Cover Story

Cover Story

Taxes down the drain!

Little learning in
government schools

ASER 2005 — the country’s first independent nationwide survey of rural primary education — confirms deep-seated public suspicion that post-independence India’s elementary education effort has been a massive failure. Dilip Thakore reports

or the small minority of genuine educationists and social
scientists as well as for responsible citizens anxious about the future of India’s 415 million children — the world’s largest child (below 18 years of age) population — it’s a nightmare come true. Officially released on January 18, fifty-six years after newly independent India declared itself a republic and endowed itself with a stirringly worded Constitution guaranteeing all citizens equality before the law and an elaborate set of fundamental rights, the first independent nationwide status report on rural primary education confirms deep-seated public suspicion that post-independence India’s much-hyped literacy and elementary education effort has been a massive failure.

On the eve of Republic Day, the high-profile Mumbai-based NGO (non-government organisation) Pratham, a powerhouse education research and think tank which has reached over 200,000 children across the country through its pre-school, in-school and out-of-school programmes in 13 states across India, released its first ever Annual Status of Education Report, 2005 (ASER 2005) in New Delhi. The report, "a collective snapshot" compiled by 20,000 volunteers (mainly college and university students) who fanned out across 485 of India’s 603 districts between Children’s Day (November 14) and December 20 last year, has shamed India’s complacent academic commu-nity into a deafening silence.

ASER 2005 reveals that almost 60 percent (i.e 105 million) children in the age group seven-14 cannot read and comprehend a simple story of class II level difficulty and that 35 percent (62 million) cannot read a simple paragraph of class I level difficulty. The survey (confined to government and private schools in rural India) also reveals that 41 percent (72 million) children in the age group seven-14 are unable to solve two digit subtraction or three number division sums. In short, ASER 2005 is a damning indictment of the abysmal quality education being delivered in the country’s 700,000 rural government and private primary schools, with an estimated enrollment of 150 million children in the six-14 age group.

Although ASER 2005 does not highlight it, the financial implications of the dismal elementary education being dispensed in rural India are devastating. In effect it means that almost two-thirds of the huge annual outlay of Rs.60,000 crore for primary education — which receives 54 percent of the annual education expenditure of the Union and state governments estimated at Rs.112,000 crore (4 percent of GDP) — is money down the drain. The long-term impact of this colossal wastage of human resources for the Indian economy, growing at a fast clip of 8 percent per year in terms of shortages of educated workers, is even more alarming. The economy which is already experiencing shortages of minimally skilled blue and white-collar professionals, is likely to be lumbered with a huge number of unproductive unemployables, who will be a drag on economic growth and development.

"Against the backdrop that government research has not tracked learning achievements in any great detail, ASER 2005 has unearthed some startling facts. For instance our survey indicates that in rural India the majority of children in classes V-VII have not acquired the competencies they should have learned in class II. This is the most significant finding of ASER 2005, and it needs to be dealt with urgently and in a systematic manner. Another significant conclusion of the survey is that while initial enrollment percentages are high countrywide, student classroom attendance especially in the northern states, is low. For instance in Bihar, 50 percent of kids are absent from school on a regular basis. On the other hand in all the 485 districts covered by our volunteers, we found that parents and communities in general were deeply interested in the education of their children. But in some states there is a long tradition of irregular attendance. To rectify this unacceptable situation, parents and students need to be convinced that something useful is happening in schools — they need to experience the advantageous outcomes of attending class," says Madhav Chavan, an alumnus of Ohio State University and former reader in physical chemistry at Mumbai University, who founded Pratham in 1994 with the objective of raising standards of primary education countrywide.

Since then Pratham has played a major role in the promotion of the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyaan (Education for All) initiative which guarantees all children in the age group six-14 elementary education, and in prompting a constitutional amendment which makes it obligatory for the State to provide free and compulsory education to all children in that age group (Article 21-A). As such Pratham has emerged as the standard-bearer champion of India’s 415 million children, desperate for half-decent education.

