35 – 18 : Advocacy for quality in education

35 – 18, looks like an easy subtraction problem that everyone who reads this note can solve, possibly without the use of pen and paper. We expect to learn this skill in primary school – in standard 2, according to the government’s own curriculum.

Imagine the plight of a child who has been going to school for 5 years and is unable to solve such a problem. You may think “how many such children would be there? Perhaps a few children here and there, if at all”. The sad reality is that more than 65% children of Class 5 in rural schools of Tamilnadu cannot solve such a subtraction problem. And it is not as if this issue is specific to subtraction – more than 50% in class 5 cannot read a simple story in Tamil either. These are not just observations from one survey –studies by different agencies (including some commissioned by the government) have arrived at similar conclusions. In fact, while Tamilnadu ranks better than many states in infrastructure and enrollment, it fares very poorly in learning levels, absolutely as well as relative to other states.

It is clear that the quality of education leaves a lot to be desired. If students do not acquire even basic skills like reading and are unable to solve simple problems in addition and subtraction, then what is the use of providing such education? If students drop out by class 8, it is not because of the pressure to earn for the family, but rather because of the poor quality of learning that they receive.

Some sections from the urban elite may ask “What’s so surprising? Perhaps it is something genetic” – reflecting deep-rooted caste-based prejudices. Of course, science has shown such claims to be rubbish. There are also arguments which may sound less prejudicial – for ex: “Why should rural children learn these skills? Perhaps their education should focus on what is relevant to them.” Or “Each child is unique and some may excel in art or music – why language and math for everyone?” These arguments ignore the fact that we are talking about basic reading and arithmetic skills – which are obviously fundamental to education, and something that all children can definitely acquire.

Private schools are not exempt from the learning quality problem. However, a large majority of rural children, and particularly those from the poor and marginalized sections, go to government or government-aided schools. Many of their children may be first-generation learners, and hence may not be able to receive the kind of support at home that their counterparts from more affluent families may receive. So it becomes all the more important for the government to deliver good quality education.

The government claims to have introduced many innovative approaches to education. But they are of little use if they cannot deliver on learning outcomes! With the simple approach of identifying lagging children, and a proper focus on ensuring that such children learn basic skills, it is definitely possible to significantly improve the situation.

Many poor people believe that educating their children will liberate them from the clutches of poverty. Let us make sure that this dream is not shattered for the millions of children in primary school. Let us join hands to reiterate quality education as a fundamental right of every child.

– Dr.A.Ravishankar, AID INDIA

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