There are two parts to the debate around basic education — the “hardware”, involving classrooms, buildings, toilets and so on, and the “software”, which is about the actual quality of learning inside those classrooms. The greatest achievement of the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) report, facilitated by the NGO Pratham, is its huge contribution towards helping shift the intellectual debate in India on what really matters — learning outcomes. This is no longer a side dish in the menu of talking points on education. It is the main course, as it should be.
The quality of classrooms, whether children attend classes matter, the infrastructure matters... But what ultimately matters most is what they imbibe from that classroom learning, from the time inside the school premises, whether they pick up foundational and other skills.
The latest Annual Status of Education Report (ASER 2018) covers 596 districts in rural India and a total of 354,944 households and 546,527 children. It is the 13th such survey, carried out by volunteers from local partner organisations in each of the selected rural districts.
The good news and the bad news emanating from ASER 2018 have already been highlighted — there have been improvements in primary reading and in mathematics. Hearteningly, in many states, government schools lead the change. One telling marker — Uttar Pradesh — that has been in the news for all the wrong reasons, is one of the major states where foundational skills in reading and arithmetic have improved. The percentage of all children enrolled in Class 3 who can read at Class 2 level has been going up in recent years. According to the latest ASER data, among children enrolled in government schools, six states, including UP, show an improvement of more than five percentage points over the 2016 levels. The proportion of children in Class 5 across India who are able to do simple division has improved a little from 26 per cent in 2016 to 27.8 per cent in 2018. The point to note is that among children attending government schools, some states have shown significant improvements of five percentage points — or more — over 2016 levels. These states include Uttar Pradesh as well as Punjab, Assam, Chhattisgarh, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, and Maharashtra.
This shows that state governments, cutting across the ideological spectrum, are realising the criticality of investing in learning outcomes. And parents too realise that excellence is not a monopoly of private schools. While we celebrate the good news embedded in the masses of data in the latest ASER report, it is imperative to also look at the lingering problems.
Today, the intellectual discourse is centred on “learning outcomes”, as was evident during the panel discussion which followed the national launch of ASER 2018 in New Delhi, but most political leaders still view “development” through the lens of the more visible “hardware”. Expect more government schools to be whitewashed in the coming weeks as the election season draws nearer.
So in the last eight years, since the Right to Education Act was implemented, there have been substantial improvements in school facilities as mandated by the RTE — schools with girls’ toilets have doubled, reaching 64.4 per cent in 2018; schools with boundary walls rose by 13.4 percentage points during the same period, reaching 64.4 per cent. Schools with a kitchen had shot up from 82.1 per cent to 91 per cent in the same year.
The latest ASER report has a section on physical education and sports facilities, and in 2018 about eight of 10 schools have playgrounds available for students, either inside the school or close by.
But here is the nub — the hardware is easier to fix and showcase than the software. While more schools have playgrounds today than they had a decade ago, physical education teachers are scarce in schools across the country. Only about 5.8 per cent of all primary schools and 30.8 per cent of upper primary schools had a physical education instructor at the time of the survey. This brings us to the pivotal issue of human resources. Whether in education or health, no intervention or vision can really succeed if the human resources question is not given due attention. Here is where we still have a long way to go.
How is India to compete in the new world of work that is emerging if only about 44 per cent of all children in Class 8 can solve a three-digit by one-digit numerical division problem correctly?
Arguably, some states have shown more improvement than others, but lack of basic numeracy in Indian school children is still unacceptably high. And the situation is worse when it comes to girls.
In basic arithmetic, nationally, 50 per cent of all boys in the 14-16 age-group can solve a basic division problem, as compared to 44 per cent of all girls. Some states like Himachal Pradesh, Punjab, Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu buck the trend. Girls in these states in this age group are doing better than boys in basic arithmetic. Do we have enough quality maths, science and English teachers to power better learning outcomes for the vast majority of children in the country? What are we doing about the quality of teachers’ training, and to ensure that teachers have the time and flexibility to focus on improving actual learning outcomes rather than just finishing the syllabus?
The Delhi government has made education a political priority but as Manish Sisodia, Delhi’s deputy chief minister who also holds the education portfolio, reminded us at the ASER 2018 launch in the national capital, Delhi is not included in the ASER survey, which focuses on rural India. As a resident of Delhi, one hopes that Delhi does make it to an ASER report and ASER also includes children in urban India in the future.
The other key issue that needs to be integrated into the discussion on basic education is the linkage between learning outcomes and nutrition. India has unacceptably high levels of child malnutrition. According to the latest National Family Health Survey (2015-2016), while the percentage of stunted (low height for age) children under five reduced from 48 per cent in 2005-06 to 38.4 per cent in 2015-16, there has been a rise in the percentage of children who are wasted (low weight for height) from 19.8 per cent to 21 per cent during this period. As is widely known, malnutrition during early childhood not only impacts children’s physical growth, it can also affect the development of their brain. Acutely malnourished children may never develop to their full cognitive potential.
Can one seriously expect children, handicapped by poor nutrition and poor teaching, to show dramatic progress in learning outcomes? More importantly, how does one make learning outcomes a political issue, which politicians can ignore only at their peril? What will India look like if more among the political class felt that voters would decisively root for politicians who prioritised bettering their children’s foundational skills? Something we should think about as India gears up for the general election in a few months....