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'Enrolment is cause for celebration, quality is cause for concern'

By Freny Manecksha

According to the 2006 ASER survey, 93.2% of India's children in the 6-14 age-group are now in school. Farida Lambay of Pratham believes that the challenge is now keeping children in school and finding out why even after four years of schooling children cannot read

There are an estimated 140 million children in the 6-14 age-group in primary schools. Of these, 30 million cannot read, 40 million can recognize only a few alphabets, 40 million can read some words, and 30 million can read paragraphs. Over 55 million of these children will not complete four years of schooling, eventually adding to India’s vast illiterate population.  

Pratham, which began in the slums of Mumbai in 1994 as an endeavor by a few committed individuals to tackle the problems of education, has grown into an organisation whose activities reach across 18 states.

Pratham’s mission has been ‘Every child in school and reading well’. In pursuit of this it has launched the Read India campaign aimed at achieving reading and arithmetic proficiency among all children in India, within and outside school.

The campaign, phased over two years, has a March 31, 2009, deadline for achieving its goal. The phasing will be both geographical (about 300 districts in the first year, the rest in the second year) and sequential within each district (there will be a summer campaign followed by a low-intensity school campaign during the academic year).

Pratham has also facilitated the Annual Status of Education Report (Rural) (ASER) 2005 & 2006 which examines the status of primary and secondary education for India’s children, and has extensively recorded data on enrollment, dropout rates, quality of education and other criteria like mothers’ literacy, etc.

Farida Lambay, vice-principal of Nirmala Niketan and founder trustee of Pratham, spoke about the findings of ASER, various government policies, and why gauging children’s reading abilities and quality education is so important.

So the major finding of ASER 2006 which calls for celebration is the rise in enrollment?
A cause for celebration is enrollment; a cause for concern is of course, quality. Specifically, I would say this with regard to reading. In spite of going to school for four years children are not reading. That is a great cause for concern. Personally I am not so worried about out-of-school children -- they’ll come back. The challenge is whether children in school are actually learning.

What are Pratham’s plans to meet the Millennium Development Goals with regard to child rights?
We started with a perspective of child rights in terms of basic education -- that every child should learn, and every child should think. That is the basic right of every child. But now we are talking not only about enrollment but also quality. By quality we mean every child should be able to comprehend and compete with other schoolchildren.

We are also looking at the rights of children not just from stable families but vulnerable groups – i.e. the basic rights of children who cannot make it to school, child labourers and workers. This is in keeping with the Millennium Development Goals.

We had also said that by 2005, in Mumbai, we would make sure that every child got an education. We have partly done that. As far as child labour is concerned, we are looking at having no child working. We have done that, to a great extent. We are now looking at this for all of India.

Pratham has always said that whatever we do we will work with the government, and whatever we do will be replicated. We are goal-oriented and community-based. People -- whether it is the community or those providing support -- all must be brought together.  

Is 2015 a reasonable deadline for the Millennium Development Goals? How much do you plan to achieve by then?
For Pratham the goal is 2009, because we are going by the goals of the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA), which has fixed 2009 as the deadline. I think we can make it. Every child must get to read. That is our mandate right now with the launch of the Read India campaign. Because of the ASER report, Pratham has been able to work in all states and with their respective governments, and that should make achieving the goals possible.    

What are the education policies that have worked?
I think the midday meals scheme has worked in some places. The programme is doing very well in the south. Also, free girls’ education and incentives for girls like transport and conveyance have helped.

The Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan has given a strong focus to primary education, especially in terms of creating a movement. Yet we can do a lot more.

The Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan is the State’s effort to realise guarantees enshrined in Article 21 A of the Constitution, and to have a non-discriminatory delivery system for primary education. How do you rate the SSA vis-a-vis Pratham’s work?
In the seventh standard, the SSA mentions Pratham as a model. The SSA came afterwards. Also I think Pratham is the only urban model that looks at education for all.

The other good thing that happened is that Dr Madhav Chavan (Programme Director, Pratham) is part of the national-level advisory council and commission headed by the prime minister. I am on the SSA committee at the national level. The presence of Pratham’s members on such bodies helps translate our practices into policies.

What are the main gaps with regard to education? 
The major gap right now is vulnerable children, in terms of visibility. We do not have proper data on this issue. Also, vulnerable in terms of them being streetchildren, working children, child labourers...

Another gap is in higher education, from the seventh standard onwards. The gap here relates to both general dropout cases and girls’ education. Then there are patches or areas in states like the northeast, Orissa, parts of Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. What’s interesting in Bihar is that children’s learning abilities are good; those children who do go to school and stay in school do well.

Then there is the Muslim minority. Higher education and girls’ education are still problems here. Also, in terms of early childhood care, there is no Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) or anganwadis in Muslim localities.

What role does Pratham play in supporting the Integrated Child Development Services scheme (ICDS)? What ails the ICDS?
I personally think that as a scheme the ICDS is very good. Maharashtra, according to our report, is doing quite well with a coverage of 80%, which is not bad at all. The problem is in the implementation stage… the anganwadi worker is one among many in that remote village. If she doesn’t get recognition from her superiors there are bound to be problems. I also feel that if other schemes like, say, the Public Distribution System, don’t do well it has a direct impact on the anganwadi and children. There are problems of convergence. There should be more convergence between, say, the anganwadi and healthcare services.

Is there a concerted child rights movement in India or is work being done in a fragmented fashion by non-government organisations?
There is a child rights movement but there are many different mandates -- child labour, right to quality of education, etc. Also, there are many different funding organisations and different campaigns. I think now there must be convergence.

How does Pratham incorporate a rights-based approach in India? How does Pratham conceptualise the meaning of child rights?    
The mission ‘Every child in school and reading well’ is itself rights-based. We are saying ‘No’ to child labour. We are saying every community has the right to participate. When we work with the government we focus on the issue of rights. We have been able to advocate policies both on child labour and education at the national level.

What are Pratham’s fundamental strategies for guaranteeing full access to primary education?    
Pratham’s strategy is that we work with the government. We work with the entire hierarchy -- with schools, with parents. I think we have had much more success working with the community. We create an enabling environment within the community; and we are working with parents. We hope, ultimately, that schools feel the pressure.

Pratham’s strategy is to make the government more accountable. Everything we do is to make it more effective.

(Freny Manecksha is a Mumbai-based journalist)

InfoChange News & Features, June 2007