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Schools for all

By Deepti Priya Mehrotra

Elementary school enrolment rose from approximately 156 million in 1999-2000 to about 194 million in 2006-07. The Annual Status of Education Report-Rural by the Pratham Resource Centre finds that school enrolment for rural areas, for children aged 6-14, was 93.4% in 2006. It increased to 95.8% in 2007. This is no mean achievement. Concerted efforts, committed policies and programmes have borne some fruit

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A whopping 1 million elementary schools dotted across the length and breadth of the country carry out the Herculean task of bringing education to our children (6-14-year-olds). Of this dense network of government sector schools, about three-quarters are primary schools (Classes I to V), while the rest are upper primary or middle schools (Classes VI to VIII). The Ministry of Human Resources Development confirms a total of 1.042 million elementary schools (the term includes primary and middle-level schools) in the country -- and many more are being set up.

In 1951, 32 out of every 100 children were enrolled in elementary schools. Today, three times that percentage is enrolled. The dramatic rise shown by official figures is confirmed by non-governmental surveys. The Annual Status of Education Report-Rural (ASER-Rural), by Pratham Resource Centre, an NGO, finds that school enrolment for rural areas, for children aged 6-14, was 93.4% in 2006; it increased to 95.8% in 2007. Of this, more than three-quarters of children are enrolled in government schools, the rest in private schools.

This is no mean achievement. Concerted efforts, committed policies and programmes have borne some fruit.

Early at the start of India 's journey as a sovereign republic, the state promised free and compulsory education for all children up to 14 years of age, laying it down as a directive principle. The National Policy on Education (NPE), modified in 1992, emphasised universal access, enrolment and retention -- that is, all children should have a school located at a convenient distance, and once they have joined they must remain within the educational system at least up to the age of 14, completing middle school. As a signatory to the EFA (education for all) Framework for Action adopted at Dakar in 2000, India joined the worldwide movement for good-quality universal elementary education, to be ensured for all by the year 2015. A similar commitment was reiterated through the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

Yet, despite the dramatic rise in enrolment figures we often encounter children who are not attending school. Statistics indicate that the number of out-of-school children in the country is still as high as 7.0 million (in 2006-07). These children are from poor backgrounds, both rural and urban. A disproportionate share of the 7 million are tribal (scheduled tribe, or ST), dalit (scheduled caste, or SC), minority-religion (especially Muslim), or/and girls. Many are working children, seasonal migrants, urban slum children, or victims of trafficking. The states of Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal , Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan account for the largest numbers of out-of-school children.

In 2001-02, approximately 32.0 million children were officially out-of-school -- so the decline to 7.0 million within a span of five years is, in fact, an impressive achievement. Elementary school enrolment rose from approximately 156 million in 1999-2000 to about 194 million in 2006-07 -- a huge leap.

However, these figures do not disclose how many children actually attend school. Only those children who are not currently enrolled in any school are termed 'out-of-school children'. This begs the question -- do all enrolled children actually attend school?

Researchers Indira Pancholi and Monika Malika, who visited 30 elementary government schools in remote parts of Bihar, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh, in 2005-06, reveal: "In several Bihar and Uttar Pradesh schools we found actual attendance was less than 40% of the enrolment figure." Poor teaching methods and low learning levels were evident. For instance, "in Class V in a school in Uttar Pradesh, the teacher told the children to copy sentences about Chacha Nehru from their textbooks. One of the sentences the children copied was 'Chacha Nehru became the country's prime minister'. When asked, 'Chacha Nehru became prime minister of which country?' none of the children could answer". The teacher was hardly concerned about the children's lack of comprehension; his ambition was to teach the children to learn the set questions and answers by rote.

Sociologist Dr A R Vasavi of the National Institute of Advanced Studies (NIAS), Bangalore , who researched schools in several parts of India in 2002, writes about a field site in Andhra Pradesh: "A visitor to the Vadarevu fishers' settlement is met by the sight of a large number of children who are out of school. Yet, official data does not acknowledge this." While the local education office showed only 12 out-of-school children, a household survey conducted by the NIAS team found approximately 459 children out of school (aged 6-14 years). The reasons cited were inability to afford schooling, girls required for household tasks, particularly care of younger siblings, children withdrawn for income-generating work, and ill-treatment including corporal punishment by teachers. Many children expressed a desire to study and seek employment outside the fishing trade, but very few were able to pursue even basic schooling.

Processes of exclusion from schooling typically affect children from economically and socially marginalised communities. And these are precisely the children who most need education as a means of social and economic mobility!

