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Wednesday, Jun 09, 2004

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Primary education: Low coverage, poor quality

Nirupam Bajpai
Sangeeta Goyal

The really critical aspect of the Indian public education system is its low quality. Even in educationally advanced States, an unacceptably low proportion of children who complete all grades of primary school have functional literacy. Moreover, the quality of `literates' of the school system is very low. The actual quantity of schooling that children experience and the quality of teaching they receive are extremely insufficient to any mastery of basic literacy and numeric skills. This seems to be true of both the educationally more advanced States as well as the educationally backward ones.

INDIA HAS made strides in educating its population of more than a billion people, yet a lot remains to be done. It is commonplace now that education is both intrinsically valuable and also instrumental for economic well-being, and this is true for individuals and entire nations. No country has been able to develop without the spread of mass education. An educated population is a prerequisite for take-off into a period of sustained high growth.

Literacy rates have risen for both males and females, and though the latter continues to lag behind the former, there has been a narrowing of the male-female gap in literacy: from 24.8 per cent in 1991 to 21.7 per cent in 2001. In 2001, the absolute number of illiterates declined historically for the first time by nearly 32 million. State-wise, Kerala continues to occupy first rank as it has done historically; on the other hand, densely-populated States such as Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and Bihar are yet to overcome their educational inertia.

The average figures for India as a whole hide a great deal of variation among States. In 2001, Kerala, Maharashtra and Himachal Pradesh had more than 75 per cent of their population of seven-plus years literate. On the other hand, in 2001, less than half of Bihar's population of seven years and above was literate with female literacy rate being only 33.6 per cent. In terms of zones, states in the South and West outperform the North and East States.

Uneven achievements

Literacy rates, especially in the younger age groups, for both boys and girls are on an upward trend. This is an extremely positive outcome as historically India has suffered from endemic illiteracy. However, rising literacy rates have been accompanied by unevenness of achievements: across States and across various socio-economic groups. Western and Southern States outperform those in Eastern and Central India.

Moreover, UP, Bihar and Rajasthan continue to lag the rest of India. Literacy rates for girls, rural residents, and especially members of Scheduled Castes and Tribes also lag behind those for boys, urban residents and the upper castes.

In terms of physical access to schools, more than 90 per cent of the Indian population now has a primary school located within one kilometer of their place of residence. However, many schools have only one or two classrooms and most do not have running water and toilets. These features are not conducive to a learning environment. The really critical aspect of the Indian public education system is its low quality.

Functional literacy lacking

Even in educationally advanced States, an unacceptably low proportion of children who complete all grades of primary school have functional literacy. Moreover, the quality of `literates' of the school system is very low. The actual quantity of schooling that children experience and the quality of teaching they receive are extremely insufficient to any mastery of basic literacy and numeric skills. This seems to be true of both the educationally more advanced States as well as the educationally backward ones.

In Maharashtra, community based surveys of 28 cities and eight rural districts found that only 30 per cent of boys and girls in the age group 6-14 could read basic text fluently or do simple arithmetic. A study of two districts of Tamil Nadu (Madurai and Villupuram) found that most students lacked functional literacy and numeric skills. Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu are among the educationally advanced States.

Similar results are reported by other surveys of four northern states. In another study of two districts of Madhya Pradesh, it was found that in most schools visited, few children could read their basic texts fluently. The emphasis was on rote learning and there was little attempt to impart understanding or comprehension of the text.

There is a lot of `waste' in the school system as evidenced by the large percentage of children who drop out before completing primary schooling. Such inefficiency is compounded by teacher apathy, teacher absenteeism, very high pupil-teacher ratios, and inadequate teacher training.

Public expenditure on education in India has been rising over time. After the District Primary Education Programme (DPEP), which was launched in 1994, the Union government launched the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA) in 2001 with the goal to universalise primary education (grades one to five) by 2007 and elementary education (grades one to eight) by 2010. Unlike the DPEP, the SSA is funded entirely by domestic resources and provides the States with a strong initiative backed by funding to tackle illiteracy among the young members of their population.

