the fact that there is still quite a distance to go for the primary school system to be considered really satisfactory. While some reforms have been carried out, for example in having arrangements for midday meals (even though they can be, and must be, extended), in other areas, such as having a functioning inspection system, and remedying the dependence on private tuition, the achievements have been very little. The need to go further forward is strong and urgent.

Curricular load

There has been a real regression, as opposed to progress, on the dependence on private tuition. The proportion of children relying on private tuition has gone up quite a bit:64 per cent from 57 per cent for students of standard primary schools, and 58 per cent from 24 per cent for SSK children. Underlying this is not only some increase in incomes and the affordability of having private tuition, but also an intensification of the general conviction among parents that private tuition is "unavoidable" if it can be at all afforded (78 per cent of the parents now believe it is "unavoidable" - up from 62 per cent). For those who do not have arrangements for private tuition, 54 per cent indicate that they do not go for it mainly, or only, because they cannot afford the costs.

India is one of the few countries in the world in which private tuition is thought to be necessary even at the earliest stages of primary education. Reliance on private tuition for very young children is unknown not only in Europe and America, but also in many developing countries. I had difficulty explaining to students at Peking University in Beijing what I was talking about in referring to private tuition for the youngest primary school students: the phenomenon appeared mysterious and incomprehensible to them.

However, in a number of economies in Asia and North Africa, including Japan, Republic of Korea and Taiwan, there has been, in recent years, an increased use of private tuition even at the primary stage - though typically not for the youngest children. This is seen as having resulted from the pursuit of the perceived competitive benefits of privately tutored children over others. Even in those cases in which private tuition operates only to supplement and advance good primary teaching (rather than acting almost as a substitute for organised schooling, as in many in cases in India), it can be shown that it has a significant adverse impact on the educational system.

The harm, however, is greater when private tutoring becomes “essential” (rather than merely competitively advantageous for the fortunate), especially — as in India — when most families of first-generation school-goers are not able to afford this artificially generated “essentiality.” The advent of private tuition in school education may not be harmless even for Japan and Korea, but it is radically more harmful in India, when it eliminates, in effect, the right to basic education for all children (since the primary schools come to depend on such supplementation even for the basic education to be imparted).

The question must, thus, be asked with some urgency why this problem remains so strong and takes this form in primary education in India, and in the context of this study, in West Bengal, and why, rather than weakening, the evil has actually strengthened over the last decade, despite efforts to eliminate it. Why has dependence on private tuition come to take the place of what can be easily done in the class, and for which the schools are devised?

Heavy, ambitious

Our judgment based on extensive discussions with teachers, the unions, the parents, educational administrators and the public is that one important reason for this is the heavy curricular load at the primary level. Indeed, the load is so heavy and ambitious for primary schools that (1) students need supplementation even at the end of the school day, and (2) teachers have to spend a lot of their energy and efforts to impart specialised knowledge even when basic literary and accounting skills (such as reading, writing and simple arithmetic) remain underdeveloped and insufficiently engaged. The proportion of primary educated students in classes 3 and 4 who cannot read is still 17 per cent, those who cannot write is 19 per cent, and the proportion who cannot do simple arithmetic is 26 per cent.

Indeed, many of those who do have proficiency in these simple and basic skills have often acquired them with the help of private tutors, rather than just from regular schooling. The limited reach of teaching during school hours may not come as a surprise, since the necessity of "home tasks" for even very young children is routinely accepted in India, including in West Bengal. Giving "home tasks" for very young children is typically not the practice in the rest of the world (that is, at least not before the end of the first few years of school education). Something, we would submit, has gone fundamentally wrong in the way we think about the discipline of primary education for young children, in our country, including in this State.

Dependence on private tuition for school education in general, and for early primary education in particular, is, of course, a terrible affliction for reasons that have been extensively discussed in our previous reports. In particular, private tuition divides the student population into haves and have-nots; it makes teachers less responsible and diminishes their central role in education; it makes improvements in schooling arrangements more difficult since the more influential and better placed families have less at stake in the quality of what is done in school; it effectively negates the basic right of all children to receive elementary education and replaces it by seeing effective education as a privilege, reserved for the better placed in society.

The necessity of stopping the dependence on private tuition has been the subject not only of our reports, but also of public pronouncements, governmental instructions, and general moral lecturing, along with various organisational proposals to improve the quality of what is offered in schools to make private tuitions redundant. These are not useless attempts, and we support and encourage efforts in these directions.

The point is that no matter how strongly we pursue these remedial courses of action, the dependence on private tuition would be hard to eliminate unless basic curricular reforms are undertaken. That is something we do stress in this report, without in any way undermining what we have recommended in the past to reduce this debilitating dependence, and without trying to undermine what is being done through other means to fight this dependence.

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