The Ministry of Human Resource Development recently informed Parliament, that 12 States in the country could not meet the demand for professionally qualified teachers. Moreover, there are more than 8.7 lakh teachers in the country who do not have the necessary training to perform their role. It comes as no surprise, therefore, that the independent annual study by the ASER Centre into schooling outcomes in rural India has found a steady decline in student performance in key areas such as reading, comprehension and arithmetic, although enrolment rates remain high. Failure to upgrade the capabilities of school teachers in rural areas has contributed to a situation where more than 53 per cent of the students in class five could not read a text intended for those in class two, up from 46 per cent two years ago. If government schools were segregated for analysis, the figure was even higher, at over 58 per cent. The number of students who were unable to do simple arithmetic problems involving subtraction and division commensurate with their level of education also rose during 2012 compared with the previous year. In the case of division problems, three-fourths of the students were not in a position to do their sums.

If students in rural India are doing badly, there are other worrying trends too. The ASER findings underscore rising enrolment in private schools since 2006, touching over 28 per cent nationally; in the case of some States, even 60 per cent. This is a clear pointer to the Centre’s failure to assume responsibility for good schooling and deploy the massive funds collected through the education cess to achieve encouraging outcomes. It must now lose no time in ensuring that the norms laid down under the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, particularly on teacher-student ratios are implemented, and enhance the quality of in-service training for teachers. Physical infrastructure is also a determinant of the overall schooling experience. Here too, the ASER data point to neglect: 80 per cent of the schools inspected had separate toilets for girls, but only half of the facilities were in a usable condition. Again, 13 per cent of the schools were found not providing a mid-day meal, removing a key incentive for students. It is also pertinent to point out that rural students are not spared the need to attend private tuitions to improve their prospects. This is further confirmation of the disconnect between government’s efforts at improving educational quality, and student expectations. A focus on higher education to create a skilled workforce is certainly necessary, but the edifice cannot rest on a school system rendered hollow by policy myopia.