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Vol. XXVIII No. 4, June 1-15, 2018

Education reforms cannot wait

By A Special Correspondent

The National Achievement Survey 2017, based on a study of 700 districts in the country, has identified staff crunch, crowded classrooms and inadequate funds for poor learning outcomes. To what extent this diagnosis is applicable to Tamil Nadu would be interesting to examine.

Taking fund insufficiency first, we find that it may not be the major factor affecting the quality of education in the State. Tamil Nadu Budget speeches show that Education received Rs.11,899 crore in 2010-11 and Rs. 30,762 crore in 2017-18, a 2.6 times increase, the share keeping pace with rising total revenue at 15 per cent. This may appear inadequate set against a norm of 6 per cent of GSDP, estimated as the requirement to fulfil the Right to Education (RTE) till the VIII class. The current provision for education should be doubled to meet the RTE requirement. Larger allocations are constrained by the fact that State employee salaries and pensions take away 70 per cent of the State’s own revenue which, after meeting other pre-committed expenses, leaves only six per cent for spending on social welfare.

The cost of salaries is the cost of delivering services. The high unit cost of delivery can be brought down only by expanding the range and depth of services without a corresponding increase in staff and salaries. Downsizing the establishment and contracting out services are politically infeasible. It is time to cut out freebies which displace social welfare investments. Scope for increasing investment in the short-term being limited, focus must be on making the existing infrastructure more productive through tighter supervision and governance.

For perhaps the first time in many years, we have the Hon’ble Minister for Personnel and Administrative Reform displaying political will to tell Government teaching staff that they are paid well and that they should not keep asking for more but instead focus on cooperating with the Government in running schools better. Teacher salaries range from Rs. 48,423 to Rs. 83, 085 per month with practically no accountability for performance.

The Survey cites crowded classrooms and staff crunch as another reason. The pupil-teacher ratio in Tamil Nadu has improved from 28 pupils to a teacher in 2010-11 to 19 in 2012-13 compared to the national ratio of 25. The Education Development Index (EDI) assigns Tamil Nadu the 3rd place for the entire elementary education at all-India level. Government has taken several initiatives to encourage children to complete school education. Free issues of text books, uniforms, laptop computers, footwear, bus passes and nutritious noon meals have reduced drop-outs. These show that while there may be room for more facilities it cannot be said that infrastructure has been neglected.

The next question is whether the infrastructure and teacher strength already on the ground have produced desired outcomes. According to the Annual Survey of Education Report (ASER) 2016, the percentage of children in Class V who can read a story of Class 2 level was only 32.3 in Tamil Nadu compared to the country’s 48.2. Among the Class 4 students covered in the study, only 40.6 per cent could perform subtraction of two-digit numbers, while they ought to be able to do multiplication and division. In other words, the outcomes are not satisfactory.

The reason for poor outcomes, and high percentage of unemployables observed by recruiters, are not due to constraints of funds, infrastructure, teacher strength or teacher salaries. It seems to do with poor teaching standards, teacher commitment, methodologies and, above all, enforcement and governance. Larger investment in teacher-training backed by hand-holding on the job and close monitoring could go a long way to improve teaching standard.

The system does not produce employable student candidates and we need good teachers for this, it looks like a vicious cycle but, indeed, true. Major investment in teacher training is the circuit breaker.

Many surveys showed how children move to higher grades without having learnt basic reading and writing skills. The no-detention policy linked to the Continuous & Comprehensive Evaluation (CCE) concept has been distorted in implementation. The idea was to group children by learning levels instead of standardising them into classes consisting of varying learning capabilities. The advantage of grouping by learning levels is that teachers are focused on a goal, freed from the pressure to finish the textbook by a deadline. Critical evaluation of the efficacy of current teaching practices is needed to make teaching easy, and learning an exciting experience

Reserving 25 per cent of seats, in private schools for the poor and disadvantaged, does create additional seat capacity for implementation of RTE but practical problems have arisen which need to be resolved urgently. By doing away with income certificate for SC and ST, the more affluent among these categories monopolise private seats, depriving the poor the opportunity to send their children to a private school instead of a government school under RTE. In effect, the affluent SC, ST, who would normally have paid the full fees, are now enabled to transfer the cost to the Government using up the sum meant for the poor under RTE. Income disability alone should be the criterion for free schooling under this Act.

ASER 2017 Study has identified positive behavioural aspects that can be built upon to improve education quality. Many children continue after Grade 8 although RTE benefit is unavailable. Large numbers work while they learn in school. These are very good signs, indicating a pronounced desire to persist with education. They create opportunities to strengthen skills wherever they have been left deficient up to Class 8 – weak English, for example, reducing employability.

Educational reforms cannot wait. Youth seeking jobs would continue to rise as improving healthcare reduces mortality rate amongst the younger segment. A growing number of unemployable graduates, without jobs, is a potential fuse for social unrest.

Syllabus reforms alone are not enough. There has to be systemic reforms in education in Tamil Nadu.

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