The Congress Vice President and PM-in-waiting Rahul Gandhi addressed the industry captains last week at a CII meet and spoke about the aspirations and dreams of the young. His party’s government passed the Right to Education Bill (RTE) and the three-year deadline for implementation ended on March 31st. As per the news coming out now, not much has happened by way of implementation. And if indeed the law is followed then a large number of schools face the potential of being shut down for not meeting the minimum infrastructure requirements. I have often joked that the rate at which rights are being given to us, soon we will have a Right to Smile (RTS) and Right to Happiness (RTH) Bill.
Abysmal outcomes in education
Jokes apart, the education system is another mess that we have in India. ASER 2012 (rural) findings are that overall enrolment of children in the age group of 6-14 years in over 96%. However, according to ASER, “Reading levels continue to be a cause for serious concern. More than half of all children in Std. V are at least three grade levels behind where they should be.” The learning in other subjects is as dismal. Clearly so far RTE has not gone anywhere.
A few weeks back, I was interviewing a girl residing in a slum in Mumbai. She has passed her Class XII in Commerce securing just 38% aggregate marks. A few minutes into the conversation, it was evident to us (me and my co-researcher, Tina) that this girl had very limited knowledge and her academic future was certainly not bright. But she wants to be a Chartered Accountant (CA) and someone has told her that is what she should try to be.
Not her fault
Her poor academics is most likely not her fault. It is a failure of the state since the municipal school that she went to mostly did not have good teachers. She enrolled in a training course to learn Tally and soon realised that she was being fleeced and was not being taught much. Mushrooming of such institutes, thanks to no regulation of quality and dominance by politicians, means that the poor end up paying through their nose and get nothing in return. The well off mostly have an ability to gauge the quality of the institutes. But thanks to being Class XII pass, this girl doesn’t do any household work (while awaiting admission to a college) and is not interested in taking up any vocational course either.
Nursemaid after 10-years in school?
Geetanjali Krishna in her column “People like them” in Business Standard writes about another such girl Anita, a girl who has studied up to Class X. Anita’s mother says, “She wants a mobile phone, lipstick and a job in a call centre – but she can’t even draft a leave application to submit to her school…A family I know needs a nursemaid for their newborn and are offering good money, but ma’am here doesn’t want to do such work.” Anita says, “I haven’t spent so many years in school to become a nursemaid, have I?”
No interest in academics
Herein lies a huge challenge for our country. We are producing barely literate army of people who are not equipped for today’s economy and who do not want to do any farm or menial job. I later met Ranjana, a teacher in a private school in Dadar catering primarily to the lower middle income families in the area. According to her, the children do not seem to be interested in academics.
This is quite contrary to my assumptions of an aspirational, competitive India. She next said that the local politicos are telling these kids that studying won’t help them much and anyway, being sons of the soil, they will easily get employment.
Time to start thinking
Forget English, these children apparently are struggling with Marathi, their mother tongue as well. Ed Luce in his book “Time to start thinking” mentions that US is facing a similar challenge as children are coming out of schools without adequate knowledge of the English language. If this indeed is true, then we have bigger worries on our hand. A similar version played out in West Bengal in the 1970s and 1980s under the Left Front rule and we know the result of that.
Arvind Panagariya, professor at Columbia University, in his piece “What Right to Education?” in Times of India has very thoroughly demolished RTE. He writes, “Just as onerous labour laws have discouraged the expansion of labour-intensive manufacturing in the organised sector, the demanding input norms in the RTE Act would discourage the entry of new low-cost private schools…Creating fundamental rights that the government neither intends to enforce nor has wherewithal for undermines the respect for the original fundamental rights and makes a mockery of the constitution.”
No exams – boon or bane?
One reason, other than the usual ones of infrastructure, teachers, teacher motivation etc, why our system has deteriorated is because it apes models from the western countries without imbibing the spirit behind the same. My son never sat for an exam till Class V. Till Class VIII he sits for exams at the end of each term (three terms in every academic year) and the portion is just of that term, which usually means very few chapters. As he now goes to Class IX he has no idea what it means to study for one full years syllabus and then sit for exams. He will probably adjust and cope given that he goes to a reasonably well-known school, we are reasonably involved parents (or so we think) and we will be able to afford tuitions for him.
During the first eight years there is no continuous assessment of learning outcomes, as would happen in the western countries. So we have eased the burden of exams without ensuring learning outcomes. And then we have a bunch of kids who are suddenly in high school mostly with very high self-esteem and certainly a lot of illusions about their academic abilities which is not in synch with reality.
Excessive cult of self-esteem
Ed Luce describes this phenomena as “excessive cult of self-esteem” in his book mentioned above. The proportion of teenagers who check the box “I think I am a special person” versus those who check “I am no better or worse than anybody else” has gone off the charts. To quote Ed, “Teachers avoid issuing verbal reprimands for errant behaviour…And every child wins some trophy or the other at school prize day…” Imagine the shock of moving from a high school where everyone is above average to a world where the distribution curve will resemble normal distribution.
We have our own version of the same problem. Reprimands are out, praise is in. Satindra, whose daughter attends one of the most prestigious schools in Delhi, tells me that when his daughter gets her spellings wrong, she still gets a smiley – a red one! Between our version of “Chinese moms” (not to forget the dads), and innumerable multi-coloured smileys, the children must be very confused.
“What kind of world are these children ready for?”
I am not for once advocating that exams be held from Nursery class and burden these children; I only hope half-baked solutions are not adapted. Arvind Panagariya, in the article mentioned above, writes, “RTE proponents had opposed exams because they produce stress in children. But for what kind of world does such education prepare children? A world that is waiting for them with a life on a silver platter?”
Before I end, a bit of pat on my own back. On 26th March, in my blog titled “Will Aadhar Put an End to Double Subsidy?” I had written, “The risk is that in a rush to discover the next winning electoral slogan (Aapka paisa Aapke haath), the Congress leadership may have prematurely rushed into DBT without adequate groundwork or penetration of UID.” Now comes the news that DBT has indeed run into some problems, as per the Prime Minister (read Direct Benefits Transfer programme has run into difficulties, says PM.) I do hope that corrective action is taken soon and this project is not sacrificed at the altar of electoral goals. I also hope there will be no Right to Happiness Bill brought in by UPA-II.