Getting children into school is the easy part

Written by Michael Walton | Michael Walton | Updated: Jan 29 2010, 02:58am hrs
Prathams Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) for 2009 is both thrilling and sobering. It is thrilling because of the sheer fact of its existence. This report, now in its fifth year, is based on testing some 7,00,000 village children in basic reading, arithmetic and English. Villages and children are chosen in a way that is statistically representative of the rural parts of 575 districts, effectively providing an accurate picture of rural India. Surveys are done in a few short months, with some 500 organisations and over 25,000 volunteers. It is a stunning organisational endeavour and a dramatic manifestation of societal commitment to understanding basic education. It is also an act of citizen accountability. To its credit, the government has welcomed the report and the principle of partnership.

What is sobering is the account of the state of rural education. The good news is that most children are now enrolled in schools. Only 4% of 6-14 year olds were not enrolled in any school in 2009. Even among the vulnerable group of 11-14 year old girls, the proportion is down to 7% out of school, with notable gains in Bihar, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan.

The bad news is that basic reading and arithmetic skills are still woefully inadequate. There is some improvement in standard 1, but little or no change in standard 5 between 2005 and 2009. Almost half the children in standard 5 are unable to read a standard 2 text. This is in spite of rising public and private efforts. There has been a substantial increase in spending by Central and state governments, notably under the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyaan that has quality elementary education and education for life as a key goal. Most children are not getting an education for life.

Private action is also both significant and rising, with an intriguing rise in tuition, now growing faster than private schooling. In 2009 almost 22% of rural children went to private schools while 26% received some kind of tutoring; three-quarters of these were enrolled in government schools. This is clearly not a phenomenon of village elites. Overall, two-fifths of rural households were paying for some private education; even many children with illiterate mothers are receiving tuition. Half of all children receive tuition in Bihar and Orissa and three quarters in West Bengal! Children going to private schools or receiving tuition generally have higher scores, but not dramatically so. And some of this is due to better household conditions.

Lack of opportunity to acquire basic skills is a fundamental failure in society, as recognised in repeated pronouncements of the state, including the Right to Education Act. It is also a problem for long-term growth. India is growing fast. But the long-term economic transformation to upper middle-income status and beyond requires widespread secondary school skills, and growing tertiary education skills. Failures at the primary level mean failures later in the educational system. Even if rapid growth is sustained without major improvements in broad-based education, the Latin American experience suggests a high probability of rising inequality, with attendant problems of exclusion and conflict.

So, what can be done Theres more sobering news. All the international experiencefrom rich and developing countriesfinds that getting children into school is the easy part. Improving quality is truly hard. The US has struggled unsuccessfully with this for decades. Increasing inputs alone is not a solution. Indian education certainly needed increased inputsand will need a lot more. But the experience of rising inputs and stagnant quality is par for the course.

There is, however, a more optimistic prism. Yes, there is no magic elixir, not in input expansion, not in vouchers. Turning around an educational system is a tough issue of institutional transformation, involving changes in behaviours of teachers, administrators, children, parents, tutors, citizens and politicians. Finding the way forward will involve exploration and experimentation, with structured learning on results. This will almost certainly involve both the expansion of private action, in schools and tuition, and systemic change in the government sector. Unfortunately, the Right to Education Act is particularly weak on results.

There is also potential for learning from the extensive heterogeneity of experiences within India. Madhya Pradesh and Himachal Pradesh have above average outcomes. Chhattisgarh does relatively well. And as just one example, in an experimental assessment of a 2008 summer camp in West Champaran in Bihar (involving the state government and Pratham), we found significant improvements for participating children most in need of remedial attention.

Back to the thrill. There has not been a transformation of the educational system in four years. That never occurs. But a combination of citizen demands, action and a sharp focus on actual results that ASER so vividly exemplifies is a source of hope for future change.

The author is at the Harvard Kennedy School and the Centre for Policy Research