OPINION

Equity in primary education

The United Nations Education, Social and Cultural Organisation’s latest findings on the impact of socio-economic inequalities on primary education underscore the need to widen the current focus on raising enrolments in schools to include issues related to the learning environment. Although ensuring that children go to school has been a key element in the strategy to combat child labour, consolidating the gains from near-universal primary enrolment calls for a concerted effort in several related areas. The 2005-2007 cross-regional study covering 11 countries reports stark urban-rural disparities in basic infrastructure, curriculum inputs, and instruction time which disproportionately affect underprivileged children. According to the India-specific survey findings, whereas 76 per cent of schools in towns and cities have electricity, a mere 27 per cent in villages have the facility. Fewer than half the schools in villages have toilets for girls. The implications of the urban-rural divide are significant, given especially that India is one of the three Asian countries where more than half of the enrolment is in villages and less than 17 per cent in cities with more than 100,000 inhabitants.

The deployment of information and communication technologies for teaching is very modest for a nation that is among the world leaders in this arena. The UNESCO report lends only qualified support for the popular impression that conditions in urban and private schools are always more favourable. While in most countries enrolment at the primary level is overwhelmingly in state-run schools, in India one-third is in private institutions. This country is an exception also to the general rule of private education being an urban phenomenon, with one out of four pupils from private schools having received instruction in a village. The above two findings reflect the lack of public investment in basic education, despite the passage of the Constitution 93rd Amendment Act that makes education for children up to 14 years free and compulsory. Questions of equity and quality education for the less privileged assume far greater urgency when the targets on universal enrolment have nearly been achieved.

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