Thanks to the Right to Education Act (RTE) of 2009, India has been able to achieve near universal enrolment of children in schools at the primary and upper primary levels -- but the quality of what is being taught has been severely impacted by the lack of benchmarks, says a senior official, as also a recent survey.
"This is a serious problem we are facing. Ever since the RTE, the assumption was that learning outcomes will improve. All the investments were made with that assumption. RTE's success in getting the child to the school was all right, but there are serious concerns about the quality of education reflected in the learning outcomes," Anil Swarup, Secretary, School Education and Literacy, in the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD), told IANS in an interview, blaming the poor performance on the absence of standardisation of benchmarks, questionable competence of teachers and other administrative issues.
Due to the lack of benchmarks and obscurity in what one was trying to achieve, the education standards were never mapped while the government kept increasing the budget with no clear objective in mind, he said, adding that things are now on track.
"How do you benchmark? For benchmarking, you have to make an assessment; for making an assessment, you have to define the learning outcomes, then carry out a National Achievement Survey (NAS) so that you understand where you were. This was undertaken last year. Now we at least have a benchmark. We can plan interventions. There are some other surveys which are not very comprehensive in nature, which do indicate that learning outcomes have become worse than earlier," Swarup said.
The National Achievement Survey (NAS) published earlier this year by the MHRD, reveals a pattern of decline in the quality of education -- measured as a "learning outcome" -- as a student progresses to higher classes. Nationally, just over 40 per cent of school children in class eight were able to answer their grade questions correctly, with the situation is worse in junior classes. The figure even for the national capital hovered around 30 per cent.
Aiming to set things right, the government has brought an amendment in the RTE Act, extending the deadline till 2019 for teachers to get trained. This was to have happened around 2014. However, Swarup was not hedging his bets entirely on the outcome of this training.
"I do not like to conjecture on what is going to happen. Our job is to understand the problem and take specific measures. One of the problems we face is the competence of the teachers. I can only say that they would certainly be better than untrained teachers. But what would the extent of impact be, only time will tell," he said.
Relying on the NAS to gauge the performance of the teachers, Swarup said that, by March next year, when "the assumption is most of them would be trained", the government will be in a position to assess the work of the teachers and hold them accountable.
The impact of worsening standards in government schools can be felt by the parents' increasing preference for private sector schools -- even as the government pumped in more and more money into its huge school infrastructure.
About 16 million students enrolled in private schools between 2010-11 and 2014-15, while government schools during the same period saw a decline of 11 million as is manifest in the government's District Information System for Education (DISE) data, cited by Oxford economist Geeta Gandhi Kingdon in her research paper, "The Private Schooling Phenomenon in India".
Faced with such overbearing figures, Swarup cited the example of Rajasthan, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka where, he said, government schools are witnessing a "reverse migration" and asked: "Why would anyone pay in private schools when one can have quality education in government schools (in these states)?".
As one who found himself in the eye of the storm during the CBSE's paper leak, Swarup maintained that the board was not to be blamed, but conceded that the episode was a "wake-up call".
"This is a wake-up call... it makes us think if we can further improve the system, so that even this doesn't happen. We are looking into how technology can be used to avoid even this much of human intervention. Even though CBSE is not responsible, we are intensively looking at how technology can be used to prevent that. We should be able to do that by next year, and all exams will be through technology," he pointed out.
On the NCERT's decision to curtail the syllabus so that students were not "unnecessarily burdened", he said this had been done to weed out redundancies in the curriculum.
"Children should not be unnecessarily saddled with something which is not of relevance to them. For example, I have been informed that there's a chapter on history of cricket in some class. Now, is there a need to have that chapter? There has to be a debate on the redundancy of some of these chapters that are there. The ultimate aim is to reduce the child's burden," Swarup contended.
(Vishal Narayan can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)