Learnings about Improving Education

(Notes and References from documentation for NGOs and Teachers)
John D’Souza, Tanvi Patel and CED DocumentationTeam

Factors Affecting Quality of Education

Learning is a complex process and it involves not only children and their teachers but families as well.i Factors affecting the achievements of pupils can be broadly categorized into school-related and household related.

Generally, children who are fortunate in being born to educated parents or having caring, competent teachers do very well, and are able to find jobs demanding high productivity. However, the average is appallingly low. The results are low productivity, poor skills, and massive unemployment even after several years of schooling, or even college education.ii

Various studies have shown that children coming from a deprived background do not have a supportive learning environment and feel alienated in schools. The government school teachers, even motivated ones, find it difficult to address their special needs. Therefore, increasingly it is being realized that only by improving the quality of education can the positive effects of growing enrolments be sustained.

The Public Report on Basic Education (PROBEiii) which investigated the schooling situation in over 200 villages of north India in 1996, says, “quality education”, however defined, involves certain minimal requirements such as adequate facilities, responsible teachers, an active class room and an engaging curriculum. These are simply not met at present.

Undisciplined and unmotivated teachers

Tavleen Singh in an articleiv points out “It is when you look at the Indian education system through rural eyes that its monumental absurdities become painfully evident. Anyone who has bothered to inspect village schools in India will confirm that what they offer is a literacy programme, if that, with almost no attempt at understanding the wider idea of education. I was in a Bihari village discussing education with a group of elders. The village school suffered the usual problems. Teachers, despite being very well paid, came and went when they liked and nobody could remember a single day when they were all present. This kind of capricious behaviour meant that children were lucky if they could learn to read and write at the end of their school education.”

The PROBE survey also indicates that in a typical poor school, the problem of teacher shortage is magnified by short hours of work. Very little time is spent on instruction. After accounting for holidays, a teacher is left with 150 days a year to teach.

Also on any day, instead of the normal six hours, an average teacher spends merely four hours at school, due to late arrival, casual absenteeism, early closure of classes, etc.

(Source: The PROBE Report, 1999)

Out of these four hours, a mere 54 % of a teacher’s time is spent on teaching. Thus effective teaching time is a mere 2 hours for 150 days in a year.

What the teacher does in these two hours also impacts the children. At that impressionable age, children perceive teachers as their role models and thus internalize lazy and callous attitudes.

“The teachers need to make learning enjoyable, and pay special attention to children. Shouting at the students, not teaching in an interesting manner, not involving the child in learning, sending children out of school for any reason, and all other acts of discouragement will not serve the purpose of education” says, Azim Premji.v

Poor Allocation of Funds

The need for increased expenditure on education has been talked about since the late sixties. Anil Sadgopalvi, Professor of Education, University of Delhi, says “the allocation for education as a percentage of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) has been steadily declining since the promulgation of the New Economic Policy. This investment has continued to decline during the United Progressive Alliance rule as well in spite of the levy of the 2 per cent Education Cess and a substantial portion of the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA) funds coming from international agencies. The present level of investment is as low as the level achieved 20 years ago — 3.5 per cent of the GDP. The political will to mobilise adequate public resources for education has reached a low-ebb.”

Official figures suggest that the government spends approximately Rs.1000 per year on a school going child [GOI 1997]. In Mumbai the per student government expenditure is even higher-Rs. 4,393 per year, as per the education department budget. What does this money buy in terms of basic skill acquisition? A very rough estimate, based on a variety of government and other studies, suggests that, on an average, four years of schooling generates learning levels worth two years across the country.vii

Critics are quick to point out that government is spending far too much on education and that it is a wasteful expenditure.

For example when the Congress led coalition proposed to increase the spending on education from 4.1% to 6% of the GDP, Swaminathan S. Anklesaria Aiyarviii was quick to point out that the ratio of public spending per student to per capita GDP in India equals that of the US at 20.8%. He also pointed out that India spends 4.1% of its GDP on education but boasts of just 65% literacy. China, on the other hand, spends only 2.2 % of its GDP on education and yet has 91% literacy. Sri Lanka and Indonesia spend only 1.3% of their GDP on education, yet have literacy rates of 92.5% and 88% respectively.

While his point of quality of education is well taken, what he conveniently omits to mention is that a large portion of the per-student spend is actually on elite education, particularly the premium institutions and higher education.

The fact is that the allocation for primary education is a mere 15 per cent of what has been promised. Further the actual expenditure on primary education is even below the low allocations, primarily due to slower disbursement of funds.