Box 1

ASER 2005: shocking revelations

Starting on Children’s Day (November 14) until December 20 last year, 20,000 volunteers (mainly college and university level students) affiliated with 776 voluntary and social action groups across the country, streamed into 485 of India’s 603 districts, to assess the learning achievements of a representative sample of children in 8,886 randomly chosen households. To test their reading and comprehension abilities, they asked them to read simple class I level difficulty paragraphs and another class II level difficulty narrative in their mother tongue/ regional language. English language translations of the ‘difficult’ paragraphs and narratives are given hereunder:

Level 1 paragraphs

It’s the hot weather. Everybody is feeling the heat. People are sipping lime juice and walking around under the shade of their umbrellas.

I went to the market with my father. I bought a musical instrument and shoes. I’m going to play it and sing. I’m going for a walk in my new shoes.

Level 2 narrative

On the banks of a lake lived some tortoises. Little boys came to watch them. The tortoises crawled around and sometimes went back into their shells, which make them look like stones. The boys saw this and laughed and clapped. When they went home they told everyone the story of the tortoises.

ASER 2005 indicates that 35 percent of all children in the age group seven-14 were unable to read the class I level paragraphs. Moreover 52 percent couldn’t read the class II level narrative.

The first ever countrywide citizens’ report investigating actual teaching-learning activity — or the lack thereof — in India’s estimated 700,000 rural schools, and compiled by an unprecedented army of 20,000 volunteers financed by small and medium-sized donations, typically, ASER 2005 has been ignored by the petty politics and celebs-obsessed mainstream media. But it’s a gold mine of information (see box p.30) which furnishes the base data required to devise new strategies to reform India’s primary education system feeding ill-educated, sub-standard students into secondary and tertiary institutions of learning. Indeed it is arguable that contemporary India’s glaring paradox of 40 million educated unemployed within an economy experiencing grave shortages of skilled workers and professionals is rooted in the poor quality foundational education being dispensed in the nation’s primary — especially rural primary — schools.

Expectedly, given the severe indictment of the government by ASER 2005, Union human resource development ministry officials dodged all requests for interviews and/ or reactions to the survey. As usual the septuagenarian Union HRD minister Arjun Singh who despite its six years of uninterrupted publication as India’s sole education newsmagazine has never acknowledged EducationWorld’s exis-tence, failed to respond. Likewise joint secretary elementary education, Vrinda Swarup dodged interview requests while the usually responsive Amit Kaushik declined to comment on the ground that he was associated with ASER 2005.

But with the proverbial penny having dropped into the collective mind of the establishment which has hitherto been content with ritual rather than real elementary education, alarm sirens are beginning to sound across the subcontinent. "ASER 2005 is the first nationwide independent survey of an essential public service — elementary education. While I am happy about this first-of-its-kind citizens’ survey, I am also unhappy that it has confirmed our worst fears. Yes, more children are enrolling in primary schools because parents are becoming highly aware of the value of education, but because of poor delivery, too few children are really learning," laments Rohini Nilekani promoter-chairperson of the Bangalore-based Akshara Foundation (estb. 2000 as a Pratham affiliate), which during the past six years has made sustained efforts to raise standards and improve learning outcomes in Bangalore’s 49 municipal schools.

A dedicated missionary of quality primary education for all who has endowed the Akshara Foundation with over Rs.100 crore, derived in her capacity as a major shareholder of the Bangalore-based IT services and consultancy blue-chip Infosys Technologies Ltd, Nilekani’s dismay is compounded by the awareness that learning outcomes in urban primary schools are hardly better. Although she dismisses a similar study on learning outcomes in the garden city’s municipal schools conducted by Akshara as "based on a very small sample", she confirms that "our findings were very similar" to ASER 2005.

