School reforms still unintelligible

About seven years ago, villagers in a remote village in the Kutch area of Gujarat confessed that they pulled their girl children out of school when they were about 12. But all our collective outrage at this travesty of gender equality and educational deprivation was somewhat dampened by their reasons. The school was about 6 km away and there was no form of transportation. They were nervous about letting their teenage daughters walk home alone through the vast expanses of desert land. Also, the school had no toilet.

About two years ago, a village school in Uttarakhand, on the edges of the Rajaji forest, had its own story. The primary school teachers spent most of their time cooking the mid-day meal, so teaching time was limited. There was only one secondary school teacher, who taught all subjects to all classes from five upwards. He was paid sporadically, sometimes not for months. The school had no chairs or tables. The toilet blocks had been built, but had no sanitary fittings or plumbing.

Sluggish march: Although the condition of rural schools has probably
improved from what it was some 15 years ago, there is still an urgent
need for fast-paced reforms across rural India

Perhaps, these two experiences showed an improvement from a visit to a school in the countryside around Ranchi some 15 years ago -- when it was still part of Bihar. Here the village school had no doors, no windows, no chairs, no tables, no blackboards, no students or teachers. The villagers said that somewhere far away, some teachers did collect their salaries for teaching in this school, but the villagers had never met them.

Are the findings of the Annual Status Education Report Rural 2011 in anyway surprising then? According to the survey undertaken by the NGO Pratham, both reading and arithmetic skills have declined. Apparently, half of the class 5 children surveyed couldn't even read class 2 textbooks.

The middle classes in India get very exercised over entrance tests to management institutes, engineering colleges and medical schools, not to mention their fee structures. But higher education is a minor headache in our country. It is school education -- or lack of it -- which should really worry us. It has taken us more than 60 years to look at right to education being a law in India. And rural education seems to be at the bottom of our collective radar.

But education for everyone should have always been our topmost priority -- together with health (the report that says that 55,000 new mothers and 13 lakh infants die every year in India -- one of the worst records in the world -- has also just been released). This is not about competing with China or proving how great India is. It is about providing basic rights to every citizen and not moaning about the cost. We've already left it about 60 years too late and while it's wonderful that almost everyone has a mobile phone, it would, perhaps, have been better if we had minimum school education and health care as well.

The condition of rural schools has probably improved from the situation that I saw in Bihar 15 years ago (now Jharkhand). But many of the problems detailed in the ASER report mirror the stories in Kutch and Uttarakhand. Multi-grade classrooms keep students and teachers away from schools, in some cases teacher attendance dropped by 90 per cent. Toilet access is a problem everywhere -- if you add the figures up, locked, unusable and nonexistent toilets are almost 60 per cent. If there is good news, it is that the enrolment of girls has gone up.

The sad thing is that we are depriving bright minds of an acceptable future. We weep over stories like former president Abdul Kalam walking miles to get to school, but we seem to forget that life is often no different for children today. Platitudes about reality checks no longer apply. This has to be an emergency.

Ranjona Banerji is a senior journalist. You can follow her on twitter @ranjona

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