Every year, in January, Pratham, a non-profit organisation, releases the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER). Over the last 13 years, nothing much has changed in our education system except an improvement in enrolment, thanks to the Right to Education Act. The government has been able to boast of close to 100 per cent enrolment in schools.
While this achievement may be questionable as many organisations have been closely working with out-of-school children or school drop-outs or child labour cases, does the government’s role end with achieving mere enrolment figures?
It is a known fact that a large majority of our students enrolled in government schools are not at age-appropriate learning levels. This is exactly what Pratham has been highlighting in its yearly reports.
The results of the national achievement survey 2017 also showed a similar trend. One in three students in Class III cannot read even a small text with comprehension and one in two students cannot solve mathematical problems they encounter in life everyday. So was the result of ASER 2018.
Only 50 per cent of the students studying in Class V in rural India were able to read a sentence from the textbook of a Class II student. And only 28 per cent of Class V could solve a simple division problem.
These results might be true even now. From where does this gap actually begin? The answer lies in Pratham’s latest report.
Conducted in 26 districts across 24 states in India, ASER 2019 – “Early Years” - covered a total of 1,514 villages, 30,425 households and 36,930 children falling in the age group of 4 to 8 years.
On a positive note, the report establishes that more than 90 per cent of the children are enrolled in some type of educational institution, be it private pre-schools, government schools or anganwadis. The proportion increases as one goes up from 4 years to 8 years. This shows that at least the parents, even those who have little or no education, want their children to be educated. In fact, the enrolment goes up to 99.5 per cent amongst the 8-year olds.
However, the perception of girl child education is still not up to the mark. When it comes to enrolling a boy, the parents are willing to pay fee and enrol him in a private school. Girls are preferably enrolled in government schools.
The data shows that in the 4-5 age group, 56.8 per cent of the girls are enrolled in a government school, as compared to 50.4 per cent boys. The gap increases as the age increases. Among the 6-8 group, 61.1 per cent girls are enrolled in government schools, against 52.1 per cent for boys.
Surprisingly, despite the mandate of the Right to Education (RTE) Act to enrol every 6 year-old child in Class I, only 41.7 per cent of the students are of RTE-mandated age, 36.4 per cent are of 7 to 8-year old and 21.9 per cent are 4 to 5-year old. And what they are expected to do in Class I vary from state to state and organisation to organisation.
For instance, in Thrissur in Kerala, 89.9 per cent of all 5-year old are in pre-primary grade and the rest are in Class I while in East Khasi Hills (Meghalaya), 65.8 per cent are in pre-school, 9.8 per cent are in Class I and the rest in Class II.
In Satna (Madhya Pradesh) 47.7 per cent are in pre-school, 40.5 per cent in Class I and 4.1 per cent are in Class II. There is no standard curriculum that is being followed. Every state and every organisation expects the students to perform differently.
However, the surveyors asked every child to do a variety of tasks to test their cognitive skills. They were asked to sort images by colour, size, recognise patterns, put together a four-piece animal puzzle and a few literacy and numeracy tests. To test their social and emotional skills, they were asked to identify emotions like happy, sad, anger etc. with the help of placards.
The findings also established a direct relationship between kids who had developed their cognitive skills with their learning outcomes in Class 1. For instance, children, who could perform all the three tasks (sorting images with colour, size, recognise patterns and solve the animal puzzle) had better reading abilities than those who could not solve any of the tasks. Similarly, they were found better in solving a single-digit addition problem. The variation was quite huge almost to the extent of 60 percentage points.
Simply put, a child who went through appropriate pre-school education performed better than those who directly took admission to Class I. This is an accepted fact globally as well.
Research shows that 90 per cent of the brain growth occurs by the age of 5. It has also been found that while most of the parents tend to send their children from as early as 3 years to a play school, poor parents do not have any option, except sending them to the government anganwadis.
Despite the huge investment the country has made in integrated child development system (ICDS), anganwadis lack in developing the much-needed cognitive, basic functional and numeracy skills in children.
This is clearly visible in the gap between private and government institutions. The findings are dismal, to say the least. Less than half of the children enrolled in government primary schools can recognise alphabets compared with 77 per cent in private schools. Only 54.4 per cent could recognise numbers 1 to 9, compared with 82.7 per cent in private schools.
In cognitive skills and picture description, the gap between government schools, including anganwadis, and private schools was between six and 13 percentage points respectively. In slightly more advanced skills like listening comprehension and counting objects, the gaps widened to 17 and 21 percentage points.
Of the 6-year olds in Class 1, 41.5 per cent of those enrolled in private schools could read words than 19 per cent in government schools. Similarly, only 28 per cent could do simple addition, compared to 47 per cent in private schools. This establishes the fact that public education system has been unable to provide the much-needed early childhood education to our 3 to 6 year old kids.
Pre-schooling is one of the six services (supplementary nutrition, nutrition & health education, immunisation, health check-up, referral services and pre-school education) that an anganwadi is expected to provide. It arguably gets the least priority. More important is the food supplies or medicines.
What is urgently needed is an overhauling of the entire system. The anganwadis can certainly be strengthened to reach out to more children so that 4 or 5-year olds do not sit in Class I in a government school.
At the same time, the government should shift its priorities. The focus should shift towards providing effective pre-schooling and implementing school readiness activities. Not only this, a standardised curriculum should be developed with an emphasis on developing cognitive skills.
The early childhood curriculum should not be an extension of subject learning, which has been happening over the last years. Once a child develops the cognitive and reasoning abilities, he/she is bound to perform better in academics.
(The writer, a company secretary, is the Executive Director of a Delhi-based NGO, Deepalaya and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org(Published on 27th January 2020, Volume XXXII, Issue 05)