Barriers to the classroom, barriers in the classroom

By Anita Rampal

Yes, the odds are stacked against the girl who wants to stay in school -- because she is more malnourished and hungry, because she also does the housework and looks after siblings. But insufficient attention is paid to one important factor that pushes her out of school -- the quality of education. Parents who find their daughters are not learning much in school think she would be better-off grazing cattle

Girls' participation in school education has long been an area of concern. We know that the existing social structure plays an important role in girls going to school, in terms of the expectations people have of girls' education. If there is a social value placed on the learner's educational experience, then the learner feels motivated even in a system that is otherwise inadequate or extremely selective.

Interestingly, a lot of current research across the world has shifted from the earlier notion of competence to motivation. We have not sufficiently registered what motivates a girl or boy to study; we have not asked whether the existing system motivates these students sufficiently.

If girls go through elementary schooling and manage to stay in the system they often show more consistency than boys. The board examinations may be hollow measures for assessing authentic learning, but even going by that measure we find that girls do well if they manage to stay on in the school system after they have crossed into the higher secondary level.

It is the early years that are, in fact, most crucial. Of course, over the last few decades India has made considerable progress in terms of the enrollment of girls. There are more schools now, and we know that in order to have more girls in the classroom it matters if the school is close to the home; it matters if there are enough teachers; it matters if there are women teachers. But what is also obvious is that, even today, the quality of education is not something we can really be happy about. This matters, because if you have a meaningless chalk-and-talk routine and textbooks that don't encourage you to think, then the child can very easily end up feeling stupid.

What, after all, is the purpose of learning? In a lot of areas, and in a lot of communities, the aim is still not to get girls educated for a larger purpose -- not just for a job, but for an individual's development. The presumption, unfortunately, continues to be that girls are not going to do anything much with their schooling and nothing can be expected from them. This, in turn, impacts negatively on their own capacities and abilities to push through the system and its barriers.

Segregation between private schooling and government schooling also impacts girls from disadvantaged homes disproportionately. These children often tend to get relegated to government schools that are resource-starved and poorly staffed. Often, within the same family, the girl will get sent to a government school while her brother attends a private institution. This is happening a lot, even in families that are better-off.

So the odds are always much greater for the girl. It becomes a challenge for her to pursue schooling with tenacity, even if things are not making sense, even if she doesn't have support at home, even if she is more hungry, even if she is more tired because she also has to do the household work.

Our early learning system is very weak. Since we don't have good systems to ensure that younger siblings are better looked after, the responsibility of caring for them falls on the older sibling, and this may even take her completely away from her schooling.

The first Public Report on Basic Education for India (Probe Report) in the late-1990s by development economist Jean Dreze and some of us found that where parents were keeping their daughters away from school in order to use their labour at home or elsewhere, it was often because they found their daughters were not learning very much at school. Typically, the girl would fail and the parents would conclude that she was better-off grazing cattle or doing household chores. We need to be aware of these 'push out' factors that come into play.

The reason why Himachal Pradesh emerged at the top of the table in the Probe Report was because girls here were expected to be in school, at least up to the elementary school level, and government schools were expected to function. That was the social norm. Himachal Pradesh really stood out on this score, and it was largely because of the kind of public provisioning for schooling that had been made over the previous 10-15 years. It was notable that even in very difficult terrain, where there was only one hamlet of 10 families, there was a functioning school with teachers who were present. In comparison, the situation in the other northern states was dismal -- almost 60% of schools in many other states had only one teacher, two at the most. It would have classrooms of 100 children. School education was just notional in such circumstances and that was the reason why half the children were found to drop-out before completing school -- with girls clearly the worst-off. It was found that many states had adopted the para-teaching model -- hiring very low-paid contractual teachers, an approach that does not bring either quality or equity into the classroom. Children from marginalised communities were particularly impacted, which was why the Right to Education legislation came in.

Lags and gaps in early childhood education

There are other factors that come into play, including the alarming levels of malnutrition among children, particularly girls. With such high levels of malnutrition, just entering a challenging arena like school, and continuing in it, becomes much more difficult.

The lags and gaps manifest themselves very early in the Indian school education system. Early childhood, for instance, is a neglected area. The Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) scheme is one of the world's largest welfare interventions. It has been somewhat useful in terms of addressing poor nutrition but has proved totally ineffective in terms of education. We need to focus much more on children under six. The poor start is compounded by indifferent early schooling in the formal system. Interestingly, the highest drop-out levels we have had in the last few years are actually in Class 2 or 3. Children, especially girls, come to school and then leave within a couple of years. This is because their school just doesn't seem relevant.

