It has been five years since Indian citizens have had education as a fundamental right (elementary, from age 6 to 14 years), but the country’s education system still has a lot to answer for. Educationists lament that the Right to Education Act seems to have been misunderstood as ‘right to schooling’ rather than right to quality education. We are thus faced with a situation where enrolment in schools is increasing, but quality of learning is deteriorating. This has once again been brought out clearly by the latest survey on the status of children’s schooling and basic learning by the NGO ‘Pratham’. In its Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) for year 2016 (after a one year gap), Pratham has highlighted that enrolment for age group 6-14 has been above 96% since 2009, improving further to 96.9% in 2016. Learning may have improved slightly at primary levels, but then comes the sobering news — reading and arithmetic skills have declined at upper primary levels. Class V students who can read class II texts are down to 47.8%; only about 73.1% of class VIII students can read Class II texts. As for English, class VIII students who can get through simple sentences are down to 45.2% (this can be compared to 60.2% in 2009). The ability to do basic sums has shown slight improvement, but only just. It is worrying indeed if only 26% of class V students and 43.3% of class VIII students can do division. So, quality education still remains out of reach for lakhs of schoolchildren across the country, while high drop-out rates later on negate the gains of high enrolment at primary levels. The countrywide proportion of children (aged 6-14 years) enrolled in private schools remains nearly unchanged at slightly over 30%. Interestingly, Assam, Aruchal Pradesh and Uttarakhand are exceptions; private school enrollment in Assam in the elementary school age group went up from 17.3% in 2014 to 22% last year. In this context, it helps to note that only two states, Kerala and Gujarat, have shown significant increases in government school enrollment.
As far as Assam is concerned, the Pratham report does not make pretty reading; whether in government or private schools, 45.3% class I students can’t make out a single letter in their mother tongue; 54.2% class I students can’t read capital letters in English; 40.5% class I students don’t recognize numbers from 1 to 9. These percentages denote very large number of primary students at entry level who are at zero level in terms of having learnt anything at school. It is hardly surprising that in class VIII, there are still students lacking basic reading and numerical abilities, and almost half the students can make sense of very simple English. The Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA) remains highly visible in the State, the appointment of TET-passed teachers in thousands hogs headlines, but all said and done — what about the education outcome? The Pratham report has highlighted other aspects of school infrastructure in 2016 — proportion of schools with computers stuck at around 20% overall, schools with libraries declining margilly to 75.5%, while those with toilets increasing to 68.7% thanks to the Swachh Bharat mission. One gratifying aspect is that schools with useable girls’ toilets are up to almost 62%. But given that India spends only around 3 percent of its GDP on education, that over 60 lakh teachers need to be appointed to government schools (including 9 lakh teaching positions vacant at elementary level), and that there is a crying shortage of properly trained teachers to teach in multi-grade classrooms — there is much that needs be done from the policy level downwards. The Human Resources Development (HRD) Ministry has recently correctly identified quality education as the prime issue, rather than universal access. The major challenge for Central and State governments is therefore to ensure acceptable learning outcomes. Without strict monitoring, fixing responsibility and taking corrective action whenever needed, this cannot come about. Above all, education needs to be a major election issue, so that people can hold governments to account for failing on this front.