Aakar Patel | Why getting our kids educated is a true sign of good governance
Governance is defined as the system by which an organisation is controlled and operates, and the mechanisms by which it, and its people, are held to account. Ethics, risk management, compliance and administration are all elements of governance.
“Good governance” is said to have eight characteristics. It is participatory, consensus oriented, accountable, transparent, responsive, effective and efficient, equitable and inclusive, and follows the rule of law. “It assures that corruption is minimised, the views of the minorities are taken into account and that the voices of the most vulnerable in society are heard in decision-making. It is also responsive to the present and future needs of society.” The most important function of government is governance, and in fortunate nations, this is often good governance.
ASER is a survey on education conducted across India since 2005. This year it covered 616 rural districts (which is more than 85 per cent of the total) and engaged 6.9 lakh children in the age group of three to 16. The survey is conducted by over 27,000 volunteers. It is simple and assesses three things — enrolment, reading ability and maths skills. Students are given a single sheet of paper with four levels of text: first, letters of the alphabet, second, common words, third, a short paragraph consisting of four easy sentences, fourth, a longer text containing a slightly more complex vocabulary.
In Class 3, children are usually about eight years old. ASER’s survey reveals that the number of Class 3 children who can read a text from Class 2 is 20 per cent. This means that four out of five children cannot read the text. The number has fallen from 27 per cent in 2018. In 2014 the figure had been 23 per cent, meaning that learning levels today are worse than they were a decade ago. The decline is across private and government schools.
The number of children in Class 5 who could read a Class 2 text was 48 per cent in 2014, 50 per cent in 2018 and is now 42 per cent.
In 2014, the proportion of children in Class 3 who could do subtraction was 25 per cent (meaning that three out of four children did not know how to do “this minus this equals to”). In 2018, the number who could subtract rose to 28 per cent. Today it has fallen to 25 per cent again.
Similarly, of the students of Class 5, who are about 10 years old, the number that could do simple division was 26 per cent in 2014, 27 per cent in 2018 and has fallen again to 25 per cent. If our children cannot read and cannot do simple maths, what kind of skills will they acquire as grown-ups? In Bengaluru’s infotech companies, which together have some 15 lakh employees, nine out of 10 engineers who apply for jobs are rejected, not because the position is filled but because they do not have the skills. We should not be surprised that a nation whose children are in school but illiterate also has engineers who are barely literate. It’s not their fault.
We can acknowledge that the problem is not new. But we can’t avoid the reality that the problem is getting worse. We have regressed 10 years on an issue where we were already in bad shape compared to the rest of the world. Of course, the Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated the problem. A survey a few months ago showed that during the pandemic only eight per cent of rural students studied online regularly. Most studied sometimes, and one in three students did not study at all. The ASER study shows another alarming thing. For the first time, government schools have seen an increase in children enrolled. This has gone from 73 per cent in 2006 to 65 per cent in 2018 back to 72 per cent today. Why? Have government schools suddenly become more attractive than private schools? No. The answer is that crores of Indian families have become poorer and can no longer afford private education for their children. The government’s solution is to hide the poor when it conducts its G-20 gatherings. We can only solve problems after we acknowledge that they exist. When was the last time we heard this government speaking of the disaster in primary education, rather than Ganga cruises and cheetahs? Less money, Rs 88,000 crores, was spent by the Union government on education in its last Budget than has been allocated to the bullet train. This sort of thing is happening across the board. According to the World Bank’s figures, India’s spending on health has gone from 3.7 per cent of GDP in 2013 to 3.0 per cent today.
In another nation, the problems that get acknowledged then begin to be solved. Here the fact is that the government has given up. It knows or is convinced that it cannot solve the issue of education and health and has no idea how to solve it. The reason is that solving problems of this magnitude require governance, proper, hard, everyday governance. Inaugurations, fancy dress and speeches do not solve such problems. Urban unemployment in December was 10 per cent. This is about three times what it was a few years ago. Employment in agriculture, which had been reducing all these decades, increased as people with no work in manufacturing and services returned to farms. This is a fact and the data comes from the government itself. That it is not being held to account for it is also a fact.
Getting our children educated so that they live fulfilling lives and can compete with the world’s children is good governance. The rest is pageantry and drama.