In fact this seems to be a mechanism to balance out so called popular budgetary allocations with spends which find favor with the government-like heavy industry, where expenditure is more than allocations.

The Tapas Majumdar Committee appointed by the Government of India in 1999 to enquire and make recommendations for primary education had estimated an additional requirement of Rs.14000 crore per annum for a period of ten years as the requirement for achieving quality Universalisation of Elementary Education. However, in the Union Budget of 2003-04, the budget allocation for Elementary Education was Rs. 4669 crore.

(Source: )

Further underutilization of budget allocations is observed across departments, for a variety of reasons including timely availability of funds. It is however important to note that there are departments that show reverse trends in expenditure.

The revised estimates of the Departments of Rural Development, Food and Public Distribution, and Heavy Industry are seen to be significantly more than the budget estimates designated to the respective Department for that particular year.

This implies that the union budget estimates when inadequate are revised during the year to facilitate additional expenditure. Graph no. 2 indicates the extent to which such departures have taken place in the Department of Elementary Education vis-à-vis the other departments.

(Source: )

The Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) report for the year ended March 2005, clearly states that revised budget estimates were only 43 to 57% of the approved budget estimates. It pointed out to delays in finalising annual work plan and release of grants. Further, both allocation and release of grants to states was far below the outlays approved by the Department of Elementary Education and Literacy.

The CAG further said that funds were irregularly diverted to activities and schemes beyond the scope of the SSA. For example, Gujarat used the money for Bhoomipoojan (foundation laying ceremony) of the Gujarat Council of Education Research and Training Centre. Meghalaya used the money for salaries of teachers not connected to SSA. West Bengal used the money to purchase computers, air conditioners, mobile phones, to repair bungalows, etc.! And all this money was actually generated from the 2 per cent education Cess imposed in 2004-2005.

Even at the state level, under utilisation of funds particularly, funds related to developing infrastructure and facilities, is common.

Kalpana Sharmaix quotes the NGO Bal Hakk Abhiyan’s report on the State of Primary Education in Maharashtra, which outlines the discrepancies between plan allocations and actual funds made available in the Annual State Budget for Education as well as the gap between the amounts allocated and the amounts spent.

“In 1998, 700 classrooms should have been built in the Thane district, instead only 72 were built. In Akola, the target was 500. Only one classroom was built. In Washim too, only one was built as against the target of 170. Every district had a huge shortfall between target and actual performance. In Chandrapur, not a single new classroom has been built since 1997. How can things improve if the deficit of physical spaces where children are supposed to learn is so enormous?”

Multigrade and multilevel classes

Multigrade teaching is a fact of primary schooling in India. Most states are still struggling to achieve the national norm of two classrooms and two teachers, and a teacher pupil ratio of 1: 40 in every school. With very few exceptions in a few states and metros, government schools in India continue to have two teachers for five classes. Rural schools are therefore largely multigrade multilevel classes. Such schools work under major constraints. These include uneven quality of classroom management and teaching-learning practices, lack of clarity about, and monitoring of, learning outcomes, inadequate teaching-learning materials and learning practice for children. Consequently, the foundation knowledge and skills in language and mathematics are not well mastered, leading to unsatisfactory rates of transition and completion in primary school.x

In an article in the Indian Express, Reshma Patilxi quotes “I pretend I’m teaching one class, not four at a time says Pramila Kamble, panting hard, as she shuffles between rows of students of Class I-IV crammed in a 10 feet by 10 feet room. When Class I is told to be quiet and draw, Pramila pays attention to alphabets for Class II. But restless Class IV left alone with sums, musters up a noisy pitch. Class III stares blankly, waiting for their turn with teacher. New one-teacher schools have not been sanctioned in Maharashtra since several years. But an exception are vastishala or community schools started in homes or just anywhere free so that kids don’t have to walk miles to schools far away. Sangli has an ancient cluster of 33 one-teacher schools dotting its countryside.”

Vimala Ramchandranxii makes the situation clear “Teachers – who do want to teach and those on contract who have to teach realise that they not only manage different grades in one classroom but have to deal with tremendous diversity inside the classroom. First generation school-goers have little support at home while those with literate siblings or parents are able to cope better. Children who have re-enrolled after a short-term bridge programmes find it difficult to cope in large classrooms. Children from very poor landless families miss schools when their parents migrate for short periods. They find it difficult to manage their lessons when they return. The work burden of children before and after school – especially of girls leave them exhausted inside the classroom. The hard reality is that our teachers have not been trained to deal with diversity in the classroom. They are trained to mechanically move from one lesson to another expecting all children to follow. Even teachers who are committed find the situation difficult.”

