A long way to go

Print edition : September 30, 2000

What prevents India from reaching the goal of Education for All? A report prepared by the government in line with a global initiative launched by the World Education Forum makes an attempt to find the answer.

THE World Conference on Education for All (EFA) was held in 1990 at Jomtien, Thailand. At the Conference, India, along with 155 other countries, committed itself to universalise primary education and halve the adult illiteracy rate by 2000. The new visio n for education was to ensure a better life to all people by providing the knowledge, skills and values required to achieve it.

At a classroom in Chennai. Lack of political will and the rigidity of the bureaucracy have been the major stumbling blocks to providing an education that is relevant, meaningful and convergent with broader development issues.-K. PICHUMANI

In April 2000, the World Education Forum was convened in Dakar, Senegal, to review the achievements of the last decade (Frontline, May 26, 2000). How far have the Jomtien commitments been met? To facilitate this review, an EFA Assessment process w as initiated in 1998. Technical guidelines, that included 18 key indicators, were developed by the EFA Forum Secretariat, located at the premises of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) in Paris. Based on these gu idelines, national governments prepared their own reports. The reports were then synthesised into sub-regional, regional and finally the global report.

However, in India the process of reviewing the educational achievements went much beyond the global framework. The India Report was not only viewed as a stocktaking exercise, but also as a base for future planning. Hence, it attempted to present a relati vely honest view of the educational situation as it exists and the problems and challenges that the country faces in making 'Education for All' a reality. Perhaps that is why it was not formally released in India. Apart from the main country report, 25 t hematic and sub-sectoral studies were commissioned and these were largely prepared by experts and practitioners from the academia and non-governmental agencies.

In setting the context, the Report identifies the following goals the country set for itself in 1990, when it signed the Jomtien Declaration: a holistic view of basic education with greater linkages between pre-school, primary, non-formal and adult educa tion; improved access for the deprived sections; quality improvement; community participation and involvement of NGOs; decentralisation in education management and increasing financial support.

Even before Jomtien, India had formulated a National Policy on Education (NPE) in 1986, with the goal of providing education to all. Conceptually, the NPE, a sound and forward-looking document, recognised quality as a major factor, the need to make educa tion relevant to the life contexts of both children and adults. It redefined learning in an empowering context, changing curricula and texts to address the life concerns of the disadvantaged.

India's literacy rate increased from 18.33 per cent at the time of Independence to 52.21 per cent in 1991. According to the National Sample Survey Organisation's 53rd Round figures for 1997, the literacy rate is 62 per cent. This is no mean achievement, despite both definitional problems and problems of measuring literacy. We cannot forget, however, that in absolute numbers India still accounts for one-third of the world's illiterate people. More than 290 million adults continue to be illiterate and 38 million children remain out of school. While the world is talking of a minimum of 10 to 12 years of education for all, India continues to struggle with five years of primary schooling.

The strategy for the 1990s was aimed not only at linking the different stages of education across generations but also at relating programmes of education with national concerns such as health, environment and so on and for this ensuring the collaboratio n between different departments of the government. By and large we seem to have failed in this.

Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) is recognised as being important both for the development of the young child and to facilitate the enrolment in primary schools, particularly in the case of the girl child. Its importance in terms of facilitating women's work is not highlighted. The importance of a multi-sectoral intervention is recognised in terms of providing a combination of health, nutrition, immunisation and pre-school education services. The only programme for ECCE so far has been the Inte grated Child Development Services (ICDS). Initiated in the mid-1980s, ICDS was universalised in 1995-96. Yet the actual outreach and coverage seem to have been poor, given that the Gross Enrolment Ratio (GER) improved from 10.33 per cent in 1990 to only 16.9 per cent in 1997-98. Further, the coverage is uneven across States, with Bihar and Uttar Pradesh having only an 8 per cent coverage. Across the board, however, the emphasis on educational interventions in ICDS has been poor. While it is supposed to be an inter-sectoral programme, coordinated by the Department of Women and Child, inputs from and coordination with other departments has been minimal.

In the urban areas there has been a mushrooming of pre-school and day-care centres. Most of these are in the private sector, without any supervision, regulation or support from the government. In some areas, NGOs have been encouraged to run day-care cent res, but rarely are they linked to the mainstream educational system. A significant exception in this regard is Pratham in Mumbai, that has been working in tandem with the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation.

