In the budget last year, the central government allocated 42,000 crore rupees to school education. The major part of this allocation is spent on teacher salaries. A World Bank study reveals that on an average 25% teachers are absent every day in government schools and every year, the cost of teacher absenteeism is around 8000 crores rupees to India. Moreover, the size of private coaching industry in India in 2015 was estimated to be around 2.5 lakh crore rupees. In metros, 87% of primary school children and up to 95% secondary school children attend private tutoring. In rural areas, around 30% school children go to paid private tuition. The private school expenditure (by parents) is not even considered here! In spite of all the enormous expenditure, learning still remains an urgent challenge. Pratham’s survey has repeatedly revealed that in rural India, around 50% grade-5 children did not have grade-2 level literacy and numeracy skills.
The demand for school voucher system, where public money directly follows the child rather than schools or teachers, is getting momentum. In the school voucher system, the school that the parents and students choose gets the funding. School vouchers are coupons that can be redeemed for educational services by schools. However, I feel we should go even further by allowing parents to let their children learn anywhere they want. It could be a government school, a private school, a private tuition or it could even be homeschooling. Instead of focusing on every child is actually going to school, the government could focus on ensuring that every child is learning. The government can ensure this by developing and regulating standards to monitor and measure learning. The government can evaluate whether a child has mastered certain concepts and skills in a particular subject. This need not be age or grade specific. For example, a 10-year old girl could very well be at level 5 in Mathematics, at level 3 in Language and at level 7 in Music.
It’s time we shift our paradigm from ‘getting children to school and teaching them at grade level’ to ‘children mastering concepts and skills’. This could also include skills that are currently not in the curriculum.
Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Outliers, highlights an interesting research by Johns Hopkins University sociologist Karl Alexander. Alexander demonstrated that the reading scores of the wealthy kids jumped high after their long summer breaks whereas the reading scores of the poor kids dropped after the holidays. Poor kids may out-learn rich kids during the school year. But during the summer, they fall far behind. Gladwell says, “When it comes to reading skills, poor kids learn nothing when school is not in session. Virtually all of the advantage that wealthy students have over poor students is the result of differences in the way privileged kids learn while they are not in school.” In a nutshell, poor children lag behind their wealthy peers during long breaks.
In the times when everything else is changing, are we going to continue with the same hundred-year-old school system? We need to rethink our schools and question the assumptions. Should we have long summer holidays or could we spread those out across the year and have small school breaks? It is not a difficult change to make at the policy level.
While we wait for such a top-level policy change, schools, parents groups, and NGOs can conduct summer learning camps, library programs and digital learning programs especially for financially and socially backward children. That’s the least we could do in the direction of equal opportunity.
The enormous size of the Indian private coaching industry is dumbfounding. In metros, 87% of primary school children and up to 95% secondary school children attend private tutoring. In rural areas, around 30% school children go to paid private tuition. The size of private coaching industry in India in 2015 was estimated to be around 40 billion dollars or 2.5 lakh crore rupees. (These figures are based on the survey by ASSOCHAM – The Associated Chambers of Commerce & Industry of India – http://assocham.org/).
A common tax payer honestly pays income tax every year. The government is unable to provide basic educational infrastructure from this tax and hence the common man is made to pay an additional 3% education cess. However, he still cannot send his children to the dismal government schools and hence ends up paying big fees to the private schools. These school fees are hiked pretty much every year and there is no framework to regulate it. To top it all, a distraught parent pays an exorbitant price for private coaching classes. In metro cities, most parents spend Rs 1000 to 3000 per month on tuition of a primary-level child and Rs 5000 or more per month on tuition of a secondary-level child, according to the ASSOCHAM survey.
It’s a gloomy picture where parents spend a fortune on education and children sit in enclosed classrooms all day long in a boring routine setup. The same things that are learned, rather read in school, are revised again in private tuition. There is no curiosity or excitement, let alone any challenge. Children spend their days in school classrooms and evenings in coaching classes. Most children don’t get enough time for sports or other creative hobbies. They don’t learn much in this process either (although they are better equipped for exams). Spending evenings in coaching classes does not teach you the key skills of self-learning, critical thinking and the ability to focus on the task without any supervision. These skills can be acquired only when children study all by themselves.
Private tuition has become a new normal in school education today. There are many reasons for this trend such as competing peer groups, exam-oriented culture, lack of trust in school standards and the lack of ability or inclination of parents to provide time and guidance to their children.
The social obsession of ‘compare and compete’ has taken over the joy of childhood, the meaning of education and life in general. We are paying and making our children pay the price for the same.
If you talk to any student about his/her studies, you’ll see that the only thing they are focused on is learning (rather memorizing) the answers. It is all about the answers. What about the ability to ask questions though? Asking questions is an essential element of creative and critical thinking and that seems to be missing from our education system. Children are naturally curious and want to learn more. Their curiosity can be channelized into asking questions and eventually asking ‘good’ questions. This is not the same as asking questions to get their doubts clarified on the lessons taught.
There are various ways to develop the ability to ask questions. Can we have group projects to ask meaningful questions on various topics or can we conduct brain storming sessions in the class? In the language exams we often test comprehension by asking questions on an unseen prose or a poem. Instead, we can ask students to come up with questions on a given text. Of course, the school teachers need to have enough time and skills to evaluate every student’s questions separately. This kind of evaluation is very different from marking all the papers based on a set of model answers.
As children grow up, they can learn different types of questions and what it means by asking relevant and good questions. They will know that some questions are about seeking more information whereas other questions challenge our assumptions. Some have no concrete answers whereas others can have more than one answer. Asking good questions is really a critical skill in this day and age. We need to incorporate it in our school education and the sooner the better.
When children write essays, letters or any other compositions, they tend to write simple, generic words like “nice”, “good”, “happy”. Everything is nice or good. Nothing is incredible or fabulous or excellent. Kids are not sure about the spellings of the words like “excellent” or “incredible” and they know that every wrong spelling costs them half a mark. So why take chances? The policy to deduct marks for wrong spellings makes kids averse to experiment and averse to use adventurous vocabulary.
Shouldn’t writing be more about imagination, analysis and ability to express effectively? We teach them to play safe and to be scared to try something new. Instead, why not reward them for using new, different words? Why not give a mark more for using a rich vocabulary even if the spelling is wrong? Agreed, writing correct spellings is important as well. However, there could be a separate spelling test to test that aspect and we can decouple spellings from creative writing.