We need a million mutinies in education sector now

Schools

Pratham released its 13th Annual Survey of Education Report (ASER) in mid-January. The key findings were no different than what they were the first time in 2005. Over the years, surveys have been showing dreadful learning performance by our future generation. But there has been no reform. Why? 

What should worry the nation was the indifference shown by the key stakeholders to the findings. Earlier, national leaders used to release the report. Now, it has become just a ritual. Year after year, Pratham has been presenting the shocking level of learning in rural students, which has shown only marginal improvement. Pratham has not done any survey in urban centres, but based on other studies, it can be argued that urban children are no different. 

ASER has a mindboggling amount of data that is statistically significant at the district level. Drowned in the ocean of data, newspaper articles have missed the forest for the trees. As in the old story of the proverbial six blind people trying to figure out the shape of an elephant, most of the articles over the years have highlighted what the authors think are important. 

They are: drop in percentage of children not in school, falling drop-out rates, increasing preference for private schools, absenteeism of children and teachers in government schools, improving availability of toilets and drinking water facilities, X% of students (20% for 2018) not being able to read at Grade 2 level in Grade 8, Y% of children (50% for 2018) in Grade 8 not being able to do simple division problems, skill deficit, more girls in schools but boys better at maths, etc. 

But, no one has questioned the real objectives of education. From the headlines of the newspaper articles, it looks as though that if 100% of our students can perform at Grade 2 level, the nation should be happy. Certainly, for an economy that wants to provide knowledge workers not only to India, but also to the world, basic reading and maths skills cannot be the only minimum aspirational goals.  

Can our children think critically and ask questions? Do they have the ability to carry out world-class research? Are they imbibing proper values based on India’s civilisation (epics like Ramayana, Mahabharata are hardly read)? Will they inculcate values to be socially responsible citizens of India? 

Unfortunately, none of the stakeholders has found it important to raise these questions. Is it because we, as a nation, feel that these goals are beyond our capabilities to achieve in the foreseeable future? Or, is it because we want to aim higher once we reach the more achievable goals? Or, is there a hidden agenda to prevent our future generation from getting quality education, lest the properly educated voters throw out the current crop of corrupt leaders? 

In the backdrop of the latest publication of ASER, we should make the best use of the public interest created by the news media about the education crisis to push for needed reforms. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has a mission for just about every conceivable sector, but there is no mission for improving a critical sector like education. It was not any different with the UPA, either. It also paid lip service to provide world-class education. If India’s elite did not have a chance to send their children to private schools to get quality education, they would have been in the forefront to lead reforms in the education sector.

Transformational reforms

The Karnataka government is ready to give free laptops, free bicycles, free books, free uniforms, free mid-day meals, etc., irrespective of which party is in power. Despite the fierce opposition from some sections, the JD(S)-led coalition is ready to start 1,000 government English-medium schools as though it is a panacea for the education crisis. However, it is not ready to implement transformational reforms to bring about fundamental changes in Karnataka’s education sector to give world-class education to the poor. 

Is it possible to give quality education by one or two teachers to 30 students in one class room who are in Grade 1 to 7? One can justify such small schools if it is in a remote area. However, thousands of such small schools are located in city centres and villages which are well connected. A government seriously interested in giving quality education would have closed down all such small schools and merged them into a fully staffed school with library, laboratory, playground, drinking water and toilets, etc.

It is not that the government is not capable of giving quality education. Kendriya Vidyalayas, Navodaya Schools, Morarji Residential Schools, Demonstration Multipurpose Schools, etc., are example of excellence and they are all government schools. Why cannot state governments try to convert schools under their administrations to match the standards of these excellent schools? 

Besides closing down less viable small schools and merging them into schools of excellence, government should seriously consider four other reforms. There should be no transfer of teachers in government schools. Continuation of transfer policy is a remnant of the colonial past, which does not contribute to quality education. But it does help to monetise political power. 

At least in the education sector, we need to start dismantling the edifice of recruitment of teachers based on caste-based reservation to help the poor and downtrodden. B R Ambedkar would have welcomed such a pro-poor policy.

Public examinations like SSLC and PUC should be replaced by scholastic aptitude tests and continuous evaluations at each school. This way over-emphasis on examinations, the resulting suicides by youth and the need for expensive coaching centres could all be eliminated.

A new system to hold teachers accountable for the performance of students should be developed, just like for employees in well-run organisations.

Finally, administration of the education sector should be totally decentralised so that there should be independent school boards at the lowest level, say taluk level, to start a million mutinies. 

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We need a million mutinies in education sector now

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