The thrust of the educational efforts in the last decade has been on primary education. Some 95 per cent of the population now has access to a primary school within one km from home. The GER improved to almost 90 per cent in 1997. The Net Enrolment Ratio (NER), however, was only 71 per cent at the primary level. Further, wide regional, sectional and gender disparities persist. For instance, 16 per cent of habitations, most of these in remote, tribal pockets of the country, lack access to a primary schoo l as per this norm.

A distressing fact, however, is that even the GER has declined substantially from 67.8 per cent to 58.5 per cent between 1991 and 1997 at the upper primary level. The Report does not offer any substantive explanation for this phenomenon. One possible exp lanation is that as a substantial number of older children who are first generation learners are being brought into primary school, the enrolment is lower at the upper primary level. Another factor appears to be the availability and access to upper prima ry schools relative to primary schools. The ratio was one to three in 1993. This issue is discussed further in the section on quality.

IN 1991, there were more than 300 million illiterate adults in the country. The National Literacy Mission sought to cover 100 million people by 1999 by adopting a mass campaign approach and making adult literacy a people's movement. As a result of the ca mpaigns, the literacy rate in the country has improved, with female literacy (11 percentage points) improving at a faster rate than male literacy (nine percentage points). The literacy campaigns have definitely been successful in large-scale community an d social mobilisation, increasing school enrolment, enhancing awareness on issues of social and gender equity, but the achievement and retention of literacy skills per se has been poor.

The problem seems to have been largely one of design. The campaign came as a whiff and disappeared, without leaving in place adequate, responsive or relevant mechanisms to sustain the fragile gains made. Five literacy centres each were combined into one post-literacy circle. For small and remote habitations, this often meant travelling far from home, which was at times not convenient, and being taught what they did not want to learn. There were hardly any materials in the different dialects, using visua l language, using learners as writers and designers or building on folk knowledge and oral traditions. Nellore district once hit the headlines, thanks to women's action against the sale of arrack and liquor. The money earlier spent on arrack was saved, a nd this led to the growth of a savings movement. Today, much of this initiative has been bureaucratised and the women of Nellore have been deprived of an excellent real-life learning opportunity. Whatever small efforts persist today are not linked to any efforts by the State.

While there have been some links between primary schooling and adult literacy, the approach has been a far from holistic one. Schools could have been used to reach out to adults as well, contributing to the building of a learning society. On the contrary , in several districts today one finds conflicts between the District Primary Education Programme and the Adult Literacy Programme. Even this tenuous linkage does not exist in the case of early childhood education.

J.P. NAIK, Member-Secretary of the Education Commission in India, in answer to the question: "Who has benefited most from the expansion in education that has been achieved in the post-Independence period?" wrote in 1965, "...the largest beneficiaries of our system of education are boys, the people of the urban areas, and the middle and the upper classes. Educational development, particularly at the secondary and higher stages, is benefiting the 'haves' more than the 'have-nots'." These views were strong ly endorsed in Education and National Development: Report of the Educational Commission (1964-66), soon after.

While there has been some progress, wide disparities remain, with the Scheduled Castes and Tribes, girls, disabled and working children being at a clear disadvantage. While the Report does not provide data that are disaggregated on all these counts, Stat e-wise data are available for key indicators, and also gender disaggregated data. Of the 38 million children who still remain out of school, 33 million are in the nine States of Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Gujarat, Mad hya Pradesh and Orissa.

In terms of gender differences, 81 per cent of the girls were enrolled in primary school in 1997, as against 98.5 per cent of the boys, but at the upper primary level this fell to 49.5 per cent for girls. Girls seem to continue to be at a disadvantage in the transition from primary to upper primary. While the reduction in drop-out rates has been more for girls than for boys in recent years, the situation is far from satisfactory. Cultural and socio-economic barriers increase as girls grow older, and hen ce the educational system too needs to respond more directly to their special needs. Apart from scholarships and financial assistance, the issue of timings, special schools, curriculum, safety and so on need to be addressed.

While the NER at the primary level is 71 per cent, the drop-out rates are high, at 38 per cent. This is an improvement on the dropout rate of 48 per cent at the beginning of the decade. At the upper primary level, however, there has been no improvement, with a drop-out rate of 55 per cent. Even when children enrol, why do they not want to continue in school?

