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GIVING A GOOD CHIT TO BAD SCHOOLS

Pratham, the dogged watchdog NGO, released its sixth Annual State of Education Report (Aser) recently. The acronym, Aser, means ‘impact’ in Hindi and the Aser centre evaluates the impact of social sector policies in India. This 2013 report is the sixth in a series on the impact of education policy and looks at the levels of and changes in school enrolments, school facilities, and literacy and numeracy achievements through standardized tests.

It is a mixed bag of results. On the positive side, enrolments in the 6-14 age group have increased everywhere, for both boys and girls, and drinking water and toilet facilities in schools have risen too, though not in line with enrolments.

But after the release of the report, the greatest attention was focused on the sorry state of educational achievements. For one thing, enrolment was nowhere matched by attendance during the random checks on individual schools, with the states of West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Manipur, Madhya Pradesh and Jharkhand having attendance figures of less that 60 per cent.

More depressing, achievement gaps between government and private schools continue to widen, with just 33 per cent of Class III children in government schools who can read at least a Class I textbook, compared to 60 per cent of children in private schools who can do this.

These are discouraging findings to be sure. But I want to think here about less disheartening ways of interpreting the poor achievement figures, for government schools as well as overall; after all, 60 per cent is still far from good enough as an outcome for the private schools on which families spend so much of their money.

First, it is true that the government versus private school difference could reflect the worsening performance of government schools or the improving performance of private schools, or both. But at least a part of it could also reflect merely a transfer of the better achieving students from government to private schools, thus lowering average achievement levels for the former and increasing them for the latter. Aser’s finding that private school enrolments have risen from 19 per cent of total enrolments in 2006 to 23 per cent in 2012 strengthens this speculation. Better off (and therefore better-performing, for a host of reasons) students than the averages for those in government schools must account for most of this rise in private school enrolments.

But there is yet another reason not to lose heart over these poor performance levels. Which is not to say that we do not need to redouble our efforts to improve these levels, but that even as we do so, we continue to push for higher and higher enrolment and attendance levels and higher and higher retention levels. Even with poor performance, a child in school is better off than a child outside school. If we look at performance somewhat differently from the Aser study, she is even more better off.

To begin with, even if we think about performance as pure literacy, it appears from several studies of schooling in poor countries (that is, countries with as bad as or even worse schooling standards than India) as disparate as Mexico, Venezuela, Nepal and Zambia, that adult women who have been to school in childhood display clearly impressive literacy skills and these skills seem to be correlated strongly to the number of years spent in school, even for very few years of school attendance. Judging from Aser’s disappointing levels of literacy in school children, this finding suggests that literacy improves with time and continues to improve even after the child has left school, perhaps especially after the child has left school. In other words, school attendance and the acquisition of even minimum literacy seems to increase the ex-student’s ability to hone her literacy skills over time, so that by the time she is an adult, she is often ready to reap many of the benefits of literacy that adulthood offers.

This gradual improvement in post-school literacy once some rudimentary literacy has been acquired in the school setting may explain the strikingly universal finding that women with just a few years of schooling experience more favourable outcomes on a variety of matters — infant and child mortality and illness, children’s cognitive development, family nutritional levels — than women with no schooling, even after controlling for standard socio-economic factors. And these positive outcomes seem to be linearly related to the number of years of schooling (for instance, every additional year of maternal schooling, beginning right from one year of schooling, is associated with a 2-5 per cent fall in the risk of a child death).

As to how this (that is, literacy enhancement as well as good social outcomes) occurs, the hint lies in the surprising fact that such findings hold across the spectrum of school quality. The vast literature on education and development concludes that there is something impotent about with the fact of school attendance, independently of what is actually taught in school. Some of what is learnt by going to school even when it is not explicitly taught has been called the hidden curriculum — lessons that are implicit in the nature of the school as a modern institution.

Little of this hidden curriculum tends to be about positive things like the joy of learning, or the inculcation of curiosity or the loosening of mental fetters. In fact, the hidden curriculum may instil some of the very opposite attributes — self-discipline, obedience of authority, routine, interaction with non-related peers. Such attributes may not produce vibrant intellectuals or inventors or anarchists, but they go a long way towards increasing one’s ability to negotiate the modern world of the factory as well as the hospital and they also help in understanding and following what may be called decontextualized information — the abstract, impersonal, general codes of behaviour that day to day success in this modern world requires. No wonder primary schooling is also associated with the largest rises in economic productivity in developing countries.

In the longer run, of course we want the school to be a platform for education rather than just the producer of a disciplined and obedient workforce and responsible and efficient parenthood. And so it is right that we may be dismayed at the poor showing of most of our schools in the Aser surveys. But in the meantime, sending our children to and keeping them even in our poor performing schools is one small step towards giving them and society some of the social and economic spin-offs that are not to be scoffed at.