The dismal state of rural schools

Saturday, 20 April 2019
Kanan Shah

The Indian education system is on the move. Indian schools are now on par with the schools in the West and that Indian students are matching children from developed countries is true, but what is also a fact is 84% of the schools in India are in the small towns and farther away in the hinterland that does not match up with the adjectives. This mismatch is alarming and the disparity is a double edged sword.

The implications include a great opportunity to enter rural areas and develop schools and the talent that is untapped provides a ray of hope. J K Galbraith, the American ambassador to India in the early 60s remarked that India is a functioning anarchy rings true even today. However, in spite of the inadequacies, the Indian schooling system has done fairly well (read in urban areas).

On the one hand Artificial Intelligence, Virtual Reality and other fascinating technological innovations are being lapped up by schools in the cities, whilst just getting enough power supply to run schools in the villages is still a dream. Schools in cities are fast adapting teaching learning practices in their classrooms and next gen pedagogies flows in 2,05,392 urban schools; the schools designed for mere 29% population of the country.

While flipped classrooms and tech-savvy teaching strategies are being implemented in private schools across developing Indian cities, many rural schools, comprising of 84% of the total schools in India, stay deprived of basic facilities for quality education. Sample this: In rural India, more than a lakh of schools have no drinking water, many have no electricity and if there are teachers, there is absenteeism or they just do their job without passion

Drinking water

In rural area, 1,10,548 schools are without drinking water facility.

Electricity connection

Only 32.26% rural schools in primary, 47.95% in upper primary, 70.05% in secondary and 84.85% in higher secondary are equipped with electricity connection.

Dearth of teachers

Out of 7,65,852 primary schools, 84,424 (11.02%) primary schools are without full time teachers and 2,41,939 (32.57%) primary schools have less than two full-time teachers.

These underdeveloped schools that open their doors for farmers’ children, kids with less or no financial help and the future generation with visibly no facilities experience challenges of an entirely different kind. Evidently, the 10,94,510 recognized rural schools catering to the majority of 315 million Indian students are battling problems which are unique and require unique solutions.

When an illiterate parent with monthly family income of ₹ 750 admits her child in a school, the assurance of one meal everyday gives her a relief. That child does not go to school with the curiosity on who Einstein was and what has he done. He goes to school with the hope of transforming his family’s financial fate through skill-based learning.

Are his aspirations met?

Apparently not. Statistics reveal a huge gap in the achievement rate of students in rural sector. As per the ASER survey report, almost 50% of class V children are unable to read a Class II level text!\

Poor Learning outcomes

Poor Learning OutcomesThe fight of a child from the rural background does not include hurdles of peer pressure, distraction from technology, child obesity due to lethargic routine or a junk food diet. He constantly battles the possibilities of dropping out of school due to family’s financial difficulties, society’s unawareness on the importance of being educated, no means to reach the school and unable to afford school supplies.As stated by NCERT in its Eight All India School Education Survey (AISES), “In India, school-age group children are involved in domestic activities and facing the problems of child labour at either agricultural farms or other industrial chorus, to earn livelihood for their family since time immemorial, though they are supposed to attend the schools.”

Today, India is one of the youngest countries with 71% of its population settled in rural region. Our maximum youth potential is facing severe difficulties to continue education. Responding to their call, Government of India initiated incentive schemes to build a support system and enable them to pursue education.

Not long before, we lamented on the poor reach of school education. Thousands of children in almost every state dreamt of a school nearby. There were students from backward castes witnessing the joy of learning from outside the windows of poorly constructed classrooms. At the stroke of bell, they were switched back to reality, a reality that forced them to barter their childhood in exchange of a few pennies.


