Towards improving basic education in rural India

It is universally acknowledged that education, at the very least basic education, is critical for leading a life of even minimally accepted quality. Jean Dreze and Amartya Sen in their recent scholarly work on India, ‘An uncertain glory: India and its contradictions’ (2013: Penguin Books) identify nine pathways through which basic education helps people improve their wellbeing “particularly in the modern world, where so much depends on the written medium” (p. 107, ibid). In the light of this, the deplorable state of basic education in India deserves all the attention it gets, and more.

A study commissioned by the World Bank entitled “Missing in Action: Teacher and Health Worker Absence in Developing Countries” (http://www.ksg.harvard.edu/pepg/PDF/events/MPSPE/PEPG-05-14kremer.pdf) concludes that government school teachers represent among the least motivated class of workers in India. Based on a survey of 3,700 schools across 20 Indian states the study found an absence rate of 25% among teachers that is much higher than the absence rate of 10.5% among Indian factory workers. The Bank’s Development Policy Review for India (2006) also indicated that half of the students in the 5th standard could not read the text of the level taught in the second grade, and two thirds could not solve division problems meant for those studying in the second grade. The Review further estimated teachers’ absence rates to be from 35% to 85% in different states. More recent studies do not suggest any significant improvement in the situation.

Within the generally dismal state of basic education in the country, rural primary education is even more pedestrian in comparison to its urban counterpart. In addition, the gap between quality of delivery of education in rural schools and that in the schools in urban areas is continuously widening. This blog post looks at some practical issues facing rural primary education and attempts to suggest measures to address them.

Indian rural primary education system like any other such system has three main stakeholders other than the pupils:

  1. a) Teachers
  2. b) Management of the schools, i.e. the government in case of a majority of the schools in rural areas, and
  3. c) Parents-broadly the community.

My studies in rural areas of Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan reveal that among the three stakeholders of rural primary education teachers have the least incentive and motivation, in the present situation, to put in their best efforts towards improving the quality of delivery of education. Generally, their own children do not study in these schools. In addition, they do not stay in the villages of their schools and thus do not feel the kind of kinship with the community and the children needed for being self-motivated in this regard. In a large majority of cases, even if they resided in the villages before getting the job, their first response to getting their job was to shift to nearby town or the city for better quality of life, and more importantly, for better education of their children. This reflects their lack of confidence on the quality of education imparted by their own selves. This situation further disincentives their regularly traveling to their schools  as it requires them to spend money in reaching the school. They tend to avoid it if it is possible to do so without getting into any trouble.

Moreover, as the school hours are less than normal working hours, many of them are tempted to start some small enterprise of their own, which in most cases, is feasible as they have already shifted to a town or a city. Even if they stay in the villages, they open shops or have to look after their fields and so on. In such situations, being able to not attend the school offers positive incentives. Thus, if there is no corresponding negative incentive, they prefer not going to the school regularly. It is not that none of the teachers has any commitment: in fact, most of the new recruits were found to be quite committed in my interactions but the entire system which incentivizes the absenteeism and not working, slowly and gradually changes them. No-retention policy and the fact that their remunerations and promotions are not directly linked to the learning levels achieved by their students do not leave them much motivated to put in their best efforts in teaching.

In my studies an overwhelming majority of parents reported that all the teachers are never present in the school and most of the teachers, even when they attend the schools, are not interested in teaching. They just sit with each other, gossip and eat even during the non-break hours of the school. I also frequently encountered such situations whenever I visited primary schools in remote villages during their class hours. Some parents even took drastic measures to withdraw their kids from the schools altogether as according to them the kids were not learning anything in the school. Rather, as they were left unsupervised they learnt all bad habits, pointed out the parents. However, in all cases, respondents well understood the importance of education for their kids, boys and girls both.

The other stakeholder, the government education machinery other than teachers, can never be in a position to monitor the rural schools effectively and ensure that all the teachers attend schools regularly because of such a vast, spread out network of the schools. It is not physically possible to deploy sufficient resources to oversee functioning of the schools regularly. Deployment of technology, wherever it is done, is also not proving to be very effective due to unreliable electricity supply in most of the villages and the teachers’ attempts to tamper with the machines. An element of rent-seeking makes the government machinery even less efficient than what it can be otherwise.

Result of the aforesaid situation is that a majority of the children studying in 4th and 5th standards, particularly those belonging to socially and economically disadvantaged households, cannot properly read or write even in their own mother tongue let alone showing any evidence of more sophisticated learning. This holds across almost all rural primary schools I visited in Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan.

One of the important ways to address the situation may be through promoting deeper and effective involvement of the local community in the matters of managing the schools in their villages. In any case, they have the biggest stake in the entire affair and once they are convinced that their voice is being heard and being acted upon, will be most motivated to reform the way their schools are being run to benefit their own children. Efforts need to be made to channelize such motivation in proper systems and procedures.

State governments have been making efforts in this direction with varying degrees of commitment. Centrally-sponsored program, Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA: Drive towards Education for All), launched in the year 2000-01 has community participation as one of their major objectives. The Abhiyan has provisions to organize Village Education Committee (VEC), Parents-Teachers Association (PTA), and Mother-Teacher Association (MTA) in the villages of their catchment area with the help of Panchayat representatives.