Since 2001-02, the government stepped up efforts to universalise elementary education through the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, an umbrella programme for achieving UEE (universal elementary education). A large number of new schools were set up, classrooms constructed, drinking water and toilet arrangements put into place. Tens of thousands of new teachers were recruited, and pre-service as well as in-service teacher training programmes revamped. Quality of teaching and learning is being enhanced through carefully designed textbooks, teaching aids, remedial classes and child-friendly programmes such as the learning assistance programme in Assam , quality improvement in classrooms in Kerala, school grading in Uttar Pradesh, and the learning guarantee programme in Rajasthan.

Grappling with the task of attracting and keeping children in school, central and state governments have devised incentives like free textbooks, uniforms, stationery, and cycles (for girls who travel a substantial distance to school). Residential upper primary schools for girls are being opened in blocks with low female literacy, identified as 'educationally backward blocks'. These schools, called Kasturba Gandhi Balika Vidyalayas (KGBV), help girls from disadvantaged backgrounds to live out their dreams. For instance, a KGBV in Muzaffarpur, Bihar , took in five girls with physical disabilities, from scheduled caste families. Through hard work and determination, all five excelled in their studies and are exploring future work options. In Arunachal Pradesh, KGBV schools have become symbols of hope in remote, difficult-to-access villages; girls studying here are potential agents of change for the entire region.

Where no primary school exists, alternative and innovative education (AIE) learning centres are being set up, for up to 25 children, with just one local teacher. Primers in local tribal languages help children make the transition from home to school. Around 2.8 million children are estimated to have attended AIE centres in 2006. AIE includes flexible strategies such as 'bhonga shalas' (schools in temporary huts) for children of brick kiln labourers in Maharashtra, 'chalta phirta' (mobile) schools for Delhi's street children, 'tent schools' in Kashmir, and 'boat schools' for fishing communities in Andhra Pradesh. In Puducherry, an AIE centre was established for 60 children of the nomadic Kuravar community. Madrasas and maktabs are fortified as AIE centres, with support for teaching various school subjects. When possible, AIE students are mainstreamed into regular schools.

A scheme that has encouraged popularisation of schooling is the provision of hot, cooked midday meals in primary schools. Midday meals are served daily to over 120 million children (2006-07 figures). Constantly refined with an eye to nutrition and hygiene, this scheme has helped draw children into school, improved nutrition levels, and sharpened learning capacity. Prathichi Trust, an NGO in West Bengal , found it had helped increase enrolment and attendance of girls, scheduled caste and scheduled tribe students. A University of Rajasthan study indicates that school midday meals are contributing to social equity, as children of different castes sit together to eat. A survey in 70 backward villages in Madhya Pradesh by Samaj Pragati Sahyog shows enhanced learning levels due to improved nourishment.

While government schools charge no fees, better-off families usually send their children to private schools, which are reputed to have better teaching and infrastructure facilities. The parallel schooling system tends to reinforce social inequalities. In many low-income families, girls are sent to government schools and boys to private schools. Another common phenomenon is of children being enrolled in two schools -- one private, the other government. Kamlesh and Ram Pal, residing in Sangam Vihar, a Delhi slum, have enrolled their sons in two schools simultaneously. Their logic is impeccable: "The teaching is better in the private school, and from the government school the children pick up free incentives!"

Realities like double enrolment and "coming to school only for the midday meal, then running off" (commonly reported from various parts of the country!) queer the works considerably, making it impossible to accurately compute school attendance figures. Numbers are typically over-estimated, with large-scale fudging beginning at the school level, in response to the pressure to show high enrolment. An additional anomaly is a large number of under-age and over-age children in Classes I to VIII: official estimates are nearly 20% under-age, and about 14% over-age (with respect to the appropriate ages for particular classes).

Eight-year-old Chhoti, in a remote Rajasthan village, when asked why she doesn't attend school, counter-questioned: "Then who will graze the cattle?" Thus, even while the government implements various schemes, many children have never been to school, and perhaps never will. At the same time, a large number of hitherto out-of-school children are being drawn in. The need of the hour is to make schools responsive to the actual circumstances of millions of children. Once in school, good teaching, with relevant curricula, is important. When children enjoy learning, in a caring atmosphere, they perform better and parents are willing to sacrifice to keep them in school. Schools must learn to be relevant and meaningful, before they can bring 'education for all'.

(Deepti Priya Mehrotra is a Delhi-based writer)

InfoChange News & Features, June 2008