India's KV children

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India's KV children

In order to reap the demographic dividend, it is imperative we harness the potential of students enrolled in government schools and Kendriya Vidyalayas

An anxious wave seems have gripped the education sector. The recent spate of headlines regarding the security of children in schools has once again highlighted how vulnerable some of our students are. This unsettling news was in direct contrast to the celebrations on Education Day and Children’s Day earlier last month. Deliberations are underway to identify solution to the alarming menace of abuse. Of course, gender sensitization, adequate security and a better system to report such cases are being discussed in various forums but the debate has somehow overlooked the plight of our students who attain their education at a government funded school. All Indian schools do not resemble the images of fancy building which we have been repeatedly seeing on our television sets.

In recent weeks, the government has announced a slew of programmes which will bolster the Digital India movement and give an impetus to learning. The private sector has also been encouraged to be a stake holder in education but the issues which plague this sector in India require a more comprehensive intervention and the overwhelming focus must be on the government aided schools. They are the majority.

India’s rapidly growing online education sector has stimulated an interest among the people who are deeply connected with the industry. With the advent of technology and cheaper internet, the market is expected to swell impressively and become a $2 Billion industry by 2021. A recent World Bank report highlighted that a computer-assisted learning programme in Gujarat showed a tangible improvement in learning for the poorest performing students. But these examples are rare because the tragic truth is that there are millions of children in this country who can never hope to imbibe the knowledge such a revolution is creating.

Yes, I am referring to India’s Kendriya Vidyalaya children; the innocent and talent laden children in the recent blockbuster ‘Hindi Medium’, the average Indian child who attends a ramshackle Government school, a child who is repeatedly betrayed by the system, a child who has incredible potential but there is a crying lack of equipment and funds in many schools, an enthusiastic child who goes to school with a cherubic smile to eat a nutritious mid-day meal; perhaps the only one he will get in a day. Their innocence is infectious and yet we are unable to tailor our policies to ensure universal education. And let us not forget that they are not immune to the threat of sexual violence.

In order for India to reap its demographic dividend, and broaden the base of its middle class, it is imperative that we are able to harness the true potential of millions of students who are enrolled in Government schools. Education is the cornerstone of a coherent policy which addresses the plight of impoverished children around India. If we are unsuccessful in this endeavor then millions of students are at the risk of getting trapped in a perpetuating cycle of deprivation and poverty. This is the lamentable truth. We certainly owe more to our posterity.

In 2016, a little less than 28 per cent of students in grade 3 mastered double digit subtractions which means three -quarter could not do it. By grade 5, half the students were unsuccessful. There are a slew of concerns which are expressed by educationists. These range from the resources which are diverted to the educational sector, the manner in which classroom transactions take place, curbing teacher absenteeism, retaining the best talent in the industry and encouraging adult literacy programs.

The role of the teacher is instrumental for the educational system to evolve into a dynamics sector which churns out students who possess the skills which are later awarded by the labor market. Teachers, world over, determine student learning and outcomes. Technology cannot substitute a teacher; it only complements the teaching methodology. But good teachers are in short supply. What is more disconcerting is that many teachers themselves have a lack of understanding of the concept they are expected to deliver. In Bihar, only 10.5 per cent of the public school teachers are able to demonstrate a three digit by digit division problem with the correct steps.

There are a number of states in the country face an acute shortage of trained teachers. States with the largest vacancies include Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal, Jharkhand, Odhisha and Chattissgarh. Delhi has an astonishing 26000 plus vacancies for trained teachers. By not employing teachers, students enrolled in government schools are being deprived of their constitutional right to free and compulsory education. Data from 1300 villages in rural India shows that nearly 24 per cent of teachers were absent during announced checks which is costing the exchequer $1.5 billion a year. Recent policy suggestions to address sexual abuse have focused on more teacher presence but with such a shortage of qualified individuals can we really address this pressing issue in government funded schools?

Another policy challenge is to ensure that students actually continue in school to complete their education. Any policy intervention must serve the twin objectives of enrollment and retention. Surmounting the negative attitudes which exist in the mindset of the underprivileged families remains a challenge. The benefits of education must be effectively disseminated. In India, job recruitment services for women in their 20’s had an impact on school enrollment and retention rate for teenage girls. The Swachh Bharat initiative has a direct implication for literacy. Building gender specific latrines has a positive impact on enrollment of adolescent girls.

Adult literacy programs are also effective when it comes to fostering awareness among parents to encourage children to understand the benefits of an instructive educational curriculum. India has a large percentage of illiterate adults estimated to be 37 per cent of the global total. This is a disquieting statistic. The government needs to diligently address this issue and make efforts to accommodate adults in the fight towards universal literacy.

It is clear that a constellation of policies are required to tackle the illiteracy challenge. A unidimensional approach, focusing overwhelmingly, on private sector participation and technology will not prove to be effective. India has a vibrant and burgeoning population. Our students have the capability to attain the necessary skills which will propel them, and their families, into a higher income bracket. May be some day in the distant future they can be a part of India’s hopeful middle class. The inter-generational repercussions of this are monumental. If we want to strengthen our inexorable rise in the global economy, new paradigms need to be explored.

(The writer is a socio-economic commentator.)

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