Another policy that has been successful in increasing enrolment, attendance and retention of students in primary school is that of the provision of mid-day meals. There are lessons to be learnt from the diverse experiences of States in terms of their achievements in literacy. While in Kerala, strong social intermediation by the government has proved successful, in Himachal Pradesh, social capital and community participation seem to have led to similar success.

Despite the strong constitutional backing for the provision of primary education in India and its expansion over time, the system is characterised not only by low achievements, but also by large unevenness of achievements.

Huge gaps remain between rural and urban areas, and the probability of getting any education at all sharply depends on gender, caste and income. Women, Scheduled Castes and Tribes and the poor are faced with formidable barriers when it comes to getting basic education. Of the 200 million children in the age group 6-14, it is estimated that 59 million are out of school. Of these 35 million are girls.

Apart from socio-economic determinants, the educational infrastructure and the management and the governance of the educational system in India are far from efficient or sufficient. The government is the largest provider of education in India with only about 10 per cent of primary schools owned by the private sector.

The quality of education provided by the public education system is low which translates into low educational abilities even for those who are able to complete primary education cycle. Moreover, there is a lot of `waste' in the educational system with dropout rates as high as 40 per cent for the country as a whole and in some States; they are as high as 75 per cent.

Teacher truancy

Though the number of primary schools in the country has increased substantially, more than one lakh habitations still do not have access to a primary school within a distance of one kilometre. Teacher-pupil ratios are inadequate: Less than 2 teachers are available in the rural areas to teach a class size of around 100 students. Teacher motivation and teaching incentives are also very weak. India perhaps has the highest rate of teacher truancy in the world.

While poverty status and income class are strong determinants of who goes to school and for how long, they do not make up the whole story. Indian states of Kerala and Himachal Pradesh even with fewer resources at their disposal have been able to achieve much better educational and health outcomes compared to rich States such as Punjab and Haryana.

This is true even when we look at cross-country outcomes. For example, Sri Lanka and Botswana do much better in education and health terms than would be predicted based on their level of resources; the Latin American countries do much worse given their resources.

Rural-urban disparity

Perhaps, the largest disparity in educational attainment in India is by rural-urban location. Total literacy rates by sex for population belonging to the age category seven and above for rural and urban India for the years 1991 and 2001.

While there has been some catching up in literacy rates for both males and females between rural and urban areas, the differences continue to be unacceptably large, especially for females. Only 46 per cent of females in rural areas were literate as opposed to nearly 73 per cent in urban areas in 2001, a gap of around 27 percentage points. For males, the gap was lower at around 15 percentage points with 71.1 per cent of males in the rural areas and 86.4 per cent in the urban areas being literate in 2001.

However, school attendance has been rising for both girls and boys at the elementary school level in both rural and urban areas. Fewer girls attend school in the rural areas compared to their urban counterparts, and also compared to boys in the rural areas. The proportion of girls attending schools, however, has increased from 59 per cent to 70 per cent between the years under comparison.

While participation of girls in education has seen an increase over time at all levels of education, it continues to lag behind that of boys. Even in 2001-02, girls' enrolment remains below 50 per cent of total enrolment at the primary school level. This is true of girls' enrolment at all levels of education, though they have been increasing at levels beyond the primary as well.

The gender gap in education is mostly due to entrenched gender norms, especially in the states of the north, where girls are married off at very young ages and exogamy in marriage means that any benefits of investment in education of girls will be captured by the household after marriage. This reduces parental incentives in the education of girls. Rajasthan is illustrative of what plagues gender equity in education in India as a whole.

Census figures revealed that Rajasthan had seven million children of primary school going age, of which only 52.8 per cent attended school. Moreover, among girls the attendance rate was only 37.4 per cent.

A large fraction of out-of-school-children were girls. Among Scheduled Castes and Tribes, the literacy rates for women were as low as 9 per cent and 7 per cent respectively.

Thus, gender and caste attitudes have resulted in severe gender inequity in education in Rajasthan. These social attitudes are reproduced officially rendering them invisible, further compounding the low status of women in Rajasthan.

(Nirupam Bajpai is a Senior Development Advisor and Director of the South Asia Program at the Center on Globalization and Sustainable Development, Columbia University. Sangeeta Goyal is a visiting Assistant Professor at the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University.)

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