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Elementary steps

Print edition : Jul 14, 2006 T+T-

Examining the challenges and recent initiatives in providing universal elementary education.

APART from the general theme, the two books under review have much in common. Both consist of chapters by different authors and there is considerable overlap of contributors. More important, both volumes are based on field studies conducted in eight States - Andhra Pradesh, Assam, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal. The studies were sponsored and supported by the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) and coordinated by Santosh Mehrotra.

The Economics of Elementary Education, completed earlier but published later, deals with each one of the States separately, but follows a fairly common format. For each State, issues of access to elementary education are dealt with - literacy, enrolment and dropout - as also the agencies dealing with elementary education, that is, government and local bodies, private aided and unaided agencies and unrecognised bodies. Teaching and performance, buildings, teaching aids and costs in each of these segments are examined, in most instances with comparisons of the government and non-government segments. Public expenditure on elementary education is featured. The costs to households in providing elementary education to children are assessed along with the attitude of parents towards the schooling of their children. Recent initiatives to improve elementary education and the challenges ahead are also discussed. This book is a valuable source of information to those who are concerned and are dealing with elementary education.

In Universalizing Elementary Education, the treatment is thematic, drawing on the findings from the States and keeping in view the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan commitment of 2002 to achieve universal elementary education (UEE) by 2010. It has useful international comparison and a discussion of the critical role played by the UEE in the economic progress of a country. In certain respects the country has made enormous progress in elementary education. The number of primary schools has increased from a little over 200,000 in 1950-51 to over 660,000 in 2001-02 and that of upper primary schools from about 13,500 to around 220,000 during the same period. Enrolment too has increased phenomenally, about six times at the primary level and 15 times at the upper primary level. At the primary level 94 per cent of the country's population has schooling facilities within a kilometre and at the upper primary level it is 84 per cent.

However, drop-out levels are high and participation by girls and other disadvantaged groups is low. Inadequate school infrastructure, teacher shortages and absenteeism, and a serious lack of textbooks are other negative points. In terms of education indicators, the six most populous States of India do not fare much better than sub-Saharan Africa, and India has a third of the global total of children out of school. These are the general issues against which the problems of elementary education are examined in the two volumes.

The Constitution had envisaged that UEE would become a reality within a decade, that is, by 1960. That did not happen then and it has not happened so far. An examination of the international experiences of the past and the present may indicate the reasons for this failure.

The chief among them is inadequate effort by the state. Germany was the first country in the world to attempt universal, compulsory schooling up to 14 years. Even before the unification of the German-speaking territories of Europe in 1871, Prussia, one of them, had launched a programme of UEE by making it free and compulsory. It was a matter of state policy, though traditionally education was provided by private agencies. After the programme was launched, there was a striking increase in public schools financed through taxation. After Prussia defeated France in 1870, the latter also launched a big public effort in UEE, again with the state taking the lead. Other states also followed suit and by the end of the century elementary education had become free almost throughout Europe.

In the United Kingdom, religious bodies were traditionally responsible for education, but from 1833 the state began to stimulate the growth of education by subsidising these agencies. The Factory Act of the same year obliged factory owners to ensure that their child workers were receiving a regular education either in the school run by the factory or elsewhere. And by 1880, the state made general education compulsory.

Turning to the contemporary situation, again, the active role of the state can be seen in the case of all high achievers - Sri Lanka, South Korea, Indonesia and Thailand in Asia; Botswana in Africa; Costa Rica and Mexico in Latin America.

The scene in India is different on many counts. Education in the country does not receive the kind of attention it deserves. For instance, the total share of Central and State spending on education has been less than 3.5 per cent of the gross domestic product (GDP), as low as 2.4 per cent in the 1970s, though 6 per cent of GDP is considered desirable and many countries, including developing ones, spend around 4.5 per cent of their GDPs. Second, although during the First Five-Year Plan period (1951-56) close to half of total spending on education was devoted to elementary education, in later years the share came down sharply, to about a third by the end of the 1970s, because of the emphasis given to higher and technical education in the 1960s and 1970s. The share went up again after the government decided to fund elementary education following the National Policy on Education in 1986.

Lack of state funding of elementary education has meant that in many parts of the country, private agencies play a significant role in that sphere, especially at the upper primary level. There are three different categories, private schools aided by the government, private unaided schools and unrecognised private schools. In aided schools, the government usually pays salaries while the management meets other expenses. In general the managements recruit teachers and often they do not adhere to the qualifications prescribed. In practically all private schools, teachers' salaries are lower and the fees higher than in government schools, but teaching and general facilities are usually better.

The configuration of public and private schools and the differential conditions prevailing in them have their bearing on elementary education in the country. In practically all the States the bulk of the enrolment in rural areas in the primary school segment is in government and local body schools. The major exception here is Kerala where the government and private sectors almost equally share the total enrolment. However, the authors who are responsible for the analysis of this aspect in the first volume point out that private aided schools, which account for 41 per cent of the enrolment, are not only substantially funded by the state, but are under government supervision so that "it is the publicly provided or financed system that is the backbone of the education system in Kerala" also.