There’s particular embarassment in Bangalore which prides itself for the global reputation it has acquired as the Silicon Valley of India, that schools in the rural hinterland of Karnataka (pop.57 million) have been shown up as being among the worst in the country in terms of learning outcomes. "Karnataka which takes pride in hosting the maximum number of hi-tech firms in India, is at the bottom of the performance tables based on tests conducted to measure reading and arithmetic abilities of children. While the all-India statistics are appalling, Karnataka’s statistics is (sic) shocking. We rank well below Bihar. While in Bihar only 29 percent of children attending class V cannot read class II texts, in Karnataka 49.4 percent cannot. In the case of solving division problems, in Bihar 39 percent children attending class V cannot solve (class II) division problems, it is 76 percent in Karnataka. While in India where we want to usher in our own industrial revolution based on the knowledge industry, why is there such indifference (to primary education)?" query Bhamy V. Shenoy and Ashvini Ranjan writing in the Bangalore-based Deccan Herald (February 11).

This anguish is being echoed around the country with academics shaking their heads in disbelief that after all the year-on-year taxing and spending on elementary education infrastructure and massive teacher recruitment drives, learning outcomes in primary schools are as bad as highlighted by ASER 2005. "I never imagined that the results of the survey would be so bad. I would very much like to study the instrumentalities and methodology used in the survey to learn how it was conducted and get a finer understanding of the situation. But even if the conclusions of the survey indicating the huge number of children who cannot read simple texts are somewhat exaggerated, it’s still a terrible indictment of the education system. It is universally accepted that in primary schooling, developing reading ability has to be given top priority. Despite being a mathematician, I am less bothered about the 41 percent in the seven-14 age group unable to do two digit subtraction and simple division sums. There are numerous flaws in the manner in which mathematics is taught in primary schools, and not knowing subtraction and division is not as significant. These skills have to be developed in relation to grasping other concepts such as numbers sensibility, spatial understanding etc. But the most significant implication of this survey is that considerably greater resources in terms of materials, learning time and teacher attention have to be invested in reading and comprehension. ASER 2005 is a wake-up call to the government and the public to act," says Dr. R. Ramanujam, an alumnus of Madras University with a doctorate from the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Mumbai and currently a professor at the Institute of Mathematical Sciences, Chennai.

Up north as well the general reaction to ASER 2005 is of dismay, if not gloom. "In almost all the parameters Uttar Pradesh — India’s most populous state — fares worse than the all-India average. Therefore in terms of absolute numbers a 1-2 percent difference can translate into huge numbers of out-of-school or functionally illiterate children. For instance against the all-India percentage of 6.6 percent children in the six-14 age group being out of school, UP’s 8 percent seems only marginally more. But it translates into 5.5 million — half of India’s total — out-of-school children. While ASER 2005 highlights abysmal learning outcomes in rural India, the situation in urban areas is hardly better. In Lucknow 29 wards are without primary schools," says Smitin Brid, Pratham’s UP coordinator.

But while ASER 2005 paints a grim picture of the quality of tuition children in India’s shabby and grudging rural schools receive, it also offers evidence of higher enrollment and some progress in developing the notoriously deficient infrastructure of primary schools across the country. For instance, contrary to popular belief that a huge percentage of rural children don’t attend school at all, ASER 2005 indicates that 93.4 percent (188 million) in the six-14 age group are enrolled, of whom 75 percent are in government schools. Moreover the survey’s 20,000 volunteers who visited a representative sample of 11,446 schools in 485 of India’s 603 districts, report better than expected primary school infrastructure.

According to ASER 2005, 83 percent of rural primary schools up to class VIII are equipped with a hand pump or tap, 87 percent of which are in working order. Moreover 77 percent have toilet facilities. Encouragingly, of the total 11,446 schools visited, in more than 80 percent children in class V have textbooks. Moreover 70 percent of the schools surveyed were "preparing or serving a mid-day meal".

Given the massive base of 900,000 primary schools countrywide, the percentages of under-served schools add up to a huge and unacceptable number. Nevertheless the ASER 2005 report on rural school infrastructure indicates a sharp recent improvement in the provisioning of India’s rural schools. For instance PROBE (Public Report on Basic Education) 1999, had made sensational disclosures (often cited in EducationWorld), that 20 percent of India’s primary schools are multi-grade, single-teacher institutions without proper buildings; that 58 percent of them were unable to provide drinking water to students, and 70 percent lacked toilet and sanitation facilities. Compared with PROBE 1999, ASER 2005 indicates considerable progress in developing rural schools’ infrastructure, providing some satisfaction that the larger education allocations made under the SSA programme (augmented by a new 2 percent cess imposed on all income tax assessees) and recent Union and state government budgets, are beginning to impact the nation’s moribund elementary education system.