My interactions with the villagers, members of VEC, PTA and MTA, and teachers in all the three states do not present a very encouraging picture. Principal findings from my studies and discussions are enumerated below:

  1. All the three committees/associations, namely, Village Education Committee (VEC), Parents-Teachers Association (PTA), and Mother-Teacher Association (MTA) have been formed in the villages under study
  2. The three committees have representations of the teachers, village Panchayat and other members of the villages
  3. None of the committees in any village has been formed by following the guidelines for the purpose, which require calling for open meetings to select members other than ex-officio and nominated members. All the ‘selected’ members stated that their names were put in the committees by the respective Head Teachers.
  4. Most of the villagers other than the members are completely unaware of existence of such committees in their villages. This clearly defeats at least one major purpose of forming of such committees to serve as grievance redressal mechanism for the villagers. Schools and the teachers are hardly accessible for redressal of the grievances of the villagers belonging to disadvantaged sections.
  5. Even more importantly, some of the members themselves did not know that their names were in the committees and associations. They came to know about their membership status only because of this study.
  6. In all the sample villages, there are members of MTA and PTA whose children do not study in the schools and thus cannot be members of these associations.
  7. The members do not know the roles of their committees or associations and their own role within the same.
  8. The meetings are not held at prescribed intervals. VEC is to meet at least once every quarter and the MTA and PTA are required to meet every month. At the most such meetings are held once a year.
  9. Even in such rare meetings ordinary members never speak. Only the teachers, or sometimes (although very rarely) the Panchayat head, speak.
  10. Agenda for the meetings are decided by the Head Teacher only and in no village any agenda item was proposed by a non-teacher member.
  11. Agenda items are required to be circulated at least one month in advance but, in reality, are never circulated before the meetings.
  12. None of the head teachers or other teachers is aware of guidelines prescribed for the purpose and the required documents and registers are not maintained in the schools.

Thus, even when mechanisms have been developed under SSA to expand the participation of local communities, Panchayats and parents, in reality they are functional only superficially. Additionally, my experience of working in the area of education in rural areas shows that the long-term and sustainable improvements in education in rural areas cannot be achieved by developing isolated islands providing quality education such as Navodaya schools. It will require making Government schools in rural areas more accountable to the local communities and strengthening the systems and mechanisms already in place for the purpose.

My study further suggests that we need to immediately take the following preliminary measures as the first concrete step towards improving basic education especially in rural India:

  • Capacity building of existing institutions, such as VEC, MTA and PTA
  • Capacity building of local govt. functionaries i.e., members of village Panchayat and sarpanch
  • Team building among the head teacher, teachers and other local institutions with the community
  • Mobilizing and facilitating the entire community to explore modifications in the present structures and functioning of local education institutions such as VEC, PTA and MTA so that they reflect voices, concerns and expectations of the entire community
  • Supporting the community to develop and evolve other institutions, if need is felt by the community to take over complete management functions and ownership of their local schools
  • Capacity building of such community management and ownerships institutions
  • Orientation of teachers and other school functionaries so that management of schools by the community is accepted in its true spirit
  • Interpreting required learning competencies in each class in the language and tools understandable by all the parents so as to enable them to monitor their children’s progress
  • Exploring the feasibility of revising curriculum to make the contents more relevant to the environment and lives of the community and the children by bringing together pedagogy experts and the local community
  • Exploring reforms in examination systems so that the learning levels of the children can adequately be measured in terms of targeted required learning competencies
  • Further research on intersection of the community and local schools through new forms of participation, responsiveness and accountability

Implementation of the above suggestions may be a part and also starting point of much bigger initiative in response to   “a key challenge in the twenty first century is constructing new relationship between the ordinary people and the institutions- especially those of government- which affect their lives” as argued by John Gaventa, Institute of Development Studies, University of Sussex, in a presentation for the Ford Foundation. According to him, “rebuilding relationships between citizens and their local government means working on both sides of the equation- that is going beyond the ‘civil society’ or ‘state-based’ approaches, to focus on the intersection through new forms of participation, responsiveness and accountability”.

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2 thoughts on “Towards improving basic education in rural India

  1. Kamlesh Chandra

    Hi Anurag,

    I found your blog represents the true picture of conditions, problems and apathy of all stake holders towards rural primary education in India. These conditions are worse in Government schools as compared to large numbers of private schools which are coming up.

    There is one more angle to this problem. My experience is that those who are slightly better are sending their children to private schools. Only children of dalit landless who have no other source of income and some other very poor are sending their wards to these government primary schools. The teachers, panchayat, and local elite are not interested in the improving quality of these schools. They do not want these children to get good education because these children will be future labours who could be exploited later on. While formulating policy for improvement by community engagement, this aspect also has to be kept in mind. “Community which is the real stake holders is not only to be engaged but empowered also.

    Kamlesh Chandra

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply
    1. Dr Anurag Priyadarshee Post author

      Thank you very much, Sir, for your kind feedback.

      You are absolutely right about mushrooming private schools in rural areas as also in urban areas. You are also totally on the mark when you suggest that proliferation of such schools is further deepening the social and economic inequality particularly in the rural areas.

      However, private schools in rural areas are quite different from such schools in the urban areas. As against those in urban areas, private schools in rural areas almost universally suffer from lack of quality. One of the principal reasons for this relates to their singular focus on profits. They pay very poorly to the teachers and thus get incompetent teachers, in general.

      Despite this, parents prefer sending their children to such schools due to the following three reasons: a. They appear to be more appealing with their mandatory uniforms for the pupil and visibly better infrastructure, such as furniture; b. Absenteeism among teachers in private schools is negligible due to obvious reasons; and c. They are far more expensive than government schools, and Indians generally have this notion that ‘costlier the products and services, better they are’. However, all these factors do not guarantee delivery of better education in rural private schools. They are in no way comparable to their urban counterparts. Worse still, they do not allow any participation of local community in their affairs.

      Thus, the problem is multi-layered. At one level, it is located in urban-rural dichotomy, while on the other, it affects and is affected by the inequities in rural societies. Solution may lie in, as you rightly point out, not only engaging with the communities but also empowering them. With the intensest focus on the most disempowered!

      Like

      Reply

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