In urban areas, a significant proportion of all enrolled children is in private schools, aided and unaided - 40 per cent and above in several States, 70 per cent in Uttar Pradesh and about 80 per cent in Haryana. The private sector has a higher presence in the upper primary segment. What this implies is that in the urban sector generally, and in the upper primary segment specially, elementary education, which is meant to be free, is not free for many children and their families. To be sure, many families voluntarily accept (some, indeed, actively go after) fees-charging elementary education. On the other hand, inadequate provisioning of free elementary education through government and local body schools must be accepted as a major reason for the failure to universalise elementary education more than half a century after Independence.

Another aspect that is brought out is that even when elementary education is free (that is, non-fee-levying) families have to bear substantial costs to educate their children. These costs are of two kinds. First, there are costs associated with schooling - books, stationery, uniform, footwear, lunch, and transportation as also tours, annual festivals, and donations where these are applicable. Obviously, there are wide variations in these costs between rural and urban areas, different parts of the country, primary and upper primary segments and so on, and hence the figures indicated must be taken as providing orders of magnitude. "Household expenditure on primary education in rural areas varies between a low of about Rs.508 in Andhra Pradesh to a high of Rs.948 in a poor State like Rajasthan. In urban areas, the range is between Rs.1,169 in the case of West Bengal and Rs.2.061 in the case of Assam" (Universalizing Elementary Education; page 295). "Household costs for the upper primary schooling of children in rural areas vary between Rs.903 in Assam and Rs.1,841 in Tamil Nadu. In urban areas the range is from Rs.1,392 in Andhra Pradesh to Rs.2,655 in Assam" (page 296). It goes without saying that these expenses can and do act as a major deterrent for poor households in enrolling and retaining children in elementary education.

Poor households also have to reckon with the opportunity cost - the earnings of the children, especially boys who work instead of going to school, and the many household chores that girls attend to by staying at home. These, particularly the latter, are not easy to quantify and will show greater variation. It can also be argued that children below the age of 14 should not be engaged in work. But this noble sentiment does not have a binding impact in the case of households where every opportunity to earn a rupee or two makes a big difference to its well-being.

When Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan was launched in 2002 to provide quality elementary education to all children in the 6-14 age group by 2010, the idea was to ensure that all children went to school by 2003 and that all children completed five years of primary education by 2007. The first has not been achieved and in 2006 it does not take a futurologist to predict that the second will not be achieved. The indications are that the goal of UEE is unlikely to be reached by 2010.

What is to be done? Continue to make pious resolutions that will never be implemented thereby not only denying millions of children the opportunity to receive schooling even up to the elementary level, but also ensuring that the country will remain a cesspool of adult illiterates in the future as well?

Herculean efforts are required if these are to be avoided. However, little is gained by merely calculating the financial requirements to achieve well-defined targets and urging the state to make the funds available. Something different is called for.

The Economics of Elementary Education suggests some possibilities. In going through the financing of education it pays special attention to new initiatives to improve the coverage and quality of elementary education. Among these the recent attempts in Madhya Pradesh to involve local communities in efforts to spread elementary education deserve special mention. The State has one of the lowest literacy rates in the country, especially female literacy. It also has a high proportion of Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe populations, and is largely rural also.

Following the introduction of the NEP, Madhya Pradesh launched `Operation Blackboard' with the aim of improving the physical and teaching faculties in elementary schools. This was followed in 1994 by the District Primary Education Programme (DPEP), which aimed at improving the quality of education and experimenting new methods of teaching and learning. These programmes were part of the national efforts to strengthen primary education in the States.

In 1997, Madhya Pradesh introduced its own Education Guarantee Scheme (EGS), under which the government guaranteed the appointment of a teacher to any rural, particularly tribal, community where there were 25 children who had no school within a kilometre. The teacher, known as guruji, had to belong to the village and was to be identified by the community but paid for by the government. The community had to provide the space for the school too.

The EGS idea caught on throughout the State and according to official reports and independent field studies, EGS centres have been considered to be functioning more effectively than government schools in terms of enrolment and retention of children and enthusiasm and commitment of teachers. Also, the costs involved have been exceptionally low.

Realising the effectiveness of the EGS, Madhya Pradesh pressed ahead with further decentralisation of elementary education. Village Educational Councils and Parent Teacher Associations in local areas were mandated by law. A mass mobilisation for literacy was also launched with initiatives coming from local groups. One of the related aspects of these efforts has been that most of the teachers recruited are either women or belong to the socially disadvantaged groups.

Madhya Pradesh has not solved all problems relating to elementary education, but "there is little doubt that in what just a decade ago was one of the most educationally backward parts of the entire country, there is strong evidence of change - demonstrated both in enrolments as well as literacy" (page 214). The State's experience also shows that the way to realise the objective of UEE is for the civic community at the local level to accept it as its project and use the instrumentality of the state at that level - through the panchayati raj institutions - for its implementation. The role of the State and Central governments will be to facilitate these local efforts through adequate financial support.

Together the two books offer detailed factual material and analysis of the present situation and suggestions for the tasks ahead.