Falling government school enrolment is alarming and it needs to be addressed soon

Governance must shift from control of resources to learning outcomes; learning design, responsiveness, teacher management, community relationships, integrity, fair decision making, and financial sustainability.

The proportion of India’s children attending a government school has now declined to 45 per cent; this number is 85 per cent in America, 90 per cent in England, and 95 per cent in Japan. The new leadership at the ministry of education must deal with this tragedy because a quality, free and regular school education represents our most potent infrastructure of opportunity, a fundamental duty of the state, and this enrolment decline happened despite higher teacher salaries, teacher qualifications, and government spending. Policy is choice, not fate; we need the difficult reforms of governance, performance management, and English instruction.

In 1959, a wonderful essay by Ram Manohar Lohia suggested that powerful people have caste, wealth, and English education. A logical culmination of Lohia’s observation is a wonderful new book The Aristocracy of Talent by Adrian Wooldridge that suggests meritocracy — the idea that people should advance based on their talents and efforts — became the world’s ruling ideology by the end of the 20th century. But India’s meritocracy is sabotaged by flailing government schools. The cynical confiscation of 25 per cent of private school capacity by the Right to Education Act is a tacit acceptance of state failure and parents’ “revealed preference”. Our yearning for better government schools is not an argument against private schools (both of us went to one) because, without this market response to demand, the post-1947 policy errors in primary education would have been catastrophic for India’s human capital. Without an overhaul, India will fail its children just like Indian socialism failed its poor.

India’s 100 per cent plus school enrolment masks challenges; a huge dropout ratio and poor learning outcomes (only 50 per cent of Grade 5 children being able to read a grade 2 text). We have too many schools and 4 lakh have less than 50 students (70 per cent of schools in Rajasthan, Karnataka, J&K, and Uttarakhand). China has similar total student numbers with 30 per cent of our school numbers. Reform is urgent. The new world of work redefines employability to include the 3Rs of reading, writing, and arithmetic and a fourth R of relationships; these can’t be taught in 3 months or 3 years but need 12 years. India’s farm to non-farm transition is not happening to factories but to sales and customer services which need 4R competency and English awareness. Future jobs require dynamic learners because dangerous, dirty, repetitive, and uncomplicated jobs will increasingly be done by ma­chines. And Harvard’s Paul Reville suggests COVID accelerates the overdue move by schools from the factory model (same lesson for the same time) to a medical model (differential assistance for differential durations)

Recent government school action — class sizes, salaries, qualifications, Rs 5 lakh crore Sarva Shiksha Abhiyaan spending — needs supplementing with difficult reforms. Performance management, currently equated with teacher attendance, needs evaluation of scores, skills, competence and classroom management. Scores need continuous assessments or end-of-year exams. Skills are harder in a world where soft skills — curious, courageous, confident, risk-taker, team player, and communicator — are hard skills. Teacher competence needs judging on child interaction, knowledge, planning capacity, communication, feedback abilities, and collaboration. Classroom management needs assessment by classroom observation of learning (teaching often happens without learning), physical set-up, instructional differentiation (for process, product, and learning styles), and communication (clarity, questioning, responsiveness).

Governance must shift from control of resources to learning outcomes; learning design, responsiveness, teacher management, community relationships, integrity, fair decision making, and financial sustainability. Governance must enable performance management to be substantive and replace the current system best captured by the Tamil aphorism “naan adducha maadri addikyeren, nee arrara maadri aru (I will pretend as if I am beating you, you pretend as if you are crying)”.

English instruction is about bilingualism, higher education pathways, and employability. Bilingualism, because Allahabad University once had two wonderful English literature professors — Hindi and Urdu poets Harivansh Rai Bachchan and Firaq Gorakhpuri. Employability, because in a country where kos kos mein paani badley, char kos mein vaani, English is an operating system and vocational skill. Employment outcomes are 50 per cent higher for kids with English familiarity because of higher geographic mobility, sector mobility, role eligibility, and entrance exam ease. Yet, West Bengal’s government banned English teaching in primary schools in 1981 (this may explain their lowest ranking among states in the proportion of English medium students at 5.3 per cent). The poor, especially Dalits, have been at the receiving end of the elite-favouring dichotomy between government-provided regional language instruction and professional courses including civil service examinations in English. BR Ambedkar believed “English is the milk of the lioness, he who drinks it can roar” yet only 26 per cent of our kids study in English. In 2020, Andhra Pradesh made English the medium of instruction for classes 1 to 4 while making Telugu and Urdu a compulsory second language.

India’s constitution wrote Education Policy into Lists I (Centre), II (State), and III (concurrent jurisdiction); this fragmentation needs revisiting because it tends to concentrate decisions that should be made locally in Delhi or state capitals. For instance, recruitment at the block level will minimise teacher absenteeism and reduce the stakes and payments on the “transfer industry” and school consolidation will reduce teacher shortages.

The challenges of getting school education right are not uniquely Indian or contemporary; Abraham Lincoln filled an election form describing his government school education as “defective”, West Indian cricketer Michael Holding’s new book Why We Kneel, How We Rise flags the 1970s herding of UK black kids into schools designated MSN (mentally subnormal), and Chinese families spend hugely on coaching for Gaokao, the national university entrance exam. India missed her tryst with destiny for many reasons but one of them was surely weak government schools.

COVID creates new urgency; reports suggest 25 per cent of Haryana private school students may have dropped out this year due to parental financial challenges. Adults invested in the status quo insist progress re­quires more patience, time and money. But children have only one chance to grow up.

This column first appeared in the print edition on July 10, 2021 under the title ‘The classroom test’. Mehrishi is a former civil servant, Sabharwal is co-founder Teamlease Services.

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