Partial success

Print edition : July 08, 2016

Students work on their laptops at a Marathi medium school at Khairat in Karjat district of Maharashtra. Photo: AFP

While the report card for school education in Maharashtra is not alarming, access to schools and high dropout rates are some of the issues facing the rural areas of the State.

EVERY classroom in the two-storeyed building of the municipal school in Mumbai’s Navy Nagar is packed with pupils. Some of the rooms are divided to form two classrooms. Pupils of the lower classes sit on the floor while those of the higher classes have the luxury of sitting on chairs behind battered desks.

Arti Mahajan, a teacher, says the school has staff, electricity and toilets. “What is necessary is in fact a luxury. We are lucky because in some schools the floors are not fully cemented and the rooms have no fans,” she said.

The 2011 Census puts Maharashtra’s literacy rate at 82.9 per cent. The State projects this figure to claim that it is among the foremost States providing quality education across districts. In reality, Maharashtra ranks 13th among the 29 States and seven Union Territories in school education. Given the State’s record in economic development, educationists feel the standard of education and infrastructure at the primary and secondary school levels could be far better and the State’s ranking much higher.

A State Education Department official said: “If you look at the numbers and compare them with the rest of the country, Maharashtra does not fare badly. In fact, its literacy rate is higher than the national average. The value of education is getting priority and the State is making progress.”

The Annual Status of Education Report (ASER), 2014, facilitated by Pratham Education Foundation, does not paint a grim picture of school education in Maharashtra either. But, reports compiled by the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) of India, the National University of Education Planning and Administration’s (NUEPA) District Information System for Education (DISE), and the Education Development Index (EDI) indicate that there are several pressing issues in the State’s education sector that need to be addressed urgently.

What, then, ails the system? Government officials and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) say that the main issues here are lack of access to schools, inadequate infrastructure, inferior quality of teaching, teacher-student ratio, high dropout rates, stark urban-rural disparity and unaffordability of private education.

Laxmi Kamte, who works as a domestic help in Mumbai’s Churchgate area, says: “I will do anything to ensure that my daughter studies at least up to class 10.” From her residence in Virar, she travels an hour and a half for work in south Mumbai, where income opportunities are better. “This way I can afford to pay for the extra tuition fees my daughter needs to pass her exams,” she said.

Other than the children of migrant workers, it is rare to find children who are not in school, at least in the urban areas of the State. This is a good sign, says the social worker Kahani Mehta. “But that does not mean that they are getting a good education. There are problem areas, such as the quality of education imparted in schools. Maharashtra must pay attention to this. But, the fact that the majority of the children of schoolgoing age are attending school is a success story in itself.”

The ASER reports are perhaps the most credible assessments of the basic learning skills and enrolments in schools. The ASER survey in 2014-15 found a marked improvement in the State’s education indicators. It says the reading ability in all classes (I-VII) in government schools has shown progress. For instance, the percentage of children in Class III who can read at least Class I level textbooks increased from 52.9 per cent in 2014 to 63 per cent in 2015. Similarly, the percentage of children in Class V who can read Class II level textbooks increased from 51.7 per cent in 2014 to 59.8 per cent in 2015.

Additionally, the report says basic and foundational skills in arithmetic improved in 2015 in both government and private schools although the all-India average for knowledge of numbers and basic arithmetic operations such as subtraction and division has remained low. In government schools, the survey found that the percentage of children in Class V who could do subtraction and division increased from 38.6 in 2014 to 46.8 in 2015.

While the ASER report has been laudatory, the DISE, which uses non-academic criteria in its assessment, says in its 2014-15 report that 80,000 pupils attend single-teacher schools in Maharashtra and that an estimated 37 per cent of the teachers at the primary and upper primary levels are not graduates. The Right to Education (RTE) Act stipulates that upper primary school teachers should be graduates.

The State Education Department, in its response to the DISE’s report, said that finding qualified teachers was a major problem. Another issue is that unless schools have a minimum number of 150 students they cannot appoint a headmaster/headmistress. In rural areas, this number sometimes cannot be met. An Education Department official said that some of the policies needed to be modified to improve the standards of education in the rural areas.

Maharashtra has around 1,06,403 government schools. Most of these schools have both primary and upper primary classes. The State has 88,45,062 students at the primary level and 47.9 per cent of the total enrolment consists of girl students, which is far better than the other States. The percentage of female literacy in the State is 75.48, which is considered reasonably high.

However, the dropout rate, especially among girls, is high in the more advanced classes. Typically, these girls drop out because they have to look after their younger siblings or take up work to supplement the family’s income, says Kahani Mehta. Also, rural families hesitate to send their girl children by public transport if the schools are located far away from their homes. NGOs estimate that the dropout rate, from primary to secondary level, is roughly 40 per cent of those enrolled in schools. Of this, 70 per cent are from rural areas.

The CAG, which did an audit analysis of 66,444 government and municipal schools, said in its 2013-14 report that the State lagged behind in providing basic facilities to schoolchildren. It found that 686 schools had no drinking water facilities; 22 per cent of the audited schools had no playgrounds; 2,529 schools had no library; and there was no electricity supply in 12.183 per cent of the schools even though 1,809 of them had computers. The report said: “Most of the schools had poor sanitation. Many of them had no proper furniture for students and also lagged behind in providing proper teaching aids such as blackboards and chalk.”

Vrishali Pispati, who works with Mumbai’s Mobile Crèches, said: “The government must work towards providing support mechanisms to improve the quality of education and attendance in schools. Often when both parents go to work, there is no one to look after the younger child who is not yet ready for school. The older one is kept back to babysit.

“There will be a reduction in dropout rates if day care or support facilities are provided for younger children. Providing transport facilities will reduce the burden of working parents having to drop and pick up their children from schools.”

Urban-rural divide

There is a disparity between schools in the urban and rural areas of the State. “While Mumbai and the greater metropolitan region of Mumbai, which includes Thane, are able to ensure that municipal schools operate efficiently to a large extent, the districts struggle with a host of problems such as lack of infrastructure, teaching staff, transport, and drinking water,” Datta Chavan of the Student Federation of India (SFI) said.

He said this disparity was increasing. While schools in cities provide education in the English medium and have facilities such as libraries and computers, those in rural areas do not even have regular power supply.

Another problem is access to schools. As there are fewer secondary and higher secondary schools in the districts, students have to travel 8-10 kilometres to reach these schools. “Bus services are poor, so getting education becomes a struggle for children in rural areas,” he added.

According to a report compiled by the EDI in 2011, there is “a high disparity between districts in access, infrastructure and teacher index” and “the State is lagging behind in infrastructure and teacher index”. According to the report, 28 districts have a good access, 10 districts have good infrastructure and only six districts have a good teacher index. The EDI ranks Ratnagiri district high in educational development and places Nandurbar at the bottom of the list.

The RTE has made it mandatory to have at least one primary school for every kilometre and a secondary school for every 3 km. Maharashtra has schools even in areas with a population of 100 people. There are 44,000 villages in the State and almost double the number of primary schools, the Education Department official said.

In 2015, the State government made an attempt to revise the education policy by suggesting eight-hour duration for schools and mother tongue as the first language, among other things, but the ideas met with stiff resistance. According to the Education Department official, another master plan is in the offing with a focus on enrolment and reduction in dropout rates.

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