Box 2

ASER 2005 snapshot

In conformity with the United Nations Millennium Development Goal (MDG) of all children worldwide in primary schools by the year 2015, in 2000 the Union government launched its Sarva Shiksha Abhiyaan (SSA or Education for All) programme to universalise elementary education for all children in the age group six-14. The SSA initiative was subsequently followed up with the 86th Constitutional Amendment Act which added a new Article 21-A to the Constitution, which obliges the State to provide free and compulsory education to all children in the six-14 age group, and the Right to Education Bill, 2005, pending approval of Parliament.

Against this backdrop in November last year the Mumbai-based Pratham (est.1994) — India’s most high-profile education NGO (non-government organisation) initiated an unprecedented citizens-driven Annual Status of Education Report 2005 (ASER 2005) to assess the effectiveness of the SSA initiative which inter alia, has targeted all children (six-14 age group) completing eight years of elementary schooling by 2010. The major findings of ASER 2005:


• 93.4 percent children in six-14 age group are enrolled in school

• 75.1 percent of children in the six-14 age group are enrolled in government schools and 16.4 percent in private schools (aided + unaided)

Out-of-school children

• The survey indicates that 11 million children are not in school. This includes never enrolled and dropped-out children.

• Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Andhra Pradesh and Orissa account for 71.2 percent of all out-of-school children

Gender differences

• 60 percent of students in private schools are boys

• Girls as a percentage of all out-of-school children are 52.8 percent

Learning (reading)

ASER 2005 volunteers tested a representative sample of children in 8,886 households in 485 districts countrywide, to assess their learning capability at two levels:

• Level 1 being the ability to read a small paragraph with short sentences at class I level difficulty

• Level 2 being the ability to read a narrative with some long sentences at class II level difficulty

ASER 2005 indicates that:

• 35 percent of all children in the age group seven-14 could not read simple paragraphs (Level 1 text) and close to 52 percent could not read the short story (Level 2 text)

• 44 percent of children studying in classes II-V in government schools cannot read easy paragraphs (Level 1). In private schools in classes II-V, the percentage is somewhat lower at 32 percent

• Although many more children in higher classes (VII-VIII) can read, 22 percent of children in government schools and 17 percent in private schools cannot read class II level texts

• There are wide state-wise variations in reading ability. For example, among children currently studying in class V, only 25 percent or fewer children are unable to read Level 2 text in Kerala, Uttaranchal, Chattisgarh and West Bengal. The proportion of class V children unable to read (Level 2) is substantially higher (close to 50 percent) in Uttar Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Gujarat, Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh. Surprisingly Bihar features in the top five states ranked by class V children’s ability to read

Learning (Arithmetic)

• 41 percent of children in the seven-14 age group are unable to do either two digit subtraction or three digit division sums

• The learning outcomes gap between government and private schools is narrow. Private schools lead by about 10 percent in the younger age group and by 7 percent in the older age group. Even in private schools, in the higher classes (VI-VIII) 33 percent couldn’t cope with problems that children are expected to solve in primary classes

• The survey indicates that arithmetic capability is weak and needs urgent improvement

Teachers and children

• On average, over 75 percent of teachers were found present on the day of visits to sampled schools.