Mid-day meal scheme

Out of 10,31,361 primary schools, 8,92,011 schools (86.49%) have mid-day meal scheme. Besides, nearly 91.23% schools in rural and 58.34% schools in urban areas have midday meal scheme with respect to total number of schools at primary stage. Around 90.11% schools are cooking meal in their premises, however, 9.89% schools are providing cooked meal from outside agencies; 69.22% such

schools have kitchen-cumstore room and 83.87% schools have kitchen devices (utensils, etc.). Out of 4,72,350 upper primary schools, 3,36,962 schools (71.33%) are having mid-day meal scheme in the country. The proportion is distributed 78.75% in rural and 44.34% in urban areas.

Free uniforms

To increase the participation of children in schools, free uniforms are being provided particularly, to the children of socially economically weaker sections of the society.

The Eighth survey reveals that 4,36,008 schools (33.54%) covered under free uniform incentive schemes. In Seventh survey, 2,40,778 schools, i.e., 23.54% schools had free uniform scheme.

The beneficiaries of this scheme in primary schools are nearly 38,26,747 boys and 1,19,42,450 girls in the country.

Free textbooks

An incentive for providing free textbooks to school children was initiated by the public organizations to attract the children in schools and retain them to complete the school education.

The Eighth survey reveals that nearly 9,14,029 schools (70.32%) are having free textbook scheme out of 12,99,902 schools in the country.

The facility of free textbooks to students is available in 75.44% and 42.99% schools, areas located in rural and urban areas.

It was a national call that brought together private, government and NGOs to work for one same goal universal enrollment. Today, if we analyse the state of education in India, we have achieved certain milestones. Latest findings have confirmed that every student has an access to a school within 1 km. Also, enrollment is no longer a significant issue. 97.2% of rural Indian students from 6-14 years of age are enrolled in schools.

Milestones Achieved in Indian Education

Required number of schools done  For every child, 1 school is available within 1 km

Universal enrollment- done 97.2% enrollment (students of age 6-14 years)

Regular attendance- done 72-73% student attendance

Dr Wilima Wadhwa

Dr Wilima Wadhwa, Director of ASER Center shares while attendance in India for students is around 72-73 percent.” Known as the architect of the ASER survey, she has witnessed the trends of learning outcomes in rural India since the first survey in 2005. Directing attention towards the next big priority, she adds, “If we look at the attendance, it is not so bad. What matters for learning is what is happening in the classroom.

A present-day rural classroom is filled with huge learning gaps. While some class VIII children are taught to fetch the Highest common factor of 48, they struggle in simple division of acquiring the quotient of 48 divided by 2. When a Class V child is asked to mark the punctuations correctly in a paragraph, she is still unable to read simple texts such as ‘What is the time?’ “What happens is that, if a child doesn’t learn certain things, when she is expected to and she moves through the system, then she is not going to make up, so those deficits pile up,” Dr Wadhwa explains.

As per ASER, enrollment in private schools (Budget Private Schools) comprises of 30.9% of rural student population. While majority of rural student population is enrolled in government schools, both the institutions largely impact the cause of education.


Dr Kulbhushan Sharma

Highlighting potential reasons behind deteriorated quality of education, Dr Kulbhushan Sharma, President of National Independent School Association (NISA) reveals the scenario, “Teachers are not enough in number in government schools. If there’s a need of 12 teachers in one school, six seats are vacant.” Adding on the non-teaching responsibilities, he states, “They have to get involved in various non-teaching duties like election volunteering which really affects the education. There are serious inspections on mid-day meals. In order to implement this scheme, teachers too are engaged in making mid-day meals and hence are absent from the classrooms. Today, government has focused a lot on these aspects put there’s negligible attention on studies.”

The dearth of teacher, however, is a challenge in Budget private schools as well. Parth Shah, Founder of Centre for Civil Society (CCS) shares, “Dearth of teacher is a challenge experienced by all kinds of schools.” Listing some of the reasons behind lack of quality teachers in private schools of rural India, he says, “Nearly 60% percent of the revenue is allotted to teachers’ salaries and benefits. This implies that salaries are comparatively low as students’ fee is low in a BPS. So, this acts as a constraint for low budget schools to attract good teachers.” There are cases of sudden vacant positions too. “Mostly the teachers are from the same neighbourhood. They may stay as long as they are in the neighbourhood and when they move, their seat is suddenly vacant,” he adds.Parth Shah

While government responds to this dearth through better facilities for teachers in terms of better salaries and government benefits, budget private schools use other motivational methods.

