It’s the start of a new school year in New Delhi and Esther, who recently turned eight, is now in Class Three. Her school report for Class Two, going by her teacher’s comment in the report card, was “excellent”.

Esther returns to school this week with a new bright pink school bag and new books. She showed me her new books excitedly. I turned over the Hindi textbook, pointing to the word “Hindi” (written in Devanagari) and asked her what it said. With a great deal of concentration, her small finger moving back and forth over the word she said: “daha … nahin haa…daa." But Hindi, Esther said is her least favourite subject, and her report card shows that her Hindi score is between 60%-70%. In English, which is the school’s medium of instruction, she has a grade that puts her score between 80%-90%.

Esther can read and write, “fox” although she is uncertain what the word means. But, she cannot read, “fix”. She likes to hear stories, preferably in Hindi or Nepali, but if I read to her in English, her eyes glaze over and she gets up to play. She cannot comprehend simple sentences in English when read to her even from her Class two textbooks. Yet, Esther’s report card says “excellent”.

No learning

Esther’s intelligence is written on her face, in her twinkling eyes and her quick funny responses to adults trying to catch her out. That for two years she has managed to cram dozens of words and sentences in sequence – in a language she does not know (and no one in her family knows) – and write them down mostly correctly in response to questions, is a measure of her abilities. It is a measure of the crisis in our education system that after two years at school this is all that Esther has learnt to do, and worse, this is all that is expected of her.

As anyone who knows anything about school education in India will confirm, Esther’s story is the story of children in standard government-run schools and in low-cost private schools throughout the country. The children in government schools and the far smaller number in low-cost schools are the majority of children in school. For a decade, the NGO Pratham has conducted annual surveys of children’s learning levels called the Annual Status of Education Report, or ASER. The National Council of Educational Research and Training, or NCERT, conducts a similar exercise every three years in the form of the National Achievement Survey. Both have consistently found abysmally low learning levels among school children. But there has been no policy change in any state in the country that has adequately advanced children’s learning.

The focus of the education administrations at the Centre and state level has been on getting children into school. In a fraught policy environment, legislation guaranteeing a child’s fundamental right to elementary education was welcome, even though in its final form the Right To Education Act failed to guarantee equal access to quality education, or even a minimum quality of education. Since then, the focus has remained on location of schools, buildings, toilets, benches, numbers of teachers and their deployment. All these are easily quantifiable – they can be procured through tenders and advertisements, whose numbers and cost can be assessed by an accountant.

Compromised quality

What has remained unaddressed in any proper manner is the quality of teaching and learning. The Act prescribes guidelines for curriculum development and learning evaluation, but such changes as have been made since its ratification have had no impact on the school experience of most children. Tamil Nadu, an outlier state, undertook a radical experiment in pedagogy even prior to the Act. Yet, no real transformation has happened, not least because of reluctant teachers who are less than adequately trained for the job.

ASER’s annual prediction of doom and NAS’s confirmation of this fact every three years has been accompanied by a growing public clamour for privatisation. The argument is that children in private schools do better than in government-run schools. That they pay for private tuitions is read as a willingness and ability to pay for school. That private competition acts as an incentive to raise standards is the dogma, repeated endlessly. There is no evidence to show that private schools, with children from the same demographic as state schools, do better. Only a quarter of all school goers have private tuition and competition among private schools has only produced high achievers like Esther, who excel at exams without learning anything. Her parents pay upwards of Rs 2,000 a month in fees for a low-cost private school that has flourished since 1964, and more for private tuition.

Most state governments have responded to the annual headline news about poor learning levels by looking for quick fixes. There are myriad agencies offering solutions – apart from Indian NGOs they include, international development organisations, well-funded global NGOs and research departments of major foreign universities. The majority of the fixes are remedial classes in reading, writing and arithmetic during or after school hours, and teacher training programmes to run these remedial classes. None of these interventions has ever been taken to scale successfully.

Fixing the slide

In the last month, the group of secretaries on Education and Health: Universal Access and Quality, set up by the Prime Minister’s Office earlier this year, has made recommendations that signal that the secretaries (including the current Union revenue secretary and former Gujarat education secretary Hasmukh Adhia, former school education secretary in the Ministry for Human Resource Development Vrinda Swarup and the current school education secretary in the same ministry, SC Khuntia) have, to a degree, a measure of the crisis.

The group has, among other things, called for an increase in the Centre’s budgetary allocation for education from the current 3.8% to 6% and recommended changes in teacher recruitment, education and training. In what is no doubt designed to catch Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s attention, the group has coined an acronym – UNIQUE (Unique National Initiative for Quality and Universal Education) for an initiative to rationalise centrally-funded schemes and upgrade teaching for Classes 1 to 12.

More money is certainly necessary for any qualitative change in teacher education and training. Tamil Nadu’s experiment with a new pedagogy faltered not least because there was too little money (and too little time) to train teachers. But the idea that there is more money to be had is pie in the sky. Unless the government makes significant cuts in defence spending or spending on central police forces or raises taxes it is hard to see where the additional money can come from.

Aside from money there is a bigger question that gets too little attention and is not addressed by the Group of Secretaries – does our elementary education system – designed for an educationally and economically privileged elite – work as well for the less well-to-do and the poor, or does it exacerbate their disadvantages? The languages of instruction (very different from most children’s mother tongue), the methods of teaching (which in the majority of schools fall short of teaching), the time-frame of the curriculum (inflexible in most states), the system of testing (designed to test rote learning), as they stand, are unfair to children whose parents are themselves poorly educated or have had no education. They are doubly unfair to poor children who start school (in accordance with the Right to Education Act) in Class One at age 5 or 6, effectively two years later than the children of the well-to-do, who attend a few crucial years of pre-school before they get to Class One.

As Esther looks forward to another year of school where she will learn to spell and remember bigger words and more complicated sentences without knowing what it all means, the question that should concern us all is what part we play in sustaining this scam that has been passed off for too long as mass education. Why is it that we have not called to account governments, local bodies, teacher training institutions in every state for failing in their constitutional obligation to educate young Indians? Is it possibly because these young Indians are not our children?