• Children’s attendance patterns indicate that approximately 71 percent of enrolled children in primary schools and close to 73 percent upto class VIII were present in school on the day of the visit

School facilities — provision and use

• 78 percent of primary schools visited had either a hand pump or a tap. 60 percent of schools had toilet facilities of which 70 percent were usable. (4,891 primary schools visited)

• 83 percent of schools upto class VIII had a hand pump or tap. 77 percent had toilets

• Of the 11,446 schools observed (primary schools and combined primary and upper primary), in more than 80 percent children in class V had textbooks

• 70 percent of schools visited were preparing or serving a mid-day meal

Nevertheless it is difficult to stomach the bland, "good news" of the authors of ASER 2005 that "on average 75 percent teachers were found attending on the day of the visit in sampled schools". In fact this innocuous statement is reflective of one of the worst evils of post-independence India’s government school system — unchecked teacher absenteeism — a prime cause of the deplorable learning outcomes spotlighted in the Pratham survey. The on-the-ground impact of mass teacher absenteeism which is a defining characteristic of the government — especially the rural government — school system, is that 1.25 million teachers countrywide are absent from duty on any given school day. As often reiterated in this publication, a pandora’s box of woes opens up from mass teacher truancy. Among them: multi-grade teaching, uncovered syllabuses, poor learning outcomes, student truancy and pathetic board exam pass percentages.

Fortunately a potentially effective antidote to the virus of truancy afflicting the teaching profession, has been incorporated in the Right to Education Bill, 2005, pending parliamentary approval. The Bill proposes the establishment of School Development Management Committees (SDMCs) for every school in which 75 percent of members will be parents of enrolled children. Empowered to supervise the administration and operations of schools, the powers of SDMCs should be expanded to monitor teacher attendance and disbursing teachers’ emoluments with the discretion to penalise absenteeism.

Box 3

"We all have to become involved..."

Gaver Chatterjee interviewed Madhav Chavan chief executive of Pratham (estb: 1994) in Mumbai. Excerpts:

Congratulations on completion of the first Annual Status of Education Report 2005 (ASER 2005). In your opinion, what are the most significant conclusions of the report?

Firstly, ASER 2005 is a validation of the already known numbers or trends indicated by the Central government. This is significant because it informs us that government statistics are not necessarily unbelievable, as is often assumed. The trend or big picture is not at significant variance with government disseminated information and data. The Union HRD ministry had claimed that 90 percent of children in the six-14 age group were in school last year. This was found to be correct. Moreover tests conducted by NCERT had indicated trends in learning achievements in several districts which concur with the ASER survey.

However, NCERT had not elaborated specifics or given any samples or examples of their research. ASER 2005 does so and has unearthed some startling facts. For instance, many children in classes V, VI or even VII have not acquired class II compe-tencies. This has been the most significant finding of ASER 2005 and this problem needs to be dealt with in a systematic manner.

Another significant finding of ASER 2005 is that classroom attendance, especially in the northern states, is very poor. While student enrollment figures are high, poor attendance is a grave issue. For instance in Bihar, 50 percent of children stay away from school on a regular basis. One solution to this problem is that teachers have to be regular and learning must happen in class on a consistent basis. Wherever our volunteers went, they found that parents and the general community were interested in quality education for their children but in some states, especially up north, there is a long tradition of irregular classroom attendance. To rectify this untenable situation, parents and students need to be encouraged to change their mindsets. And for this to happen, they should be convinced that something useful is happening in schools. They need to experience the learning outcomes of attending class.

Are there any bright spots — cause for optimism — in ASER 2005? If so what are they?

It’s been a massive and successful countrywide effort. The entire survey was completed in a little over 100 days — the time between my sending out the first e-mail to NGOs to the release of the report on January 18. The enthusiastic public response to ASER volunteers is highly encouraging. It confirms that rural people are genuinely interested in education, and that’s definitely a bright spot.

Our call for volunteers to participate in data gathering also received massive response from a cross section of society, spanning college students, elderly people, NGOs and others. In their capacity as concerned citizens they conducted the survey, contributing in cash and/ or in kind. The cost for surveying each district was Rs.10,000 and it was heartening to see how readily volunteers contributed.

Apart from the response of ordinary citizens, government response was also positive. We did not experience any defensive or sceptical government attitudes. Clearly, government and the people are very interested in the subject of education, and look forward to its improvement.

In your foreword to ASER 2005 you have congratulated the people who collected the data which formed the basis of the survey. What was the methodology and scale of this operation?