The situation is complicated and nuanced. If no learning is taking place because of lack of a proper system, then parents, the family and the community will not be motivated enough to persist with sending girls to school. So we have the case of girls being placed in an indifferent educational environment to start with, and when the results don't show it becomes an argument for withdrawing them from the system altogether. And, while there has been progress in terms of girls' enrollment, no one really knows about their levels of participation.

There is, in fact, a mismatch between actual enrollment and regular attendance, again especially for girls. Their attendance is often not regular because any development within the family -- an illness at home, a ceremony, someone coming down for a visit -- means girls can't attend school. Once there is a break in education, even a 10-day break, they could find it extremely difficult to catch up. So, ensuring regular attendance is a challenge. It is not just the quality of learning but regularity of learning that is crucial.

Middle school replicates the biases

Middle school more or less replicates the situation at the primary level. Few teachers have high expectations of their girl students. This demands better curricula and different kinds of pedagogies. It is known that activity- and conversation-based pedagogies everywhere in the world make for greater participation. In India, however, this is often lacking. Even though we are trying, through vehicles like the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, we know that classrooms haven't changed much, that curricula haven't changed much, that it is still very much the old model of teachers talking down to the class. This is not an approach that builds a sense of agency, particularly in girls.

Having worked at the Hoshangabad Science Teaching Programme for Rural Schools in Madhya Pradesh, I found that wherever teachers gave students a chance, whenever teachers encouraged group activity, hands-on work, experiments and discussion, real learning did take place. Unfortunately, our system doesn't seem to understand the importance of group activity. Current theories maintain that learning is a social process; one doesn't learn alone, one really learns in a group from each other.

When our teachers realise this, when our textbooks are written in a way that encourages such an approach, then students learn by brainstorming with each other and not just by rote. This kind of pedagogy also helps bridge the gender gap. If you don't allow group work, it is very easy for girls to fall behind. If you allow a lot of talking between children, if you allow them to figure things out for themselves, if you allow examples from their home experiences, and you build your approach to learning on that, then you nurture and enhance a sense of self-esteem in the child and she/he ends up performing much better.

We have seen this in Hoshangabad. Children who may have come from the most difficult of home situations, from faraway villages, felt they were contributing to what was happening in the classroom because they were engaged in something. Take science or maths: we know these are subjects where teachers do not encourage girls. Even if they do something well, it goes unrecognised. Teachers invariably encourage boys, or those who speak more confidently -- girls tend to be quieter or choose not to speak up. Teachers can easily overlook their presence.

I once wrote a piece on a girl called Soni, which appeared in the Economic & Political Weekly. Soni is one in a few million girls who was actually able to overcome the various educational barriers that were strewn in her path. I first noticed her as a 12-year-old when I visited her school in Dhar, a small town in Madhya Pradesh. I had gone to address some science classes as part of my involvement with the Hoshangabad Science Teaching Programme.

Two years later, I met her again. She was in Class 8. It was soon after the 1991 monsoon and Soni and her classmates had performed a 'quiet miracle'. At that time, the local community had just been through a state of near-panic because the story had spread that some curious white lines that had emerged on local vegetables represented a curse by the serpent-god. So great was the fear that people had actually stopped eating vegetables that bore these markings.

It was in a milieu where truck-loads of vegetables were being dumped into the Narmada river that Soni and her friends, all studying in an ordinary government school, were encouraged by a teacher to inspect the affected vegetables. After dissecting a large number of leaves with a pin, they finally succeeded in identifying the cause of the white lines -- a tiny insect less than a millimetre in size that was embedded in the leaf. Soni and her friends identified it by using a simple plastic microscope. The lines were later found to have been caused by the 'leaf miner'. The larvae of the insect buried in the leaf fed on its chlorophyll, leaving the telltale white lines. As the larvae grew, they ate more of the chlorophyll, causing the line to take on the contours of a snake, which is what had caused the furore. The girls went a step further and cooked the vegetables to prove that nothing adverse would happen if the affected vegetables were eaten.

Soni came from a scheduled caste background; her father worked as a daily wage labourer. Her parents, I later learnt, had actually married her off at the age of 11, along with her elder sister, to save on wedding expenses. She had not yet been sent to her husband's home. We interviewed her mother for a film we made on Soni. Dressed in a weathered lehanga choli, the woman was a bit overwhelmed by the attention her daughter was getting. As she put it to us: "Agar yeh ladka hota to main usko aur padhati thi," (if she had been a boy, I would have educated her further). Soni went on to pass the Class 10 examination without failing even once. At that point, she wrote a postcard to me saying: "Pehli baar mere pitaji ne kaha hai ki tum kuch bano," (my father told me for the first time that I should go ahead and do something with my life).

