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Bihar fails India's elementary education test, but its kids are bright

According to the latest 'Annual Status of Education Report', while elementary school enrolment levels in India's villages are high across the country, there is a lot of scope for improvement in school facilities. Most urgent is that attention needs to be paid to the learning component at government schools

While more than 90% of Indian children in rural areas may be attending primary school, nearly half of them cannot read simple sentences or do simple math, according to a recent nationwide survey conducted in 485 rural districts across 28 of India's 35 states and union territories. Despite the government's concerted efforts, 1.4 crore village children still remain out of school.

However, a pleasant surprise thrown up by the 'Annual Status of Education Report 2005' (ASER) conducted by the Delhi-based non-governmental organisation Pratham together with hundreds of local NGOs, is that students in Bihar and Chhattisgarh (states that have the worst educational facilities) show higher learning capabilities in reading and arithmetic compared to children from Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Gujarat which have higher enrolment rates and better school infrastructure.

School-going children in Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, home to India's infotech hubs, were among the bottom five in terms of arithmetic abilities -- 76% of Standard V students in Karnataka and 68% in Tamil Nadu were unable to do simple division. "These states must seriously examine the way mathematics is taught in schools," the report suggests. These states are in the company of Orissa, where 69% of children showed poor math ability, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh where the figures were 68% and 62% respectively.

Kerala tops in terms of reading capability, whereas West Bengal tops in arithmetic. However, the former finds a place only in reading ability, and Haryana only in arithmetic.

The results of the government-commissioned survey are an indictment of its much-vaunted elementary education drive, the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, which aims to achieve universal elementary education by 2010.

The survey shows that while 93.4% of the 332,971 children interviewed in 191,057 households in 9,521 villages across the country were enrolled in school, attendance rates did not match up, and the quality of education they receive did not give them an edge over the millions of Indian children in villages who do not go to school.

The survey measured the schools' success in imparting the three 'R's (reading, writing and arithmetic -- considered the fundamentals of formal learning), along with enrolment and attendance rates, to draw the government's attention to the promise of making education a fundamental right of the Indian child.

Bihar fares worst on most parameters -- only 51% of children enrolled in its primary schools actually attend school; 13% were not enrolled at all. ASER 2005 also found that 59% of primary school children in Bihar do not even have textbooks.

Many states like Kerala, Karnataka, Uttaranchal, Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, Goa and Gujarat have less than 4% of children in the 6-14 age-group out of school.

In fact, Goa has overtaken Kerala as the state with the lowest number of out-of-school children -- only 0.3% of all children in the tiny coastal state do not go to school, compared to 1.6% of Kerala's children. Karnataka comes third with 1.9%, followed by Uttaranchal (2%), Tamil Nadu (2.7%) and Maharashtra (2.8%). Gujarat placed seventh, with 3.6% of its children out of school. Madhya Pradesh comes eighth with 4%, followed by Punjab (4.3%), West Bengal (4.4%), Chhattisgarh (4.7%), Haryana (5.3%) and Uttar Pradesh (7.3%). Andhra Pradesh (7.4%), Orissa (8.9%), Jharkhand (9.8%) and Rajasthan (10.4%) are at the bottom of the list. Bihar comes in last in terms of enrolment figures.

The data for ASER 2005 was collected in November- December 2005 -- 20 randomly selected villages were surveyed in each participating district. In each village, the ASER team visited 20 randomly selected households and interacted with all children (in the age-group 6 to 14).

Key findings of the report:


  • The good news is that 93.4% of children in the 6-14 age-group are enrolled in school. In the 6-10 age-group, there is not much difference in the enrolment of boys and girls.
  • 60% of students in private schools are boys. However, there are significant statewise differences -- at one end we have Rajasthan and Uttaranchal where the proportion of boys in private schools is over 65%, and at the other end is Kerala where the proportion of girls is 51%.
  • Boys and girls are almost even in Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Maharashtra. Girls as a percentage of all out-of-school children are 52.8%.
  • Of all rural children not enrolled in school, 71.2% are in just five states -- Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Andhra Pradesh and Orissa.
  • Nationally, government schools account for 75.1% of school enrolment in the 6-14 age-group, while private schools provide education to 16.4% of children. However, in Haryana and Uttar Pradesh, close to a third of all children are in private schools. Madrasas and other forms of education account for a low 1%.


  • Children from Classes II to V were tested in reading paragraphs with short sentences and long sentences, subtraction and division. 35% of all children in the age-group 7-14 could not read simple paragraphs at the Standard I level, and close to 52% could not read a short story at the Standard II level of difficulty.
  • 40% of children who are in school and studying in Standard V could not read the story text at the Standard II level of difficulty.
  • Although many more children in higher classes (Standards VI to VIII) can read, there are still 22% of children in government schools and 17% in private schools who cannot read a Standard II level text.
  • But statewide performances differ -- for example, in Kerala, Uttaranchal, West Bengal, Bihar and Chhattisgarh, less than 25% of children currently studying in Standard V were able to read a story of Standard II level with ease. However, the proportion of children unable to read at this level is substantially higher in several other states -- close to 50% of children in Uttar Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Gujarat, Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh cannot read a simple 'story' text of Standard II level.
  • 50% of Standard II to Standard V children in government primary schools, and 38% in private schools, could not solve a two-digit subtraction problem.
  • In higher classes (Standards VI to VIII), 40% of government school children and 33% of private school children could not solve a simple division problem (three digits divided by one digit).

As with reading, there are significant state-wise variations in arithmetic learning too. For example, based on the sample of children in Standard V -- in West Bengal, Haryana, Bihar, Uttaranchal and Chhattisgarh -- over 50% of children can do simple division problems. In the bottom five states, a shocking 62% to 75% of Standard V children cannot solve division problems (three digits divided by one digit).


  • Contrary to popular perception, on average, over 75% of teachers were found to be attending, on the day of the visit to sampled schools. In 51% of all primary schools, all teachers were present on the day of the visit.
  • While teacher absenteeism is much talked about, the focus on children's attendance is much less. Across all states, 71% of enrolled children were present on the day of the visit. Bihar recorded the lowest attendance numbers, with only 51.8% of enrolled children attending.
  • In Uttaranchal, both teachers and students showed over 80% attendance on the day of the visit. In Kerala, over 90% of children were attending on the day of the visit.
  • The all-India pupil-teacher ratio based on attendance (ie number of children actually present and number of teachers attending on the day of the visit) is well below 40 students per teacher. The exception is Uttar Pradesh, India's most populous state, where it is 49.

School facilities

  • Overall, the provision of textbooks seems satisfactory, with figures suggesting that the supply and distribution of textbooks have improved vastly in large areas of the country.
  • Nationally, in more than 80% of schools, children in Standard V had textbooks. This number is close to 90% in Rajasthan, West Bengal, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Goa, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu.
  • 70% of schools visited were preparing or serving midday meals. However, in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, only 38% of children and 53% of children respectively are served midday meals compared to Chhattisgarh's 95% and Kerala's 94%, despite a Supreme Court order making the provision of these meals mandatory.
  • 78% of primary schools visited had either a handpump or a tap. Of these schools, 85% had water supply. 60% of the 4,891 primary schools visited had toilet facilities, of which 70% were usable. The provision was 83% in upper primary schools.

InfoChange News and Features, January 2006