Uneducated India: Learning at the rural juncture

21st Feb 2015
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1. The report.

The Indian education market is worth a staggering INR 5.9 trillion (USD 92.98 billion). Of this, 59.7 per cent accounts for higher education, a sector that caters to 20 million students from 36,000 different institutions every year. Accounting for 38.1 per cent, the next chunk is taken away by primary schools, followed by a paltry 1.6 per cent and 0.6 per cent for primary schooling and technology & multi-media, respectively. Between April 2000 and September 2014, FDI equities brought in USD 964.03 million into the country. India has one of the largest markets in education and the largest pool of higher education students, a feat that wasn’t easy to achieve.

Children at Kumbh Mela, Allahabad (courtesy Shutterstock)


In terms of pure numbers, education is currently growing at an 11.3 per cent CAGR. Between 2005-2012, more than 18,000 colleges were established in India bringing the total to a neat 35,539. These colleges are separate from India’s 574 universities (8.7 per cent CAGR) of which 50 per cent are state-run, 23 per cent are deemed to be universities (autonomous), 19 per cent are private institutions and 8 per cent are central universities.

Literacy, on the other hand, has had a funny growth in India. The British Raj began in 1858 and ended in 1947. The kernel of Enlightenment came as a foreign export to India, and with it the principles of egalitarianism in a land burdened by complex and discriminatory hierarchies, dark superstitions and xenophobia. It’s a wonder that between 1900-1947, India’s literacy grew an astounding…  5.8 percent. From 6.2 per cent, India jumped to 12 per cent in 1947, hardly an achievement of pride. However, between 1947 and 1994, literacy crossed 48 per cent, a rise of 36 per cent. Today, that number stands at 74.04 per cent, still a sluggish growth by better standards.

And that’s the interesting conundrum. With an above average literacy rate, numerous institutions, billion of dollars swirling in the sector, why is India still fumbling at a sceloritic pace compared to its competitors?

2. A rural quandary.

68 per cent of India is rural. The region is home to nearly 833 million, and 51.73 per cent of them are below the age of 25. The Census in 2013 concluded that almost half of rural India -as opposed to 28 per cent according to the Planning Commission- qualified for the BPL status. This is the ultimate death knell set to put rural India’s potential into a deep slumber. A young, burgeoning population with no opportunities is likely to migrate to marginalised rural settlements.

Most of the leaps in education in India have been largely confined to urban India, even as 29 per cent of primary school rural enrolments are in private institutions. The toxic conflux of poverty, remote geography, lack of pedagogical resources, cultural obstinance, poor infrastructure and even poorer implementation of government schemes and policies creates an environment almost hostile to quality education in rural India. It’s not that Indian children don’t get to school. Primary completion rates for 2006 were 85.7 per cent. Students simply don’t stay long enough for it to significantly matter, and the quality of education imparted is severely low.

In this area, NGO Pratham’s work has been a definitive source of information on rural development, especially their ASERs (Annual Status of Education Report). Pratham works across India to deliver access to basic reading and arithmetics, two important markers of education. If the ASERs are taken seriously, it isn’t surprising that 15-year-old Indians displayed shockingly poor arithmetics and reading comprehension in the OECD’s international education test PISA 2009+. Instead of competing with regional players like China, Japan and Singapore, India was trailing with a remote Kyrgyzstan.

Kashmiri Muslim school girls (courtesy Shutterstock)
Kashmiri Muslim school girls (courtesy Shutterstock)

ASER 2014 (Rural) puts a damning reality into words, but also shows an interesting trend in rural India, too. Their report focuses on childrenin the 6-14 year bracket. Over all enrolment was recorded at 96 percent for the 6-14 age group and unschooled children at 3.3 per cent, bringing us a hair’s breadth away from universal enrolment.