It was basically a survey of households conducted at the district level. Our volunteers fanned out to 485 districts across the country. They visited 20 villages and quizzed 400 randomly selected households in each district. The survey was conducted in two parts. First, children and their parents were interviewed and the children were tested at home on a one-on-one basis to measure their learning. The second part consisted of school observation. We spoke to teachers, got enrollment and attendance figures etc.

The ambit of ASER 2005 is restricted to rural government and private elementary schools. Are learning outcomes in urban schools better?

In this survey we didn’t collect any data on urban schools. However while we do know that private schools in urban areas are much better than private schools in rural areas, government schools in urban areas are unlikely to be significantly better than rural government schools.

ASER 2005 indicates that learning outcomes in private schools are 10 percentage points better than in government schools. Please comment.

Private schools in rural areas of south India are better than in the north. But in the north, most private schools are not even worth the name. In fact, children go to these schools because government schools are worse.

Against the backdrop of ASER 2005, what would you recommend as the top priorities of the Central and state governments to improve learning outcomes in primary education?

It’s important for school managements to fix learning outcomes for each class and go after them. Teachers have to put down in words what the outcomes of education will be — at each stage. For instance, by class III all children should be able to read a simple paragraph and analyse its content.

Next, build an education system which informs the village or the community (parents etc) what is happening in the school, and involve them to some extent at least. While conducting this survey we came across a case where the sarpanch was unaware that his son studying in class VII could not read a simple class II level text.

These are the two topmost priorities. I also recommend that all schools establish libraries to build a reading culture in schools and the community.

What’s your stand on the issue of English versus vernacular language as the medium of instruction in elementary education?

I have no hesitation in saying that it has to be the mother tongue or the local language. Learning in school is only a part of the learning process for children. Learning at home and from the environment outside school is the other part. If the medium of instruction in school is unfamiliar, it’s difficult for the child to connect the two.

Moreover she has to learn in a medium with which her mother is conversant, as follow-up at home is essential. Maybe 20-30 years down the line when we have an entire generation of people who have learned English, we can switch to English as the medium of instruction. At this point, we don’t even have enough teachers for it.

How optimistic are you of the United Nations Millennium Development Goal of quality elementary education for all children by 2015 becoming a reality in India?

Not a problem. It will happen by 2010. We’re on track and the gap is narrowing rapidly. Now we know the status of elementary education countrywide and are working towards improving it. The Union government is also pooling money and resources for education. We all have to become involved in the Education For All movement. We can’t just stand on the sidelines and watch.

Undoubtedly, as the national debate provoked by issues highlighted by ASER 2005 gathers momentum, solutions to the problems of deficient infrastructure, unsatisfactory learning outcomes, and chronic teacher absenteeism will emerge from the imminent slugfest. Particularly since Chavan insists that ASER 2005 will be followed up with similar surveys annually until 2010.

Already the framework of a national agenda to improve learning outcomes in the nation’s 900,000 all-important primary schools is becoming discernible. "It’s important for the managements of all schools to fix learning outcomes for each class and ensure they are attained. Teachers have to put down in words what the outcomes of education will be at each stage. For instance institutional managements should ensure that by the time they complete class III, all children should be able to read a simple paragraph and analyse its content. Secondly, the primary education system should be amended to ensure that parents, the village and communities are aware of what is happening in school and involve them to some extent at least. These are the two top priorities. But I also recommend that all schools establish libraries to develop a reading culture in schools and the community," says Chavan.

Six years after publication of PROBE 1999 stirred the conscience of the public and rudely awoke the nation’s educationists from their stupor, ASER 2005 indicates that while the infrastructure of India’s 700,000 rural government schools has improved following massive investment in the early years of the new millennium, teaching-learning achievements within the vitally important elementary education system continue to be abysmal.

Against this backdrop, the emphasis of SSA and the massive universalisation of elementary education effort in general being made by the Central and state governments needs to be shifted from inputs to outcomes. That’s the important message of ASER 2005.

With Srinidhi Raghavendra (Bangalore); Vidya Pandit (Lucknow); Hemalatha Raghupathi (Chennai) & Gaver Chatterjee (Mumbai)