Soma Wadhwaxiii goes a step further. She says, “For two years now, free and compulsory education for all 6-14 children has been a Fundamental Right. The 'constitutional obligation' has forced the government to find its way to India's 'remote/rural/tribal' areas through cheaper Alternative and Innovative Education (AIE) and Education Guarantee Schemes (EGS) schools. These inferior schools can now be found in the poorest pockets of semi-rural and urban India. Needless to say, they will help scale up the country's education statistics. But to what intent? In some states, all it takes to qualify as a teacher is a pass in Class VII. Once hired on short-term contracts, and variously called para-teachers, shiksha karmis, shiksha bandhus, shiksha mitrs, lok shikshak or guruji, they are paid much lower wages than their counterparts in mainstream government schools, and barely trained in teaching, if at all. They then take Classes I-V, typically with all the students huddled in a single classroom, if there is a room.” She also quotes social scientist Jean Dreze, coauthor of the PROBE report, "Even if one were to agree that EGS and AIE schools are okay as initial ideas-providing some sort of schools temporarily where none existed-it is disturbing that such makeshift schools are getting institutionalized."

Medium of Instruction

In some sense, the entire educational system in India is a bilingual system. No Indian student can ever hope to complete her/his school and college education without studying at least two languages. Also in most cases, a language that may or may not be the mother tongue of the student may be used as the medium of instruction.xiv

More than ever before, parents now prefer to have their children educated in English. While private regional medium schools have started shifting to English, Government elementary schools, continue to teach children in the regional language. The entire issue has been embroiled in politics.

While West Bengal has launched a drive to reintroduce English from Class I, the Uttar Pradesh government has sparked a controversy by doing the opposite.

To the shock of thousands of students, the government has initiated a move, called Krishna Sudama Ek Sath Padhe, under which there would be a common syllabus and a common medium of instruction in all primary schools, including private schools. English is out, Hindi is in. However, some private schools have questioned the legal validity of the proposal and threatened to move court.xv

Maharashtra Minister for School Education, Amrish Patel, says “the State is not liberal toward English schools.” They receive no grants. Yet Marathi schools have stopped growing.xvi

Alarmed with falling enrollment in the Marathi medium schools, the Education Committee of the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) is contemplating making English a compulsory subject. In the past three years, over 1,000 Marathi medium divisions have been shut due to poor enrollment as more parents are opting to put their children in English medium schools.xvii

According to John Kurienxviii, Director, Centre for Learning Resources, Pune, reversing a long standing educational policy of beginning the teaching of English as a second language in Std 5 or 6, many states have recently started teaching it from Std 1 onwards. Tamil Nadu, a progressive state in the field of elementary education, is considering teaching it from the pre-primary stage.” This is not likely to solve the problem, as “the overwhelming majority of teachers, who teach English in elementary schools, do not know English themselves. Neither do they know how to teach it.” He suggests that it is more important to improve the quality of English teaching (as a second language), rather than shift the medium of instruction. According to him, “The vitality of our regional cultures depends on the vibrancy of our regional medium schools And if these schools have to stem the exodus of students, English teaching in these institutions must significantly improve.”

Another issue has been the kind of regional language that is taught in schools. The purpose of banking on the richness of regional cultures, is lost when the nature of the language is very elitist and academic. Students all over North India are forced to learn high brow academic Hindi, when there is a rich tradition of local dialects.

In her research paper published in the Economic and Political Weekly Aruna R.xix observes, in Tamil Nadu, there are complaints of the use of a version of Tamil that alienates lower caste pupils...due to the rigid conception of 'good' Tamil. By correcting the speech of the children belonging different communities, we dispossess them of their cultural capital. She says, “A poignant example of the sort of loss was observed by me in a Chennai school where there were a number of children from fishing communities. When their teacher introduced the word 'champanki', these first standard children insisted it was a variety of fish. The teacher, who was an upper caste vegetarian, did not agree. The powers vested in her by the state and society ensured that her contention - that it was a flower prevailed.”