More and more students are now enroled in private institutions (30.8 per cent), with more than 60 per cent enrolments in Goa, Manipur and Kerala. Barring Gujarat, Chhattisgarh, Bihar, Jharkhand, West Bengal, Odisha, Tripura, Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka and Arunachal Pradesh, more than 30-40 per cent of all enrolments take place in private institutions.

However, the picture turns ugly fast. In 2009, less than 39 per cent of government school students in Std V could read standard II texts in Tamil Nadu, Manipur, Uttar Pradesh and Jammu & Kashmir. In 2014, that number has increased to eight. For 17 states (including all of North East), reading comprehension was less than 50 per cent, a large decrease in the quality of education. The number of students in Std V with basic division (arithmetics) skills has also increased, with 12 states less than 19 per cent and 7 states below 29 per cent. No region in rural India crossed the 50 per cent mark.

ASER 2014 reveals,

“Overall, the situation with basic reading continues to be extremely disheartening in India. In 2014, in Std III, only a fourth of all children can read a Std II text fluently. This number rises to just under half in Std V. Even in Std VIII, close to 75% children can read Std II level text (which implies that 25% still cannot).
“The All India (rural) figures for basic arithmetic have remained virtually unchanged over the last few years. In 2012, 26.3% of Std III children could do a two digit subtraction. This number is at 25.3% in 2014. For Std V children, the ability to do division has increased slightly from 24.8% in 2012 to 26.1% in 2014.
“There are other trends which are quite worrying. For example, the percentage of children in Std II who still cannot recognize numbers up to 9 has increased over time, from 11.3% in 2009 to 19.5% in 2014.”

In fact,  according to philanthropic organisation Dasra’s research, most NGOs are school-based (traditional) or community-based efforts that focus on primary education. Secondary education receives little attention from even NGOs.

So, the reality is simple. More than 70 per cent of India is either badly educated or uneducated, and the Right to Education act has been largely ineffective in improving the condition. Even in metropolitan cities like Delhi, poor nutritional quality of midday meals has brought governments under severe criticism. failed the nutrition test. Another aspect of the rural education problem is the education of rural girls and women. In the 1900s, less than 1 per cent of rural women were literate. Today, 57.93 per cent of them do. Globally, that number has no value. According to the Census, any individual above the age of seven who can read and write, irrespective of fluency, in any language is considered literate. Our low bar for what constitutes literacy makes our leap seem more than what it is. Though more than half of rural women are literate, they are mostly uneducated due to cultural hindrances to improvement.

3. Picking up the government’s slack

 So, who are the players working for rural low-cost education, fighting against cultural backwardness and all the logistic, infrastructural, pedagogical and geographic problems that comes with providing education to the rural and remote?

Teach for India, a part of the Teach For All global network, mobilises young, highly educated Indians to teach students and train teachers in the poorest schools in India, both urban and rural. From populated classes to remote schools, it taps pedagogical skills of graduates to help teach students in under-resourced schools for two years full-time. TFI tackles the heart of the education problem in India: Teachers.

In light of India’s severe teacher shortage, it eases the burden on the government by recruiting teachers from a crop of qualified, young graduates. According to the Human Resource Development Minister, Kapil Sabil, India needs at least 12 lakh teachers, and 5.23 lakh posts are vacant in government school. More than four walls, education needs good teachers. By providing this basic necessity, TFI ensures children receive their education.

Harbans Bhalla is a unique foundation providing educational support to poor rural children in Jammu & Kashmir, a state with an egregious education system. They reach out to more than 300 children growing in impoverished conditions due to constant conflict. They especially focus on education young Muslim girls, a historically backward segment of the population.

Schools like Harbans tend to be community-drive and specialise in dealing with issues particular to communities, as opposed to applying one-fits-all solutions without understanding cultural and socio-economic contexts of diverse rural regions. It’s important that India invest in more organisations that cater to rural students from particular communities as these organisations bring a cultural expertise other ‘general variety’ schools don’t.

