Dear Mr Finance Minister, Go Back To School

8 Feb 2018 12:25 PM GMT
Dear Mr Finance Minister, Go Back To School
Image Credits: Anish Daolagupu, Newslaundry
This article has been re-published with the permission of Newslaundry. Read the original article here.

“We don’t need no education, we don’t need no thought control”

~ Pink Floyd

“Oh yes you do. You clearly don’t know proper grammar or mathematics. So you definitely do.”

~ Every Indian Parent

On February 1, 2018, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley delivered the Union Budget speech in Parliament. This occasion also marked the Modi government’s last full Budget before the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. So, quite naturally, the Budget presented has a largely populist tone to it. Traditionally, education has been given a backseat whenever government resources are allocated and this year was no different.

On the surface, it seems like the focus has been laid on education since the second section itself was titled “Health, Education and Social Protection”. Even if it seemed like a considerable amount of time was spent on it by the Finance Minister this year, let us not forget: Budget speech does not maketh the Budget.

Let us take a quick look at the main elements of Budget 2018 concerning the education sector and also the incoming (possibly disastrous) policy change, which could profoundly impact the sector.

We don’t need no education?

One of the concerns raised during the Budget speech is, “Sure, them kids are attending school, the enrolment levels are higher, but are they really studying though? What if they zone out and watch the birds chirpin’ on the branch outside instead of learning basic math & spellings?”

Paraphrasing here a bit, but you get the idea.

One of the solutions proposed is that education needs to be treated ‘holistically without segmentation from pre-nursery to class twelve.’ When Dirk Gently, our favourite Holistic Detective in the universe, spoke about the concept of holistic, he meant, “Everything is connected.” Our Finance Minister, on the other hand, seems to have a completely different idea of what holistic really means.

As Kiran Bhatty points out, the Budget allocations have been made separately for Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA) and the Rashtriya Madhyamik Shiksha Abhiyan (RMSA). To top it off, the FM announced Ekalavya Schools for tribal children but the allocation does not even find place in the Education Budget! It is tucked away in the Tribal Affairs Budget, thus kinda defeating the whole purpose of a holistic approach.

Now let us take a brief detour into the wonderful world of ASER. This is a survey conducted by Pratham every year to find out the ‘learning level outcomes’ in schools across the country. It always comes back with some shocking revelations, trust us.

For instance, the ASER survey 2017 says that even if most 14-18 year olds are in the formal education system (only 14.4 per cent are not currently enrolled in school or college), this number varies a lot with age. “At age 14, only 5.3% are not enrolled, but by age 17 this percentage quadruples to 20.7% and further increases to 30.2% at age 18. With almost 10 per cent of India’s population in this age group, these percentages translate into large numbers of youth who are not in the formal education system,” the report says.

Here comes the ball-kicker: “Almost 36 per cent of rural youth cannot name the Capital of the Country.”

THIRTY-SIX PER CENT don’t know about New Delhi being the capital of India! Enrolment then, is clearly not the factor we should be talking about. The report (and common sense) says when learning levels are low, when kids don’t do well in class, they get discouraged and it pushes them to drop out.

Technology will solve everything?

To combat poor learning levels, one of the solutions proposed has been to introduce digital boards in classroom by 2022. (Side-note: Weird how all the targets seem to have magically shifted from 2019 to 2022 suddenly, eh?)

According to District Information System for Education (DISE) data (2015-16), only 9 per cent of schools have access to electricity as well as functioning computers. If we look at Budget allocations this year, the total Budget allocations are up from Rs 28,255 crore in 2017 to Rs 31,212 crore in 2018. That’s an increase of a pitiful Rs 3,000 crore that does not seem adequate for such grandiose plans for digitisation. Adding a digital board seems to be a fancy solution (and hopefully getting electricity to schools before that?), but consider the fact that India is currently facing an acute teacher shortage.

This report from October 2017 points out that there are about 50 per cent teacher vacancies in schools across the country, with 30,000 vacancies for teachers in Haryana alone where more than 800 schools are being run without principals.

To top it off, just take a peek at the ADULTS who are illiterate. Global Monitoring Report (GMR) on Education published by UNESCO says India is home to a third of the world’s illiterates. Yep. Every third illiterate person in the world is an Indian. That comes to almost 287 million people which comprises 37 per cent of the global population. UNESCO might not have declared our National Anthem the best National Anthem in the world, but it certainly has officially pointed out that we have the largest illiterate adult population. This, in addition to a note that literacy in our country is defined as the ability to sign your own name.

Digital boards might seem to be a great tech solution on paper and sound nice for Budget speeches, but we as a country face some basic fundamental problems which begin from the absence of human teachers in classrooms. To put it simply, even digital boards worth 3000 million billion rupees are pointless if there is no human around to monitor whether the kids are really learning anything from its usage in classrooms.

To fail or to fail, that is the question

Here’s the bottom line: The Budget is supposed to allocate certain sums of money that the government will spend to achieve a particular thing. In this case, it is the enhancement of our Education sector in general. But, there is one more factor which we really need to talk about, away from the Budget but just as (if not more) important: A proposed Bill to amend the Right to Education Act.

Under the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education (RTE) Act of 2009, children between the age group of 6 and 14 have the right to free education in a neighbourhood school. This covers classes 1 to 5, and classes 6 to 8 under Continuous Compulsory Education (CCE).

One of the main provisions of the 2009 Act is the No-Detention Policy which states that no child will be detained i.e. left behind & failed, until class 8. This is about to change since a shiny new bill titled “The Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education (Second Amendment) Bill, 2017” was introduced in the Lok Sabha by the Minister of Human Resource Development, Mr Prakash Javadekar.

The proposed Bill states that there will be a regular examination in class five and class eight at the end of every academic year. In the event of a child failing, she/he will be given additional instructions and an opportunity for re-examination. Failing the re-examination, the central or state government may allow children to be detained both in classes five as well as eight.

Why are they doing this? Because, as the Bill says, States and Union Territories seem to have pointed out that not failing children has impacted learning outcomes.

Historically, the current system of Primary Education in India was introduced by the British. Frankly, there is no established linkage between passing and failing in examinations and learning levels. If the government is looking for a one-shot solution to solve the learning level crisis, there is none. There are, however, a few basic problems which can be solved on a priority basis.

Through the process of CCE, evaluations and robust frameworks can be put in place. Slow learners can be helped through more attention and remedial lessons. More projects and innovative methods of learning should be introduced, that will help kids (particularly socio-economically disadvantaged youth) to use their skills at a later stage in their lives.

Failing a thirteen-year-old could mean that they are disheartened and/or are forced to dropout of school and work as child labourers. In case of young girls, failing could mean their parents take them out of school and ask them to either help at home, or get married at a very young age. The truth is that woefully little is being done to address the primary education crisis facing us.

A sudden introduction of digital blackboards is not going to solve it. Throwing Rs 3,000 crore at the problem but making myopic changes in RTE Act is not going to solve it either. Neither is a pseudo-holistic approach towards primary schooling is not going to solve it. What will solve the problem is more budgetary allocation towards better policies and making trained teachers available in schools on a priority basis. Even though the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education( Amendment) was passed in 2017 and made provisions for training untrained teachers, it remains to be seen how high-quality these trainings are.

Unfortunately, primary and secondary school kids are not exactly a vote base, eh?

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