The basic school curriculum has evolved from colonial times, and 'what is to be taught' remains in essence a colonial view, deliberately disassociated from whatever knowledge and skills already existed in India. It is hardly surprising that the large proportion of what is taught is completely alien and alienating to the average Indian child. The hapless middle class child doggedly goes through school anyway, because she or he has no choice. However, the poor child, the first-generation learner, often takes the easy way out and stays away. This is not to say that we need to have a different curriculum for the rich and for the poor -- definitely not. The children of the poor cannot be shortchanged in the name of local relevance, non-formal education, etc. If made truly relevant, interesting, child-centered and attractive to learners and parents, formal schooling can provide the poor child with a solid educational base that is in no way inferior to that available to her richer compatriot. To really provide equity in basic education, what is needed is a combination of the best of both approaches. On the solid framework of a core curriculum needs to be built a child-friendly, locally-relevant structure that is welcoming and appealing for the first-generation learner.xx

The curriculum of government schools can often alienate tribal and dalit students or those that speak a different dialect and have different frames of reference.

Aruna R.xxi cites an example. A 13-year old labourer argued that he preferred adult literacy classes to going to school, since such classes combined meaningful activities with instruction on reading and writing. According to him, his work as a child labourer in a match factory gives him skills that cannot be learnt in any school and this training plus adult education would open more doors for him. "When I am 16 1 am going to be in a better position to start my own unit than any school graduate. I know where to go to get loans, who to hire and what to invest in. You show me one school graduate who can match this." In this folk theory of possibility, school-based education has no firm place. She says, we need to rethink primary education in the context of parental aspirations as well as children's propensity to learn. Very sensitive localised adapt-ations to accommodate the socio-cultural milieus of the marginalised groups are called for.

i  Making kids go to school, Rajiv Desai, Daily News & Analysis, January 24, 2006,[C.ELDOC1.0610.ED1_Making_kids_go_to_school.html]

ii Testing boards for education outcomes, Dr.Jayaprakash Narayan, Loksatta, January 27, 2006

iii Public Report on Basic Education in India, 1999, [R.N21.604]

iv Why Joshi is Vajpayee’s weekest link, Tavleen Singh, Indian Express, 15/02/2004, [C.ELDOC.N20.15feb04ie2.html]

v A Learning Experience: A Child’s Right to Education, Azim Premji, Times of India, 09/12/2000, [C.ELDOC.N21.09dec00toil.pdf]

vi Centre's move places education at risk, Anil Sadgopal, The Hindu, Sep26, 2006, [C.ELDOC1.0610.ED1_Education_at_risk_Anil_sadgopal.html]       

vii Poverty and Primary Schooling Field Studies from Mumbai and Delhi, Rukmini Banerji, Economic Political and weekly, 04/03/2000
         [J.ELDOC.N00.04mar00EPW.pdf ]

viii Money alone can’t teach kids to read & write, Economic Times, 01/06/2004, [C.ELDOC.N20.01jun04et1.pdf]

ix Waiting to learn, The Hindu, [C.ELDOC.N21.14sep01h1.pdf]

x Development through education: an integrated program, Rao Y., Gdnet.org, January 2004,[C.ELDOC1.0610.ED1_Development_through_education.html]

xi Room with a school, Reshma Patil, Indian Express, 07/12/2003, C.ELDOC.N20.07dec03ie1.html

xii .- Is Schooling for the Poor on the Government Agenda?, Vimala Ramachandran, Economic and Political Weekly, 24/07/04,

xiii No Schools for them, Soma Wadhwa, Grassroot Development, 01/04/2004, C.ELDOC.N21.01apr04GRD14.pdf
xiv Mother Tongue And Medium of Instruction-A Continuing Battle] K.Ramasamy, Language In India,Volume1:6, October 2001,

xv Hindi haunts UP schools, Anand Soondas, Telegraph, 29/06/2001, [C.ELDOC.N21.29jun01tel1.pdf]

xvi The great English takeover is underway, Reshma Patil, Indian Express, 29/06/2003, [C.ELDOC.N20.29jun03ie1.html]

xvii BMC wants English to save Marathi schools, Krishnakumar, Midday, 01/12/2004, [C.ELDOC.N20.01dec04mid1.html]

xviii The English Juggernaut Regional Medium Schools in Crisis, Hindustan Times, 30/04/2004, [C.ELDOC.N20.30april04ht1.pdf]

xix 'Learning Thoroughly': Primary Schooling in Tamil Nadu, Aruna R, Economic & Political Weekly, 01/05/1999, [J.ELDOC.N00.01may99EPW.pdf]

xx Background and Perspective, Mini Shrinivasan, Infochangeindia.org, January 2001, [C.ELDOC1.0610.ED1_Background_and_Perspective.html] 

xxi 'Learn Thoroughly': Primary Schooling in Tamil Nadu, Aruna R, Economic & Political Weekly, 01/05/1999, [J.ELDOC.N00.01may99EPW.pdf]

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