The fact is that girls are not generally expected "to do something with their lives". Soni was the only girl in her family who was able to pursue a school education without tripping over the obstacles in her path. Her elder sister, who was married off early, was thrown out of her marital home and returned with her baby. Soni later told me that she wanted to study hard and become a policewoman -- policewomen were attractive to her because they seemed to project power. I encouraged her instead to take up a career related to science, given her interest in it. She applied for a nursing course and got a seat in one of the best medical colleges in the state. Finally she did become a nurse.

We can see from this story that it was the little things that made a difference to Soni's education -- a supportive teacher, for instance, and the fact that her parents felt something special was happening to their daughter because of her school education. In fact, they annulled her marriage quietly by not sending Soni to her husband's home. This wouldn't have happened had her education not given her parents the confidence to take this step.

But there are not too many Sonis around. In her village I met many women, some with three and four children, who would come and pour their hearts out saying they felt cheated because they were not allowed to study.

This is why quality of education becomes so crucial. Because, as we have seen, if a girl can demonstrate that she is able to perform well, she can overcome a lot of opposition to her continuing in the educational system. If you give her a supportive environment to learn in, she will be able to participate. Otherwise, it is very easy for her to fall through the cracks. She could trip up at any point, whether through irregular attendance, not being able to go to school, lack of toilets at school, or even the many intangibles like methods of assessment and teaching.

Menstruation is an important issue -- mothers of Delhi schoolgirls who are now given free sanitary napkins say they could not have afforded them if they were not distributed free of cost. In urban areas there is at least a conversation about such issues; in rural areas the many taboos against speaking out ensure that very little gets done. Transportation too is a huge problem, especially when high schools are some distance from the village.

If there are discussions around these issues, if a need is felt, communities will come up with their own solutions. In Himachal Pradesh, for instance, we found that because there were a large number of children going to school they could travel together and so experience security in numbers. In many other areas, especially in northern India, the critical mass of girls seeking higher education away from their homes is missing; parents are therefore reluctant to send their daughters to high school.

Addressing gender stereotyping

For a long time, addressing gender bias in school education meant dealing with it at a superficial level, like having more illustrations of girls in textbooks, etc. Such measures take us only so far. What is needed is a major restructuring of power equations. Gender bias in school education is really a cluster of a number of issues including pedagogy, methods of teaching, family aspirations and, of course, the textbooks used. So while it may be true that we must have greater representation of girls in textbooks, we should also have various kinds of representation.

While designing the new National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) textbooks, we found that the artists would come up with the same kind of pictures -- girls doing something very notional, or just watching, whilst it was the boys who were shown conducting the experiments. We had to keep reminding the illustrators about this, in today's world when there is so much discussion about gender stereotyping!

Addressing gender stereotyping is a complex process. You find that even among very young children there are fixed notions of what a woman should be doing. Boys as young as eight will say: "This is not what ma has to do; this is not what papa should be doing." How do we address this? We could always write a paragraph about social stereotypes and leave it at that. But it won't change anything. Teachers need to know how to address these issues through conversations, through the active participation of children in their classes. Only then will we see real change.

The new primary school textbooks being developed by NCERT will have true stories where the protagonists are young girls. In the maths textbook there is a chapter called 'Kiran, the Junk-seller'. It's based on a woman in Patna who runs a junk shop. We actually hunted out these true narratives and ensured that they were written up in an engaging way, because we believed they could make a difference.

The idea is to end the old top-down approach to teaching. Children, instead of being passive consumers of information, need to construct their own knowledge. Only then will the various biases within the system -- whether of caste, class or gender -- be addressed.

(Anita Rampal is Professor of Elementary and Social Education at the Department of Education, Delhi University, and a member of the Executive Committee of NCERT)

The numbers prove the disadvantage

The gender gap in the infant mortality rate

The infant mortality rate (IMR) is the number of infants who die in a particular year before attaining age 1 , for every 1,000 live births in that year. In India, currently, the gender gap -- the gap between infant mortality rates for girls and boys -- is 3. It has been about that number for the past five years. It shows that even though the overall IMR is declining, the gender gap prevails.

Infant mortality by sex, 2005-10, India

Years Total Male Female
2005 58 56 61
2006 57 56 59
2007 55 55 56
2008 53 52 55
2009 50 49 52
2010 47 46 49

The IMR should actually be higher in boys -- when boys and girls get equal treatment. More boys are born than girls, but because more boys die than girls, by the age of 1 the number of boys and girls should be equal. However, in India, more girls out of 100 die than boys -- whether because girls get less nutrition and therefore fall ill more, or they get less healthcare when they get sick.

The gender gap worsens with age

The under-5 mortality rate is the proportion of children who die before their fifth birthday to the total number of children below 5 years of age in any particular year. It is expressed in terms of deaths per 1,000 live births.

