Primary Education - path to "a life better than ours"
Corporates and Communities
CII newsletter - October 2008
Mr Ashok R Kamath is the Chairperson of Akshara Foundation and Trustee of Pratham Books and PROOF
Anjanamma sits on the floor in her one-room tenement in Ashwatha Nagar, in Bangalore. Anjanamma has three children, a girl and two boys. Santosh, her seven-year old youngest son, is in the 3rd standard at the Government Kannada Higher Primary School in Ashwatha Nagar. Anjanamma is a strong votary of education. "It is necessary," she says. "Let children attain something. Let them study." Her daughter, Nagaveni, is in the 8th standard. A forward-thinking mother, Anjanamma wants her daughter to complete her education. "We never studied. Let our children study and do well," she says...."something other than the construction work his father is engaged in education will give them a life better than ours".
This is a case study that I have often visited - I quote this because it highlights three things - the first is a conviction most "poor" parents have that education is the only way to escape the poverty trap; the second is the financial sacrifices that parents are willing to make to ensure that their children have access to education; and, the third is that it makes us think of how we as a nation have addressed the issue of universalizing primary education. The answer to the last issue is that we have not done an adequate job and we need to find good solutions quickly to plug the gaps.
I do not believe there is any doubt that the large under-served masses believe in education and are prepared to make sacrifices for educating their children. Of course, one does occasionally bump into parents who say that an extra income generated through kids is more important than educating children but this is increasingly the exception.
A recent CII study suggests that India requires at least 30 million additional skilled workers in sectors such as healthcare, banking and financial services, retail, auto and construction by the year 2015. How do we get to these kinds of numbers if we are unable to prepare our children for this today?
Pratham's 2007 ASER surveys have come up with some interesting information that suggest the directions we could possibly take:
- In the past couple of years there has been a major progress in enrollment and provision of schools, teachers, toilets and water supply in most states. This is encouraging.
- In terms of learning levels, there are definite areas of concern - nearly 40% of the children at class 5 level cannot read a class 2 text, and, nearly 60% at that level are unable to do simple division.
- There has been a remarkable increase in the percentage of children who use additional paid coaching (the tuition or coaching class concept). In fact, Prof. Amartya Sen's Pratichi Trust study of 2002 found that in West Bengal, nearly half the children from classes 3 and 4 of government schools were also enrolled in coaching classes.
- Finally, the demand for English as a language skill is increasing even in the poorest pockets in the country.
I mention these four points because they clearly show that if there is focus, we do get results.
This leads to the issue of quality where there is an urgent need for improvement. I believe we should focus on the two parties to this equation - the teacher and the child. Teachers need to be motivated and appropriately trained. A recent McKinsey report that studied primary schools around the world came to the not-surprising conclusion that to achieve success and get high quality primary school instruction, societies have to get the best teachers ; get the best out of teachers and if that does not work, bring in appropriate remedial interventions.
The other half of the equation comprise the children and this is an area where an intense focus is required because of the sheer magnitude in terms of numbers. Technology plays a key role - by the use of data and data analysis, from measurements to effective measures, we are able to ensure that the children who most need remedial interventions get the necessary attention."In Bangalore, we have captured the reading and math learning levels for all children in government primary schools and the results are shared with all stakeholders via the Internet - by visiting http://karnatakalearningpartnership.org Using these technology tools, we are able to ensure that the children who most need remedial interventions get the necessary attention.
We believe that there has to be a greater use of technology to begin to understand the issues of out-of-school children and school drop-outs ; to track learning levels of children in schools. A strong technology backbone in the form of a comprehensive and user-friendly MIS for the Education Departments of the states will be useful in reducing administrative and reporting tasks for teachers so that they (the teachers) can focus on improving the quality of the learning outcomes for children. We believe industry can play a key role here.
There is also the need to galvanize the community to work closely with the school system to improve the quality of outcomes. Admittedly there is a lot to be done, but we should also recognize that in the past few years much has been done and we have to learn from what we have done - what worked and why; what did not work and why - so that the dream of every Anjanamma in this country of ensuring "a better life than ours" is achieved for the next generation.