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READING IT WRONG

Genes are not the problem. If 27.7 per cent of Class V children in the land of S.N. Bose and P.C. Mahalanobis cannot do a simple division sum of three digits by one digit, the failure must be laid at some other door. And this is just one example culled from a vast number of hurdles that children in West Bengal are struggling to clear in the spheres of basic arithmetic and reading. The Annual Status of Education Report 2013, which includes these findings, shows a slight improvement in achievements in basic arithmetic this year, and as little in reading, in which only 47.2 per cent Class III-level children can read a Class I-level paragraph. Without reading and arithmetic no one can be considered educated, or even properly literate. What is askew with West Bengal’s approach that, in spite of so much agonizing over — and experimenting with — school education policies and techniques, it is still failing its children so miserably? All states have such failures; West Bengal, in most cases, is a little worse than others. Do education policies have to be looked at afresh, from altered perspectives?

The report focuses on rural education, and covers around 13,000 children from 509 villages. Most of these children go to government or government-aided schools. Parents are willing to spend on their children’s education; throughout eastern India, parents in villages are spending on private tuition. Private tuition is a good indicator of aspirations; the aspirations of rural and urban parents are very similar, they just differ in scale. Tuitions are indispensable for those rural and underprivileged urban children who are first-generation learners. But so far, in spite of the encouraging fact that more children are going to school than ever before, neither school lessons nor private tuitions are being able to match aspirations with achievement. This may be a strong hint that the problem has not been properly identified; perhaps what is needed is a more nuanced and flexible system from pre-primary to middle school, so that children from different cultural and socio-economic segments can reach a common ground, perhaps at differing speeds. Doing away with examinations for promotions is the easy — and politically safe — way out; all it does is to eliminate the means to assess a child’s development.

Children are not guinea pigs, they are not cute objects over whom hobby-horses can be ridden with impunity. The least they deserve is sympathetic, serious and educated attention. If this latest report, and others before it, are to be given their due weight, then the first requirement is sincerity. Sincerity not only among teachers, or among administrators who recruit them or trainers who train them, but among policy-makers, experts and politicians, so that the present system can be corrected in the right places to help the numerous children who are trying to learn.