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Beyond the numbers

VIMALA RAMACHANDRAN writes on a study conducted in a few States on rural primary education. Statistics showed a cent per cent enrolment, but also a high dropout rate. A sustained effort is, therefore, needed by the government and society to ensure literacy at the primary education level.

Children demanding a better system of education.

WHEN asked to carry out a gender and equity assessment of a large primary education programme, I did not know where to start. Who gets to go to school as opposed to who remains out of school and why? Who goes to which primary school (government, alternate or private school) and why? Which children are able to complete one level and go on to the next? What determines learning achievements and why do so many children emerge barely literate even after five years of schooling?

I ploughed through mountains of statistics and a variety of indices that declared that gender gaps and social inequity are closing fast. Enrolment data revealed that over 100 per cent children were in school! A wide range of schools and centres have emerged in the last ten years to cater to a spectrum of out of school children. The decade of the 1990s was indeed a period of churning and also a decade when we made significant leap in literacy rates.

The 2001 Census of India revealed that 65.4 per cent people (75.85 among men and 54.16 among women) are literate, and that for the first time the absolute number of illiterates has actually gone down. It recorded a decadal jump of 11.8 in the literacy rate among men and 15.00 among women and hitherto backward regions like Chhattisgarh recorded a jump of 24.87 in literacy levels among women, Madhya Pradesh 20.93 jump in female literacy and Rajasthan decadal increase of 21.47 (M) and 23.09 (F). These figures are truly impressive and no doubt we have much to cheer about it. It was more than apparent that children contributed a major share to this increase — and the government's various primary education programmes, notably the District Primary Education Programme (DPEP), had indeed made a difference.

Exploring the face behind the purdah of statistics, we conducted detailed qualitative micro-studies in one panchayat each in Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Haryana. What we saw was a mixture of hope and despair. The demand for children's education was growing by leaps and bounds — from the poorest of the poor to the better off, everyone wanted to send their children to school, acknowledging the value of education in the overall development of their children. Many of them were also conscious about the quality of education. Their despair nevertheless is visible in their choice of schools. In the process of coming to terms with the inadequacy of the government primary schools, several States have opted for alternative and Education Guarantee Scheme schools, while others willy-nilly encouraged the rapid growth of private schools. Rural children today have to choose between different kinds of schools of varying quality and endowments. Physical access to a functioning school, at least on the surface, emerged as a non-issue in all the States except Chhattisgarh — where dysfunctional government schools continue to pose a major barrier.

However, the worrisome part is an emerging trend whereby children belonging to different social backgrounds are attending different kinds of schools. In Andhra Pradesh, there is a divide between the government primary school (GPS) located in the Dalit basti and the GPS in the forward caste hamlet — only SC students attend the former school, while the latter has very few SC students. The youth in the SC colony in the village categorically stated that even if children from the SC colony try to seek admission in the other GPS, they are discouraged and told to attend the school in their own colony. A similar divide was observed in Tamil Nadu between the GPS and the school run by the Adi-Dravida Welfare Board. There were glaring disparities between the infrastructures of the two schools. School buses ply to ferry BC and FC children to neighbouring private schools.

The situation in Haryana was perhaps the starkest. While the village had a never equal ratio of SC to OBC and forward caste population, more than 90 per cent children in the government school are from the SC community and more than 90 per cent private school-going children from OBC and forward castes. Despite this high number, the proportion of forward caste girls is extremely low in all the schools partly because of a low sex ratio in the age-specific population of the village. The situation in the Karnataka village was marginally different as the government schools with much better facilities and enviable pupil teacher ratio have not yet been abandoned by children from relatively well-off communities. Interestingly, however, the leadership of the village education committee is actively promoting the fledgling private school!

Madhya Pradesh presents different dynamics — the Education Guarantee Scheme (EGS) schools cater to children from the tribal community and two well-endowed government primary schools — one for boys and one for girls — cater to the locally dominant Kurmi community (OBC). In the absence of tangible evidence regarding the "performance" of the different schools, the people we spoke to said that the government primary school with several rooms and many teachers was definitely "better" than the two room and multi grade EGS school. Chhattisgarh, which was till recently a part of Madhya Pradesh, has turned the logic of EGS on its head — it caters to relatively forward sub-groups of the tribal community and the OBC. The dysfunctional GPS has been transformed into the preserve of the poor tribal population.

Primary school drop-outs barely know how to read and write.

It is indeed ironic that the emergence of different types of schools in rural India has reinforced existing social divides — leading to discernable hierarchies of access. Unfortunately official statistics do not capture these trends as they essentially collect information from government schools. Even this information is disaggregated either by general category, SC and ST or by boys and girls — and not by gender in each social category — thereby making it impossible to analyse emerging trends with respect to school participation.

We came across "invisible" children — Jeetagallu in Andhra Pradesh and Pali in Haryana — bonded to work with an employer. In Chhattisgarh we saw young boys grazing cattle and girls working in the fields — they were formally enrolled in the local government primary school. In Haryana they were enrolled in a local Alternative School — which barely functioned. These are working children who have either dropped out of school or have never been there! While Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka have intensified efforts to identify working children and help then get back to school through transitional bridge courses, the educational needs of out of school children is yet to be addressed in other States.

Another Pandora's box opened as we stepped into classrooms. While glaring caste or gender discrimination was not evident, there was a clear bias in favour of the better-dressed and better performers. While acknowledging that it is the very poor who come to government schools teachers had little understanding or appreciation of the family circumstances and the learning needs of first generation learners who get little academic support from home. They were also dismissive about the work burden of children — especially girls. Prolonged periods of absence were explained as either a lack of interest in education or labelling particular children or groups of children as being low performers or bad students. The teachers made no effort to reach out to children from disadvantaged groups; they focussed only on the bright students. As a result a large number of children were irregular, took little interest in school and eventually dropped out — barely literate!

The overwhelming impression we gathered in the six panchayats was that parents recognise the value of primary education and notwithstanding their economic situation, are eager to send their children to school. In the more educationally backward areas of the country, availability of a functional primary school of reasonable / comparable quality remains a problem. If children do manage to go to a primary school, a significant number drop out at the primary stage — with an overwhelming number of girls dropping out at the penultimate stage i.e., class IV or V as the case may be. Many of them barely learn to read and write. For those who want to continue beyond the primary stage, accessibility to and availability of post-primary education remains a problem.

The rich have already walked away from government schools in urban areas and all indications are that rural India is not far behind (with notable exceptions like Himachal Pradesh). The District Primary Education Programme launched by the government with significant external aid has certainly made a beginning, the question now is whether we — as a nation — have the courage to do serious introspection. Five years of primary education is insufficient to ensure significant value addition and in many cases even retention of basic literacy and numeracy, particularly for groups who have historically been denied education. Eight years of basic education is essential and needs to be recognised as the bare minimum and taken on as a non-negotiable. We cannot even come close to realising the implications of the 93rd constitutional amendment (recognising education as a fundamental right of every child) unless we are honest with ourselves.

There are no shortcuts or magic formulae to address fundamental problems of access, equity and gender inequality on the one had and quality, content and relevance one the other. If education has to become an integral part of people's survival and their fight for a life of dignity and self-respect — then we as a nation have to start the churning from within. Different components like access, quality, teacher <15,0m,,0>attitudes and pedagogic renewal have to be addressed simultaneously, ensuring confluence and synergy.

An integrated approach is necessary for meaningful change and lasting/sustainable impact. Playing with numbers and showing the world that we have indeed cracked the primary education problem helps no one — if anything it is a self-deluding and self-defeating exercise.

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