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Great failures of Indian education

EducationWorld January 14 | EducationWorld

Over three years ago, when the Lok Sabha passed the Right to Free and Compulsory Education (RTE) Act, 2009, almost no one noticed the anomaly of its having to guarantee what was already guaranteed in the Constitution. The reason why the Lok Sabha felt it necessary to do so was, however, obvious: 59 years after independence we had still not achieved the goal, set out in the Constitution, of universal, free primary education. Even today half (53 percent) the children who start primary school don™t enter secondary education and, as our Nobel laureate economist, Amartya Sen, never tires of reminding us, India™s literacy percentage is not even close to that of China.
This failure is reflected in the declining share of education in the Central and state budgets; in the chronic teacher-absenteeism in state schools, especially in rural areas; and the rush in recent years, even among the poorest of the poor, to scrape up enough money to send their children to private schools. The RTE Act is therefore an admission of failure.
However when education is a state subject, an Act passed by Parliament is little more than a declaration of intent. The most that the Central government can do to implement it is allocate more funds for education. But is lack of money the real prob-lem? Or is it lack of accou-ntability among teachers in primary schools; absence of innovation in the curriculum; failure to match education to the changing needs of a fast growing economy, and lack of awareness of the desperate need for excellence in a world where economic barriers are crumbling and competition between nations is becoming fiercer by the day?
The answer is the second. Spending money can only be a means to an end. It cannot be allowed to become the end itself. It is in the defining of ends, and equipping our educational institutions to meet them, that we have failed most miserably. The failure begins at the primary school stage where there™s an acute shortage of trained teachers. One, but by no means the worst effect of this is that village school masters and teachers teach up to four classes at a time, segregating students in parts of the same room.
The shortage of school teachers is made more acute by chronic absenteeism. Nine years ago, when the UPA began its crusade to improve education, a World Bank study had already discovered that the average attendance of school teachers in government primary schools in the rural areas was one day in three. This shocking state of affairs was allowed to persist because political parties had long ago turned school teachers into their election agents. Total job security and a fat government salary, shielded against inflation by regular DA (dearness allow-ance) increases, was the quid pro quo.
Needless to say, when the main qualification of a school teacher is her capacity to mobilise votes, education has remained at a discount. This is reflected not only in the lack of teaching aids in schools, but also in complete insensitivity to the needs of the market and, consequently, to the demands of parents. The glaring example of this is the absence of teaching of English in state-run primary schools. English continues to be ignored decades after it became obvious that the non-Hindi speaking states will not accept Hindi as the link language of the country. The rise of the modern industrial and services sector strengthened the demand for English because of the need for a common technical and financial language, and the rapid integration of India with the global economy has made knowledge of English the gateway to the most lucrative jobs. This is the reason why even landless labourers in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh are withdrawing their children from the agricultural labour force, and are paying Rs.150-300 per month to send them into ˜English medium™ private schools.
The failure is, if anything, even more glaring in technical education. Call a carpenter, a plumber, electrician, mason, or house painter and nine times out of ten, you will get someone who has learned his trade ˜on the job™ as an apprentice to an ustad, who too learned his trade on the job from a predecessor. Where, one wonders, are the products of the more than 300 Industrial Training Institutes set up by state governments? The answer is that they too have not kept up with changing technical needs of the market.
Finally, the failure is apparent at the very apex of technical education as well. Pandit Nehru established India™s first five IITs. Then came two IIMs, and a limited network of state and regional medical and engineering colleges. After that it has taken 30 years for the Centre to decide to set up a dozen or more such apex institutes. Again it™s the private sector that has filled the void.
Today there is an uneasy coexistence between state and private institutions. The state looks upon the private sector with suspicion and is more interested in policing than assisting it. The latent conflict between the two is leading to a waste of resources, while there is little coordination of curriculum, teaching standards and fees.
It is these areas that need the most attention at every level of education. Contemporary Indian education lacks quantity and quality. Let us at least set the latter right if we don™t as yet have the funds to set right the former.
(Prem Shankar Jha is the former editor of Hindustan Times, Financial Express and Economic Times)

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