The enrolment myth

The dismal picture painted in Pratham's latest Annual Status of Education Report must provoke policymakers to urgently assess and tackle the crisis in India's primary school education. Pratham, an NGO, has done stellar work these past years in surveying the learning outcomes in schools countrywide. Its 2012 report details a rapid decline in students' ability to keep up with the syllabus. It has found, for example, that only 30 per cent of children in Class III could read a text appropriate for the skill set of Class I students compared to 50 per cent just four years ago. Arithmetic skills have registered a similar decline. This slide comes against the backdrop of the implementation of the landmark Right to Education Act, with its guarantee of putting children in the 6-14 age group in school and of quality learning, encapsulated in the phrase, age appropriate mainstreaming. Clearly, success in increasing enrolment and upgrading school infrastructure is not translating into better learning outcomes.

Arguably, this may be an occasion to examine shortcomings in the RTE Act. Could it be that continuous comprehensive evaluation (CCE), enshrined in the law, with its promise of holding no child back, has led to a relaxation in classroom rigour? Interestingly, while Human Resource Development Minister Pallam Raju refused to put the blame on CCE, he did note that he receives representations from parents to roll it back. Assessment of CCE's possibly deleterious effect should, however, be located in a wider appraisal of the curricular design. Experts contend that India's curriculum moves too fast and is not configured to stop and carry along children who may be lagging. The system requires of the teacher that she teach to the syllabus, not to the classroom's abilities so she must race to complete the assigned syllabus by the schooling year's end, whether her students have kept pace or not. Year on year, this can increase the student's inability to measure up to age-appropriate learning. The system just races on, delivering finally to the desired level of academic achievement a small minority of students most of them with tutoring support, as other findings by Pratham indicate.

CCE may indeed be a problem, but it would only be exacerbating an existing problem in curriculum design and teaching techniques. There needs to be a wider examination of the curriculum as well as a realisation that to slow it down does not in any way imply a dumbing down. What is unconscionable is to carry on with business as usual and take enrolment figures alone as appropriate benchmarks.

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