“We show them the impact they are creating on the lives of underprivileged kids in helping the children to make a better future,” shares Parth on retaining teachers in Budget Private Schools.

Status od Government Teachers on Any Given Day

According to a 2013 analysis by Amartya Sen and Jean Dreze, India’s government teachers earn four times the salaries paid to teachers in China. “If we can’t afford to pay too much more money, we focus on other motivation that teacher should have,” adds Shah. “We recognize the teachers who are good and can be better by sending them for specific trainings where they witness their purposeful growth. These are the ways in which BPS makes sure that good teachers are recognized and rewarded.”

When asked on choosing the type of school, a parent narrates the usual thinking trend, “The notion that private schools impart better quality education persuades many to opt for these over government schools.”

Approach for the fight of enrollment isn’t similar too. As the government responds by introducing incentive schemes, a poor parent is influenced into enrolling his child in school. Dr Kulbhushan shares the alternative approach of BPS. “The idea is, if they get good results, they will get admissions and will be able to sustain students. Hence, they cannot afford to compromise on quality which leads to a better education imparted in these schools. For private schools, maintaining teacher regularity is a must as it is directly linked to the survival of the school. In government schools, however, that is not the case.”

Elaborating on the statistics, Shah states, “Almost one-fourth of the government school teachers (25%) are absent on any given day. And almost half of those who are present are not engaged in teaching activities.”

“Even teacher recruitment is influenced through political interests many times,” shares Kulbhushan Sharma on the reason behind no-teacher classrooms. “Many cases are pending in courts regarding teacher eligibility or incorrect appointment and if elections are in the way, then the pending cases are even more stretched.

Stating the fact which sprouts different strategies in government schools and BPS, Dr Wilima says, “Comparing private schools to government schools is not comparing apples to apples. We know that kids who go to private schools also come from richer households who tend to have more educated parents. It is more like comparing apples and oranges.”

Agreeing to the fact, Dr Sharma states, “Budget Private Schools have only those students enrolled whose parents are aware about the need of good quality education. When the economic status is very poor, the students are sent to government schools.”

“It is true that private schools have better learning outcomes but we need to understand the reality of a government school teacher,” Wadhwa adds while revealing the real picture of a government classroom.

“Suppose, there’s a class teacher, there are a number of students of similar ages coming from similar socio-economic background; they are at the same level of learning. That’s what you expect to see in a classroom. The assumption is that children enter the school at the age of six and grow linearly through the system. But our reality is very different. 50% of rural classrooms in India are multigrade which means that different grades are sitting with each other. That may not be such a bad thing because we know there are models like activity based learning where different grades interacting with themselves may be a good thing. But this is not by design and these formations are not stable. If today grade I, II and III are sitting together, tomorrow II, III and IV are sitting together.”

“Think in terms of the teacher,” asserts the Director of ASER Center. “The teacher has, in front of her, students from different grades, they have very different socio-economic background, they are of different ages and they are of different learning levels. ASER has depicted that children in grade VIII, for instance, are unable to read a grade II level text. Now, that’s her ground reality. What is her brief? Her brief is to complete the curriculum but if you ask her to complete the curriculum, who is she teaching? Here, you have kids of all kinds of ages, all kind of learning levels, all kinds of grades, all kinds of socio-economic backgrounds and there is nothingin her training which prepares her to deliver these.”

It is evident that the ground reality in these schools is very different from a more regular school system. While government schools have their own set of obstacles, Budget private schools experience regulatory challenges in their independent initiatives. Shah shares, “Right to Education Act has taken a shape of constant threat of closure for Budget Private Schools.” “Due to its first requirement of minimum infrastructure, many budget private schools are facing closure as they are unable to comply with it due to very low fee,” adds Kulbhushan.