Infant mortality rate and under-5 mortality rate by sex and residence, India, 2010

    Total Rural Urban
Total IMR 47 51 31
  U-5MR 59 66 38
Male IMR 46 50 30
  U-5MR 55 61 36
Female IMR 49 53 33
  U-5MR 64 71 40


The gender gap in infant mortality is 3. However, the gap between IMR and U-5MR (all-India) for boys is 9 and for girls is 15. In rural areas, the IMR-U-5MR gap is 11 for boys and 18 for girls; in urban areas it is 6 for boys and 7 for girls.

What this means is that girls are already disadvantaged by age 1 and this disadvantage is exacerbated as they get older.

Literacy and education

The literacy rate is the proportion of individuals aged 7 and above who can read and write any Indian language.

Literacy rates in India by sex, 1951-2011

Year Person Male Female Gender gap
1951 18.33 27.16 8.86 18.3
1961 28.3 40.4 15.35 25.05
1971 34.43 45.96 21.97 23.98
1981 43.57 56.38 29.76 26.62
1991 52.21 64.13 39.29 24.84
2001 64.83 75.26 53.67 21.59
2011 74.04 82.14 65.46 16.68

Source: Population Census of India, 1951, 1961, 1971, 1981, 1991, 2001 and 2011. Computed using

Though literacy rates have increased in India and the gap in male and female literacy levels is also reducing, females are still disadvantaged as their share among literates falls short of their number in the population.


While the gender differential is not so sharp in primary education, at the secondary level the gender differential is stark and has worsened over the years.

The number of girls per 100 boys enrolled in schools and colleges is increasingover the years. In enrollment in higher education by discipline, the number of girls per 100 boys in 1991-92 was highest in education, followed by arts, medicine, science, commerce and engineering, respectively. In 2006-07, the order was medicine, education, arts, science, commerce and engineering. The share of girls in technical education is rising. In medicine it is near parity and in engineering the ratio is 3 girls to 10 boys.

Drop-out rates between boys and girls across primary, middle and secondary levels of education do not seem to be very different: the ability of girls to join school is handicapped but once they enroll, their ability to continue or discontinue is on a par with that of boys

Maternal mortality

The maternal mortality ratio is the number of women who die from maternal causes for every 100,000 live births. In India, for the period 2007-09, the maternal mortality ratio was 212 deaths for every 100,000 live births (81/100,000 in Kerala and 390/100,000 in Assam). The lifetime risk of maternal mortality expresses the risk of the woman dying of a maternal cause. For India, for the period 2007-09, this risk was 0.6%. What this means is one in about 166 women in the reproductive age will have died due to maternal causes (one in 1,000 in Kerala and one in 71 in Uttar Pradesh/Uttarakhand).

Number of girls per 100 boys enrolled in schools and colleges in India

Year Primary (I-V) Middle VI-VIII) Secondary (IX-X) Colleges and universities for general education
1991-92 72 62 52 48 (a)
2001-02 79 72 65 67
2006-07 88 82 74 62* (P)
2007-08 91 84 77 NA

Source: Department of Education, Ministry of Human Resource Development

  1. Notes: Secondary includes IX-X classes only
  2. (a): Excludes professional, technical and special courses
  3. NA: Not available
  4. P: Provisional
  5. * Total enrollment in higher education

Trend in enrollment of females (per 100 males) by university education in major disciplines of education, India

Year Arts Science Commerce Education Engineering/Tech Medicine (1)
1991-92 65.3 45.7 33.8 83.0 9.5 53.3
2001-02 78.0 64.2 63.1 76.9 33.1 68.4
2006-07 76.9 71.2 60.9 81.5 35.8 89.5*

Source: Department of Education, Ministry of Human Resource Development

Notes: Arts and science figures as combined for the years 1955-56, 1960-61 and 1965-66
(1): Excludes dentistry, public health, nursing, midwifery and pharmacy
* Includes dentistry, nursing, pharmacy, ayurvedic and unani
P: Provisional

Gross drop-out rate at different stages of school education by sex, India (percentage)

Year Male Female
  Primary Elementary Secondary Primary Elementar Secondary
2001-02 38.3 52.9 64.2 39.8 56.9 68.6
2007-08 25.7 43.7 56.6 24.4 41.3 57.3

Source: Ministry of Human Resource Development
Note: Total dropout during a course stage has been taken as percentage of intake in the first year of the course stage. Primary, elementary and secondary school stages consist of classes I-V, I-VIII, and I-X

Selected Socio Economic Statistics, India 2011, accessed from, accessed on October 4, 2012

Selected Socio Economic Statistics, India 2011, accessed from, accessed on October 4, 2012

(Compiled by Mala Ramanathan, AMCHSS, and Udaya S Mishra, CDS, Thiruvananthapuram)


Infochange News & Features, December 2012