The Yash Pal Committee Report (Learning without Burden, 1993) stated, "a significant fraction of children who drop out may be those who refuse to compromise with non-comprehension..." A study by UNESCO's Asia Pacific Programme for Education for Al l (APPEAL) in South Asia in 1998 notes that while there have been efforts to widen access and increase enrolment, there has been no concern about whether children find what they learn at all relevant to their needs and interests. While some effort is mad e to relate education to life in adult literacy programmes, such attempts to give a "life orientation" to primary education are lacking. Most texts fail to acknowledge children's knowledge as valuable. They tend to focus on information, rather than on co ncept-formation, creativity and analysis.

India is nowhere near achieving the goal of "satisfactory quality" as promised by the NPE, despite several efforts such as decentralised training of teachers at the district level, provision of mid-day meals, incentive schemes such as free textbooks and uniforms and so on. Incentive schemes have encouraged enrolment, but the lack of a suitable learning environment, relevant learning materials, learner-centred pedagogy and teacher absenteeism have led to a loss of interest and high drop-out rates. Where "quality" issues have been tackled head-on, as in Kerala, the Shikshak Samakhya programme in parts of Madhya Pradesh or by the Lok Jumbish Project in Rajasthan, some improvements were visible. However, when attempts were made to address the life issues o f the marginalised sections of the population, there has been resistance from the established forces. In both Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, the experiments have tended to retract rather than struggle on (Texts in context by A. Rampal, MHRD/NIEPA, 2000).

The Report repeatedly emphasises the important roles played by NGOs in educational interventions. The facts present a different story. In India, NGOs have mainly been engaged in the provision of non-formal education to out-of-school children, both child workers and those in remote areas. India has almost 11.28 million child workers and another seven million children engaged in various household duties (1991 Census). The number of NFE centres being run by NGOs was close to 58,000 in 1998-99. In terms of total numbers, this is minuscule, with the whole of NFE covering only 3.5 per cent of enrolment at the primary school level.

Increasingly, several NGOs have developed innovative strategies for multi-grade teaching, developing innovative curriculum, improving pedagogies and textbooks, yet bringing these efforts into the mainstream has been an uphill task. While much has been wr itten in the Report about partnerships with NGOs, one can count hardly six of them that have been able genuinely to partner with the State in improving the quality of education - Lok Jumbish, along with Digantar and Sandhan Shodh Kendra in Rajasthan, Ekl avya in Madhya Pradesh, the Rishi Valley Rural Education Centre in Karnataka and Pratham in Mumbai. If the State were genuinely serious about using the strengths of NGOs in terms of their skills and innovations particularly in quality improvement, surely more such linkages would have emerged during the decade. Upscaling such innovations is not merely about replication, but about a change in attitude towards education. Involving teachers in reviewing and redesigning the curriculum based on the local soci al and cultural context of the children, can lead towards an empowering education.

Decentralisation, both in management and educational support, has been a buzzword of this last decade. District Institutes of Education and Training (DIET) have been set up in each district. Efforts are in progress to set up Block Resource Centres and Cl uster Resource Centres to facilitate capacity-building among teachers. While the ideas are good, one needs to remember that apart from setting up such institutional mechanisms, simultaneously there needs to be a focus on strengthening skills and capaciti es at the local level to deliver the sort of support and training they are expected to. Otherwise we end up with these decentralised structures, reproducing centralised norms and guidelines in a more routine and unimaginative way than even the centre. Ex ceptions today relate to areas where NGOs have collaborated in the processes of training, material development and providing space for experimentation and innovation.

While the NPE sought an increase in financial outlays to education to 6 per cent of GNP, this is yet to happen. In 1996-97, 3.8 per cent of GNP was invested in education. The current public expenditure on elementary education has actually declined from 1 .69 per cent to 1.47 per cent of GNP during the 1990s, despite a shift in favour of elementary education within the educational allocations.

Several of the thematic papers commissioned as part of the India country report have in fact critically analysed some of the issues raised here - on decentralisation, on the status of women and girls, on the contextual relevance of texts, on post-literac y and continuing education, amongst others. The writers are experts in their own right. How far will their insights and suggestions be incorporated both into State education policies and, more importantly, into practice, remains to be seen. Lack of polit ical will, though the Report claims the contrary, and the rigidity of the bureaucracy, have been major obstacles to providing an education that is relevant, meaningful and convergent with broader development issues and sectors. This needs to change.

Dr. Nitya Rao works with the Asian South Pacific Bureau of Adult Education, Mumbai.

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