Schooling is not learning. The issue lies at the supply side.
The pathetic state of the state-run govt. schools for elementary education (class I to VIII) has been known for long. The ASER reports have shown a trend of learning levels getting lower and lower from year to year in rural Bihar. “Learning levels”, this technical term means whether children can read letters, words or sentences, whether they can make simple calculations. What does that mean? And is that a problem? If so, for whom? And what can be done?
What it means is that India is falling behind. As the latest World Development Report for 2018, published by the World Bank, indicates, when it comes to grade 2 students who could not read a single word in a short text, India performs worse than Ghana, Nepal, Iraq or Tanzania. Indeed, there is one particular field where India performs worse than its neighbors and many much poorer countries around the world countries: education. Comparing countries might be deemed inappropriate and unnecessary by some. Every country has its own struggles and history, no doubt. But if India wants real development, it cannot go on neglecting elementary education as it did for far too long.
At the time of independence, India made a commitment to its children: free and compulsory education for all children within ten years. It has failed its children.
Is that really a problem? There are many fee-charging private schools, and basically all the children of the affluent class go either to these schools or to the central governmental schools. So why should the middle class care? The answer is simple: India cannot afford to be the home of the largest population of illiterate and uneducated people. The costs of neglecting elementary education are high.
The children in primary and upper-primary schools today will be part of the Indian workforce till 2070 and 2080. There will be no jobs for people who cannot read and write in the knowledge economy we will have by then. If India does not want to be left behind in the world’s development, it must urgently improve the conditions of primary education in the country.
Those people who somehow manage to afford low-cost private schools must realize: you can have better education for your children for free. Your children are entitled to that. You worry what happens if you get ill. If your income of 6000 Rupees per month might be no more there to pay the 1500 Rupees for the school of your child. If a second child gets into school, half of your income will directly get into fees. What about pencils, notebooks, …? You live in permanent fear. In fear to have to send your children to dysfunctional governmental schools. We must realize the collective power we have. Quality education is a fundamental right. And there must be no monetary cost assigned to it.
Another fact is that the educational levels of a country depend on the average. If the average is low, even the quality of fee-charging schools is relatively low (by international comparison). Everybody benefits from better governmental schools.
And finally, all those who cannot afford the tradable commodity that education has become in India will profit from better governmental schools: the other half. Those whose children go to governmental schools. Those whose children are first generation learners.
The middle class of India has to understand that it cannot longer betray these people. Lant Pritchett, one of the leading international researchers in the field of education from Harvard University once told about a scene in rural Uttar Pradesh. He was there to attend a meeting of a community where education was discussed. He tells about a man, around fifty years, who stood up in the meeting and looked straight into the eyes of the principal of the local governmental school saying: “You have betrayed us. I have worked like a brute my whole life because, without school, I had no skills other than those of a donkey. But you told us that if I sent my son to school, his life would be different from mine. For five years I have kept him from the fields and work and sent him to your school. Only now I find out that he is thirteen years old and doesn’t know anything. His life won’t be different. He will labor like a brute, just like me.” Pritchett concludes the narration by saying: The man was right. And indeed, he was. It is therefore worrying to hear attempts of the government to increase pressure on parents to send their children to school. They would send their children there if the “schools” were indeed schools. But buildings where learning is not happening cannot be called school. And that is well known by those in power who are wise enough not to send their own children to these “schools”.
Summarizing the above findings: Failing governmental schools matter to all of us.
What can be done? First of all, there are no easy answers to difficult questions. Those who claim to have found a panacea, whether it is privatization or digitalization, are not telling the whole truth.
Instead, I will provide some ingredients to improving governmental elementary education:
To summarize: There needs to be a serious concern of the political class and administration at all levels. And there must be pressure from the citizens from below. Central governmental schools show that governmental schools can function well. But unless we admit that we have a problem that needs to be fixed urgently and that cannot be fixed by talking about digital education in schools without electricity, progress seems unlikely.
Yet, improving elementary education is urgent in this country and in particular in a state like Bihar with so many children in the age below 14 years.