Speaking on the consequences, the founder of Centre for Civil Society shares, “This creates uncertainty for schools and for parents as well. The act requires the government to find an alternative school for the children if they close down a BPS. However, government has never made that effort and they leave it to parents to find another school after the shut down.”

Juggling with the stressful scenario, Budget Private Schools have proposed the government to measure them on learning outcomes rather than infrastructures. “Their appeal states that they are the schools of the poor. They charge very low fee. With that low fee they cannot afford to pay the government scaled teachers’ salaries,” shares Parth. “Ultimately what matters is- are children educated or not, are they learning in schools or not. They have recommended that government should assess learning outcomes from all the schools and close down those which are unable to generate improvements in the same.”

Panic hits the doors of Budget Private School owners. While some claim on RTE as a political fraud to close down the private schools, some challenge the government to measure the opinion of parents while giving them freedom to choose the school.

“In education, direct benefit should be transferred.” Dr Kulbhushan explains that cost of education per child which is minimum ₹ 3000 to  ₹ 4000 and paid by the government is the right of that parent. Expenditure on educational facilities by government schools is six to eight percent more than budget private schools. This is taken out from the taxes paid by the citizens. Unaware of this partnership, the illiterate villager stays away from the reality that this ₹ 3000 is his own right. “If the government gives that money to the parent for child’s education, then he can choose better school. His right on the money is tied with admission in government school. He doesn’t want to choose government school but he is forced to do so.”

Commenting on this suggestion, a parent envisions, “Maybe then, the money will not be used to educate the child but as an additional income for survival. The struggles of these families are not easy. In such situation, if their money is being tied with the government, they will force themselves to send their children to schools. Maybe the solution is not to compete, but to collaborate.”

Three-Step Strategy

With a reality-check, Dr Wilima agrees, “We have a huge investment in the public schools. You can’t just wipe it off. You have to make it better. Today, 50% of children in rural India have mothers who have never been to school. 25% children are first generation learners that means both their parents have never been to school. These kids are not getting the help from home. If you think that the child is getting lagged behind, you expect that he can be taught at home. But that help is not available.”

The serious learning gap where if the deficits are not addressed soon then they just pile up preventing the child to flow through the designed curriculum is another side of the story. Discussing on the solutions, Dr Wadhwa asserts. “We need to start from the level of the child. That’s not very difficult. There are certain kids in the system who need some supplement help. The important thing to understand here is that that help must happen in school because these kids are not going to get that help elsewhere.” She shares on upholding a three-step strategy based on the approach- “Don’t teach the curriculum, teach the child.”

Sharing the impact of its application, she adds, “ASER centre is measurement assessment arm of Pratham, the parent organization, which works in this area through the programme ‘teaching at the right level’. The idea is very simple. For two hours in the day, you group children according to where they are at their level and teach them from that level so that they make up for their deficits. Punjab government unleashed it in all their schools.”

“The next year we saw a big jump in their learning level within ASER. So, we know that change is possible. But is it sustainable?” Dr Wilima questions. “Usually what happens is there’ll be some bureaucrat who will be really interested and will push the agenda. Then, once he is transferred, things go back to normal. At some level, for this to happen universally, you have to have systemic reform.”

Today, a lot of efforts are being made by the government, nonprofit organizations and Budget Private Schools. However, the important aspect is to focus on the outcomes of these efforts. A continuous attention on improving learning outcomes is the alarming need of the day. As Dr Wadhwa states, “It is just the way when we introduced right to education and we said we want universal enrollment of all children in the age group of six to fourteen years. Well now, we have got universal enrollment. The kids are enrolled in school. What we now need to say as a nation is what is it that we expect of kids to know at the end of grade III, V, VIII and align the entire system to these goals. That is our next big priority.”