Thrice a week after school, on the ground floor of a community centre in New Delhi, three dozen students come together to learn how to use computers under the aegis of a small NGO called Adhiyagya. In another room sit a score of children working diligently on math problems. Outside in the quadrangle, a volunteer-instructor asks pupils to read aloud a line of text. It’s 47 degrees celsius and the fans do little to drive away the sweltering heat. But the choking warmth is not able to dampen the enthusiasm in the makeshift classrooms. Adhiyagya, like hundreds of other NGOs in India, is aiming to empower children through education. The focus is on children who are enrolled in public schools but -due to apathetic bureaucracy and poor implementation of policies- are unable to get the quality of education that they deserve.
Across the world, India is increasingly seen as an education powerhouse. Institutions such as Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) and Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs) are truly epitomes of academic excellence. Indeed, one can find many of their alumni occupying top positions in big companies across the world. But the shining IITs obscure the dark fate of many children in the country —children who have to suffer through a stubborn public education system that adds little value to their lives. Public provision of education in India lacks quality and ambition. Truth is, that for the 169 million children who go to public schools in India, quality education is still a distant dream.
The Right to Education Act (RTE), implemented in 2009, has helped bring millions of children into the state’s formal education system. It is indeed commendable that post the advent of RTE the overall enrollment rate in schools has risen considerably for both girls and boys. But a higher enrollment by itself has not translated itself into higher learning outcomes. Numerous studies and surveys have repeatedly pointed out that learning outcomes remain woefully dismal in India’s state run schools.
ASER 2016 (Annual Status of Education Report; India’s largest civil society led educational survey) found that nearly 50% of the students enrolled in grade 5 are unable to read a textbook made for 2nd graders. In less well off states such as Assam and Chhattisgarh, nearly a third of students in grade 8 cannot perform simple division. Tamil Nadu and Himachal Pradesh performed dismally at PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) —15 year old Indian students, when put on a global scale, finished second to last, ahead only of students from Kyrgyzstan. Clearly, when it comes to providing effective education to its children, India falls far, far behind countries with similar per capita GDP and other comparable socio-economic indicators. The few success stories notwithstanding, it cannot be denied that there are several stumbling blocks to achieving the goal of quality education for every child in the country.
The question is, why is the biggest school system in the world failing its pupils?
For starters, the state of infrastructure in government run schools is worrisome. More often than not, these schools are housed in derelict buildings with no toilets or drinking water.
Inferior quality of teaching (some estimates say that one fifth of the teaching force in India is untrained and unprepared to handle children in a classroom ) and teacher absenteeism go a bit further to explain the poor performance of the Indian public education system. PROBE survey reports that on any given working day (on average) about 25% of teachers are absent in government run primary schools. More disturbingly, among teachers who are present, only half are engaged in active teaching. The other half prefer to sip tea while their students run amok in the school compound. No, teacher salary is not a problem. In India, teachers are, on average, paid salaries that are four times those in China.
For years, perhaps the biggest contributing factor was that the people of India had reconciled themselves to this sorry state of affairs. For the lowest rung of the Indian society getting two square meals a day was a daily struggle. How could they, the uneducated parents of the children of new India, rise against the government to voice their dissent and ask for better schools?
They could not.
However, today, there is a strong, discernible movement to defeat the rusted system. There is finally light at the end of the tunnel. The inability of the Indian government to deliver effective solutions has opened up a void —a void that NGOs and informed citizens are rushing to fill. In recent times there has been a massive mobilisation on an unprecedented scale, and seamless collaboration between the government, businesses, the public, and social organisations to make sure that quality education reaches every child in India. There are over 30 lakh non-governmental organisations in India and about one third of them are working for the education sector. In a country like India, where public infrastructure is often inadequate, NGOs have swiftly moved beyond the ‘gap filling’ initiatives on to capacity building initiatives —thus playing the role of government at the grass root level. These NGOs are recruiting and training volunteers to impart knowledge to India’s poorest children —so that they may use it as a vehicle to break free from the shackles of poverty.
But who are these volunteers and where do they come from?
These are the privileged people of India; people who’re studying in country’s premier institutions or working in comfortable jobs. These are the people who’ve had it relatively easy and are willing to give back to the society. Growing awareness and sensitivity among the middle class of India has given birth to a vibrant and informed civil society. As a result, thousands of volunteers are actively working to improve outcomes in the education sector. They are spending hours supporting the existing educational infrastructure or working hard to supplement it. Adhiyagya (mentioned at the beginning) is just one case in point. Many such organisations are working towards curating workable plans of actions to ease the burden on the system. The small scale, flexible and adaptive NGO action is proving to be very efficient in India.
A number of studies are in the works to quantify the impact that these organisations have had on actual learning outcomes — but there is already ample evidence to make us believe that this model is indeed working. New arrangements are also being tested — the state of Jammu and Kashmir has roped in Agasthya, one of India’s largest NGO working in the education sector, to adopt several districts in the state and fill whatever gaps there are in the state run system. As is evident, the role of social non-profit organisations is becoming more and more critical as they seek to supplement, complement or substitute the formal education system in the country and reach out to the excluded, underprivileged and challenged sections of society.
We hope that this newly found sensitivity will help India achieve one of the most important millennium development goals: the provision of quality, universal primary education to all children born on its soil.
Illustration: Artwork made by Jongwoo Park for KIP.