Rural education needs overhaul

The Annual Status of Education Report-2016 reveals deteriorating reading and arithmetic skills among children in Karnataka’s rural schools. Based on a survey conducted by Pratham, a non-government organisation, in rural schools across the country, the report says that only 42.1% of Class 5 students and 30% of Class 8 students in Karnataka can read Class 2-level text book. And the situation is worsening. In 2014, 47.3% of Class 5 students could do so. Performance in arithmetic is no better. Children in middle and high school are not only unable to do simple addition and subtraction but also, a large number cannot even recognise numbers. According to the 2016 report, only 25.4% of Class 8 students could recognise numbers between 10 and 99. And their numbers have fallen; the percentage of children who could do so was 31.2% in 2014. The report has underscored the alarming situation in Yadgir district, where only 38% of Class 3 to Class 5 students can read Class 1 level textbook, compared to the state average of 52.8%.

The ASER surveys and other studies have helped India build a formidable body of evidence on declining learning outcomes in rural schools. It is time that central and state governments act to incorporate these findings in policy making. While central boards of education have responded somewhat to the findings of these studies, state boards have not. Karnataka needs to wake up to the fact that its rural children are not acquiring the reading and arithmetic skills at the pace they need to. Declining basic learning levels is cause for concern as weak foundational skills severely restrict what children will be able to learn at higher primary and secondary school levels.

Poor performance in schools is often linked to poor infrastructure. ASER-2016 points out that while schools in Karnataka had facilities, these were not being put to use or were in an unusable condition. Consider this: around 34% of schools had a toilet but these were unusable; 21% had toilets for girls, but were locked; over 41% of schools had libraries, but were locked. Interestingly, while state capital Bengaluru takes pride in calling itself India’s information technology hub, just 55% of the state’s rural schools had access to computers. Importantly, Karnataka needs to improve the quality of teaching in its rural schools. Their knowledge and teaching skills must be updated from time to time. Financial incentives need to be extended to teachers who are able to improve learning outcomes. So far, the Narendra Modi government has focussed on setting up 20 “world-class universities.” While this is welcome, excellence in higher education is possible only when the imparting of foundational skills is strong.
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