Another organisation that does similar culture-specific work is Nishtha, a unique organisation that specifically caters to rural health, education and environment. They use their own curriculum and methodology to teach young conservative girls from villages. Their work emphasizes the need to localise educational information to make learning easy and efficient. Nishtha sets up libraries, computer centres, anganwaris, cultural training programmes, self-defence programmes for young girls and women and special programmes to aid in socio-economic alleviation of single women.

Agastya International Foundation, a Rockefeller Foundation 2013 nominee for ‘Next Century Innovators Awards’, works with under-privileged children by setting up science centres, mobile labs, teacher training programmes, young instructors, model-making, toy science, ecology and art classes. Rather than simply teaching the basics of education (what government schools do), Agastya guarantees children in rural areas receive the same science-based technology-driven education urban students do. This mindset is important, because there’s an assumption science-based learning is unnecessary for those living an arcadian life. Educating rural India isn’t about urbanising them, neither is it about teaching them comprehension and basic arithematics- it needs to be more holistic and diverse; it cannot end at being elemental, but needs to be intellectually alimental.

In the same vein, Jaipur-based Bodh was a small school established in 1987, which later flourished into a community, for the urban deprived. Today, Bodh implements its programmes in rural villages that help provide all the resources required to improve education and its access. It has a network of schools across urban and rural India to help in cross-cultural learning.

Digital literacy in an undoubtedly digital age is abysmal in rural India. Millions of children are growing up without an inkling of what the Internet is, how to use it and most importantly, how to benefit from it. Whilst its true India has a huge internet user base, it’s restricted to only 300 million people concentrated in urban regions. eVidyaloka, a not-for-profit trust, establishes digital learning centres in rural and remote villages across India. Local communities are roped into set up these centres, which then provide the children access to educational resources through the Internet. They train a team of volunteers to help standardised lesson plans, improve teaching techniques and supplying books to schools.

Barefoot College runs an eclectic organisation with its own take on how rural development needs to be addressed. Born from the shared passion of a group of professionals to alleviate rural Indians, Barefoot supports different kinds of educational programmes to go with different socio-cultural contexts. Since 1975, for instance, Barefoot has provided 75,000 students with night school facilities and 14,000 teachers trained for rural government schools. 80 per cent of their nightschool enrolments are by young girls now.

They run balwadis equipped to provide rural children of working mothers an atmosphere conducive to learning and creativity. The Barefoot approach is to create a unique system of rural education that is culturally flexible, convenient to rural lifestyle and places importance on practical problem-solving.

In the area of providing quality low-cost education, Hippocampus runs a series of learning centres in 104 villages across Mandya and Davangere districts in Karnataka. These centres function in two focus groups: Kindergarten (age 3-6) and Primary school (age 1-7). They locally recruit and train teachers to ensure the whole process involves local communities. With programmes like the MathStar, EnglishStar and Livelihoods (for teachers), it uses its own curriculum to address rural needs.

Educate Girls started in Pali district of Rajasthan for 500 schools, and now impacts more than 4,500 villages in Pali, Jalore, Sirohi, Ajmer, Bundi and Rajsamand districts of the state. With its work to ameliorate girls’ education, Educate Girls has seen an 87 per cent retention in schools, trained 3,500 teachers and 4,500 community volunteers and seen a 99 per cent enrolment rate for girls. In these centres, Bal Sabhas (Girls’ Council) are elected in upper primary schools to encourage leadership in young rural girls. More than half of Rajasthan’s women are not even literate. Considering the low bar for literacy in India, this low number is more dangerous than it seems. Because literacy has nothing to do with completing secondary education, organisations like Educate Girls become even more important. They’re pro-active and work to build the right kind of attitudes in girl children (and their parents).

The most important aspect of all these organisations (and many more that we haven’t mentioned) is that their focus tends to be community-drive, inclusive of technology and mindful of cultural and socio-economic contexts. This kind of approach not only requires expertise, but data and numerous professionals. More honest collaboration between the private, public and not-for-profit sectors would be highly beneficial to bring the kind of substantial change India needs, but isn’t getting.

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