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Why the failure of governmental schools matters to all of us

Posted by Martin Haus
November 6, 2017

NOTE: This post has been self-published by the author. Anyone can write on Youth Ki Awaaz.

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:

  1. The provision of a fundamental right should be a bi-partisan project. All political parties, for whatever motives, should be interested in having well educated children.
  2. Education should not be a tradable commodity and should not be segregated. In order for a nation to develop, children with different background should learn and play in the same school. The trend of increasing privatization is therefore worrying.
  3. The infrastructure norms of the RTE Act, 2009, must be fulfilled as a minimum requirement. 150 children in a classroom cannot be taught even by the most motivated teachers. Less than 10% of the schools in the country fulfill these norms which had to be implemented in 100% of the schools by 2013.
  4. The report on the Compliance to the RTE Act by the Comptroller and Auditor General from 2017 raises some striking questions regarding the willingness, seriousness and capability of the governments and administration in the field of education. Fulfilling this fundamental right must become a priority for governments across the country.
  5. Teachers must teach. In many governmental schools, teaching is not happening. Teacher unions, too, must acknowledge this issue and stop to protect free-riders. Teachers that are not even mastering what they are expected to teach must either be brought up to the standard or replaced. Vacant teacher posts must be filled by qualified teachers. In return, salaries must be paid on time and not after months of delay and more than 500 Rupees per year for learning materials must be provided. A new sense of pride must be developed among the profession.
  6. Fund flows must be improved and the administration must be trained from the state down to the cluster- and school-level. The whole machinery is currently dysfunctional. School Development Plans are expected to be prepared by parents who themselves are illiterate and have little knowledge. They need proper support. District level personnel often writes reports and fulfills orders that hardly make any sense. There is little sense in 300 pages district plans for elementary education that are the product of copy and paste from various sources and just seem to have the purpose of filling papers.
  7. The budget must be increased. There cannot be made the argument of a lack of resources to fulfill a fundamental right. The MHRD demands year after year more than double the amount for elementary education than that which is finally accepted in the budget. Yet, if the ministry itself sees the need for a higher budget for fulfilling a fundamental right, it should be heard.
  8. The norms of the RTE Act must be fulfilled. If there is not enough money, other things must wait or must be abolished. If a ministry argues that there is not enough money to fulfill the fundamental right to education for its children, the ministers and administrators should sell their car parks and their travel allowances should be abolished. A fundamental right has priority before everything else.
  9. The money which is budgetted must also be spent. Year after year, thousands of crores remain untouched at the State Implementing Societies under SSA. This raises the question of how capable state governments are. If there is a capability issue, these people must be trained, vacant posts filled and accountability mechanisms introduced.
  10. It must become a priority matter for this country. This includes the media, also the English speaking media which is consumed by the middle class.


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.




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