Instead of freebies, why don't parties offer good education?

Instead of freebies, why don't parties offer good education?

In recent days two reports on how India’s destiny is shaped in the class rooms have been published. One is annual survey of education report (ASER) by a well known NGO -- Pratham. The other is National Achievement Report (NAR) by the National Council of Education Research and Training (NCERT).

Their findings should have shocked the nation. But they did not. Why?ASER is continuing to show that our children in rural schools are failing to get the quality education they deserve. NAR showed that overall in class 3 only 66 per cent of students could do mathematics problems while 64 per cent have adequate language skills. Unfortunately instead of highlighting the dismal state of education, the media concentrated on comparing ASER with NAR.

Soon after the first ASER report, which gave for the first time appalling statistics on educational standards in rural schools, there was some debate and concern by those in charge of education. Since then ASER has become a ritual exercise bringing the same disturbing but worsening news.

What was surprising or even sad was that instead of asking the country to take urgent action to tackle this problem on a war footing, Montek Singh Ahluwalia, the planning commission deputy chairman was asking Pratham to take similar survey for urban areas while releasing the report. He expected that the situation is less dismal in cities. NAR which followed the publication of ASER has showed that there is no difference in educational performance between the urban and rural students.

The only bright spot of ASER is that percentage of children (age 6-14) enrolled in schools is 96.7. But these children are not getting the basic learning skills of reading, arithmetic and writing. Just two statistics are enough to illustrate this fact. By the middle of standard II, over 50 per cent of children cannot read simple every day words in their regional language. As a result 78 per cent of children in Standard III and 50 per cent in Standard IV cannot read standard II text. What is even more worrying is that the reading level has been declining over the years especially since 2010 in government schools.

In December 2013, National University of Education Planning and Administration published its annual education development index (EDI). The EDI comprises of four parameters: access, infrastructure, teachers and outcomes. While data collection and analysis is elaborate, EDI does not convey the serious problem faced by primary education in India. Like NAR, this report also attempted to argue that there are improvements in education sector based more on input into the system than the outcomes.

EDI does not attempt to find out what children are learning in the schools like ASER. EDI’s criterion to assess outcomes is based on gross enrollments in terms of boys and girls, SC, ST and Muslim children participation, drop out rates, number of instructional days etc. What a pity!

Misguided notionIn India today, every parent - literate or illiterate- wants their children to be educated. They know that one possible way to get out of poverty trap is quality education. Even the poor are ready to spend their meagre income to send their children to private schools with the mistaken notion that they get quality education there.  ASER has showed that percentage of children attending private schools has gone up from 16.3 in 2005 to 29 in 2013 in rural areas. In some states like Kerala and Manipur almost 70 per cent are in private schools.

It is surprising that none of the political parties have put education high on the agenda despite its importance. Showering subsidies in every possible way (computers, TVs, grinders, electricity, LPG, kerosene, diesel, water, etc) is high on the agenda. Even Aam Admi Party which won a stunning victory in Delhi by promising to really serve the poor, was in a hurry to lower water and electricity prices soon after coming to power. The major problem all the poor face today is securing quality education to their children. Why are politicians indifferent to meet this need?

In recent months, UPA government has managed to put LPG subsidy high on the national agenda to win votes in the forthcoming elections. At current LPG prices, the middle class and the rich families are given an annual subsidy of Rs 7900. To limit LPG subsidy burden, UPA first imposed a quota of six per year. Later it was increased to nine when Sonia Gandhi gave the marching order to the petroleum minister. Recently, Rahul Gandhi increased the quota to 12 by making mockery of the strategy of imposing quota since average consumption per family is slightly above six.

Based on recent elections, psephologists have concluded that voters may not favour the parties just because they give subsidies. Still why do political parties compete with one another to give more subsidies? It is because they stand to gain by diverting subsidized products to generate black money to the extent of Rs 45,000 crore to 50,000 crore per year. It is this little publicized factor which is driving them to offer subsidies.

Politicians do know that by diverting energy sector subsidies to education sector, quality education can be given to the poorest of the poor. After all some of the government schools like Demonstration Multipurpose Schools, Kendriya Vidyalayas, Morarji Desai schools, etc are better than most private schools.

But to establish and operate these types of schools, the government needs far more funding. By reducing the energy sector subsidies which were more than Rs 200,000 crore in 2012-2013, and diverting them to education sector the government can make a beginning to arrest the decline in educational standards. Let us remember that the destiny of a nation is shaped in its classrooms.

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