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A broken education system: Apps and coaching classes are the wrong solution

It is only during elections that the poor acquire bargaining power to get their immediate needs addressed. This explains the frenzy for freebies, handouts and guarantees — free bus rides for women, cash doles, free rice, subsidised cooking gas and free KG to PG education. It is easy to fault the people for not being aspirational and demand income security, employment opportunities, good quality education and healthcare — basic entitlements that ought to matter. But people are wise. They know that today’s governments seek lazy options and most often lack the drive to improve the quality of their lives.

Take, for example, the education sector which is in a state of crisis — in part due to reckless commercialisation and politicisation. It must be rebuilt with a step-by-step strategy and a national consensus that commits to insulate it from narrow political considerations. This requires not falling into the temptation to seek easy solutions — for instance, technology as a substitute for solid investments that are required to provide “decent” education.

Pradip Saha’s recently released book The Learning Trap is instructive. It is about the limitations of technology to set the broken system right. It is about the rise and fall of edutech start-ups like Byju’s that claimed to focus on helping students understand concepts and principles rather than passing competitive examinations — the goal of tuition centers like Kota. A good idea, however, got lost in the greed to scale up through a brutal process of exploiting the anxiety of gullible parents. Technology enabled Raveendran Byju to teach math to 25,000 students in a stadium. But without Raveendran Byju as backup, the Byju’s tablets failed to deliver.

The seminal truth is that technology and apps have their limitations. Without good teachers, they cannot guarantee outcomes. Technological fundamentalism driven more by the markets than student needs has resulted in curriculum revisions without the advice of experts. Such revisions do not recognise that much goes into the process of learning — fostering a hunger for knowledge and imbibing values of hard work and diligence for internalising lessons. This is an intense process which requires guidance. And all this is most vital at younger ages when habits set in and students do not have the capacity to self learn. That’s why China banned the use of edutech for Classes I-VI. And, that’s why it hasn’t deviated from approved school curricula to adopt remote teaching. India has not. Instead, loans and subsidies are being given for “technological innovations.”

Besides our inability to minimise the adverse impacts of technology on a child’s education, the rapidly increasing reach of the tuition industry is worrying. It is reportedly valued at over Rs 58 billion and is expected to double by 2028. Tuition centres have emerged as a result of a government policy that has consistently devalued high school examinations by making national exams the only gateway to professional careers. The industry consists of two categories — one focusing on cracking the UPSC and entrance exams for IIT, NEET and IIM and the second providing instruction to school children, something that schools ought to have provided in the first place. Parents have been paying crores to this parallel education system. While fees in the first category are as high as Rs 1,000 per subject per hour, the fees for school children at tuition centres could range from Rs 10-40,000 per month depending on the quality of the teacher and the paying capacity of parents.

Festive offer

What should concern the government authorities is the increasing tendency among parents to prefer tuition centres to regular schools. Even as reputed schools are facing prospects of ghost classes in Grades XI and XII, the unregulated, unsupervised tuition centres function from morning to evening. Pressure and humiliation are resulting in stress-induced suicides and mental health problems, evident to anyone visiting a pediatric clinic.

India’s public sector accounts for about 15 lakh schools, an estimated 95 lakh teachers and about 26.5 crore enrolled children. There is no data on the number of private schools. Quality varies with the type of school, catering to different income segments. Barring the few kendriya vidyalayas and some other government-managed schools, government schools — once preferred by the elites — are attended by the poor because education is free. In private schools catering to the rich, school fees can range from Rs 50,000 to one lakh a month. The third category is the missionary schools, aided schools that get some government grants, and private schools catering to the lower and upper middle classes where fees vary between Rs 2,000-40,000 per month. Notwithstanding the fees, the quality of teaching is, by and large, poor in all categories. There is very little monitoring with the government preoccupied with running its own schools. Poorly trained and often poorly paid teachers are responsible for the poor quality of teaching resulting in the mushrooming of tuition centers and the use of apps.

The divide between the “well-educated” (by and large from the already educated rich aspirational families) and the “less educated” (either first-generation learners or from modest backgrounds) is widening. Year on year, the second category of students keeps on growing — they are struggling to cope with a failed system, even as the government focuses on tinkering with teaching and learning materials devoid of any innovative thinking. Nothing can be more shameful for governments than the fact that a Class V student can read only a Class II text and is unable to construct a grammatically correct sentence in any language or that 79 per cent of the students of that class cannot do a simple division ( ASER Report 2023).

Things can be different. Solutions are available if we can make education the business of society and not government alone. Social participation can be widened to include the energy and skill base of our senior citizens, engage civil society and seek out volunteerism, instead of profiteers. Ways can be found to make cash doles to women conditional to the school performance of children. Teachers (many of them with salaries three times that paid in private schools) could be made accountable for results. This could involve reducing governmentalism even as the state focuses on adherence to standards and outcomes. At the root of this change is the understanding that no growth or development is possible without educated people and a skilled workforce. For this, most importantly, governments have to double the budget and spend.

Education urgently needs to be a priority in terms of political attention and fiscal resources. India spends too little — a mere 2.61 per cent of GDP as of 20-21). The spending has stagnated at an average of 3 per cent of GDP over the past two decades. As per the Education 2030 Framework for Action, countries are expected to spend at least 6 per cent of their GDPs on education. But even increased budgets require imagination and courage. Do we have a political leadership with that commitment, and a people demanding such an imagination from the political class? Only if these conditions intersect can India hope to achieve real growth, development and global leadership. Till then it will only be creating perceptions of “all is well”.

The writer is former Union Secretary , GOI

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