Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

Primary Education in India Needs a Fix

There’s an urgent need to improve children’s knowledge of concepts rather than rote learning. For that to happen, teaching systems at the primary level must be overhauled

Published: May 27, 2013 06:14:44 AM IST
Updated: May 15, 2013 02:18:17 PM IST
Primary Education in India Needs a Fix
Image: Amit Verma
The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) ranks India almost at the bottom of the pack in terms of maths and English literacy

When Devanik Saha started teaching in 2011, Nishika was three years behind her grade level. Despite numerous assignments and standardised tests over two academic years, she made only a tiny progress of 0.7 years (about eight-and-a-half months) in maths and 0.5 years (six months) in English.

“She was never taught properly in school due to lack of invested teachers,” says Saha who teaches maths, English and science at Pratibha Nigam Vidyalaya, a public school in Delhi. “The progress, although tiny, is not a measure of her true abilities and potential, which I believe is in arts.”

There are other students in the school run by the city municipal corporation who made big jumps of 1.6 years (about a year and seven months) or 1.9 years (a year and almost 11 months) but Saha doubts the quality of education they get. He calls it more a training to do well in skewed assessments rather than instilling conceptual understanding. “The focus is on procedural fluency to raise their scores, which leads to curriculum deformation,” says Saha, who describes the school as one of the most “unfortunate” with no infrastructure, not even proper toilets for the 1,500 girls who study there.

The quality of primary education in India has been a cause for concern for quite some time. While the current policy, including a new legislation for universal education, lays out a grand vision of raising children’s education profile, it barely lays emphasis on developing their skills to learn.

The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) ranks India almost at the bottom of the pack in terms of maths and English literacy. This, according to its test, is attributed to the “lack of application-oriented maths in schools”.

However, the PISA test was conducted in only two states in India and theoretically cannot be extrapolated to the rest of the country. It could also be that local students find the test patterns difficult to recognise.

Nevertheless, Dana Kelly, US representative on PISA’s governing board, says the test helps identify variation in performance and the resources available. “In developing economies such as India, the lack of investment in facilities and educational resources could be a reason for the low performance,” says Kelly.

Broader studies have also found similar results.

The Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) released earlier this year had some startling observations on reading and maths levels in all Indian states. In 2010, nationally, 46.3 percent of all children in Class V could not read a Class II-level text. This proportion increased to 51.8 percent in 2011 and further to 53.2 percent in 2012. This decline in reading levels is mainly in states such as Haryana, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Kerala, which happens to be the most literate state in the country. In maths, the situation seems as grim, especially in government schools. In 2012, only 11-20 percent of Class V students could do division in states such as Gujarat and Tamil Nadu.

Clearly, the public education sector has failed in building strong institutional mechanisms to promote learning skills. New policy initiatives do not inspire confidence either. The Right to Education Act, for instance, requires school management committees (SMC) to be set up to co-ordinate activities in every government school. The SMC oversees the operations of the schools and receives funding from the state and Central government. Three-fourths of the SMC should consist of parents and the rest local authorities, teachers and educationists. The idea was to have increased community participation in the school’s operation.

A recent news report, however, suggests that it is undermined from the beginning. School principals have the power to choose parent members and the process is perfunctory. They choose parents who are uneducated and are often not aware of the SMC itself.

Other reports corroborate this: The UK-based Consortium for Research on Educational Access, Transitions and Equity (CREATE) says in a recent report that the committees include parent representatives, yet these parents are not aware of such committees and most of them are inefficient. A working paper by the Delhi-based Centre for Civil Society says that School Development Plans are barely functional in the SMCs and that members are unaware of their responsibilities.  

Well-chosen SMCs can dictate ways to improve conceptual knowledge and learning skills rather than rote learning. The teaching system needs to cater to students

with unique skill sets and these skills need to be developed at the primary level.

For that to happen, the teaching evaluation system has to be overhauled. Over 99 percent of the 7.95 lakh teachers who appeared for the latest Central Teacher Eligibility Test, a benchmark for teacher eligibility, failed to clear the exam. This is largely due to the outdated B.Ed degree system. An NCERT paper says the B.Ed programme is too short and focuses on “rote memorisation” rather than “teaching for understanding”.

The National Curriculum Framework for Teacher Education of 2009 recommended longer preparation for teachers, but the B.Ed curriculum structure continued to be for a single year. There is also a lack of enough skilled trainers and preparation to develop skills, abilities and attitudes to teach students.

Clearly, the primary education system in the country is broken and attempts to fix it are feeble. Unless the problem is addressed quickly, these young ones would grow to join the swelling ranks of the ‘educated unemployables’ in the country.

(This story appears in the 31 May, 2013 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)

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  • Hera Dhuwan

    I agreed with many of your points. Especially the one about the inefficiency of teachers. In an English medium school, you would expect your English class result behind solid grounds. All I could get was an empty canvas and no paint.

    on Jun 13, 2015
  • Viswa

    Excellent article,Current Education System Discards talented students with inquisitiveness,ability to ask questions and dream to do something challenging, something better for the society.

    on Nov 26, 2014
  • Pooja Setphrase

    Today India must need to overhaul and upgrade it\'s education system. This is only biggest method to win upon the world specially developed countries like United States and Britain. This is very crucial matter for every Indian who dream about the development of India. On other hand this is too shameful for the current Indian leaders, who is busy in making their own money with corruption. Appeal to every Indian that this is the time to wake, we are already late. Pooja

    on Feb 12, 2014
    • Abhinav

      We had traditionally been late comers in almost all aspects including primary education. India is gonna build around 25 cities within the next 20 years owing to massive foreign investments into manufacturing. This would kick in the demand for state of the art primary govt. schools all across the country imparting practical skills. The problem that would arise is to monetize these schools to pay for a good teaching staff. I suppose we could rope in corporate school teachers to provide their services in return cutting down on their taxes. These services would be clean and corruption free compared to the monetary taxes they pay. Though late I still feel we can develop a comprehensive model that suits us the best

      on Aug 28, 2014
  • Schools In Hyderabad

    quality teaching, quality study material and the school building ofcourse is a secondary thing, the first thing is to be prepare both parents and get prepare the kids to go to school and not to drop out the education ever. There is an act the primary education is a right for every children so we have to understand these things and let our children to go schools.

    on Nov 20, 2013
  • Educationworld

    its not about the low study materiel or lack of quality teaching, its about to be mentally prepare for the children to send them to schools for a better future and after that the we can point out the quality teaching or not. the first step is to fix the primary education for all children in India.

    on Sep 17, 2013
  • Tinku Sharma

    study is must

    on Jun 7, 2013
  • Tes India

    Part of the problem can be found in the lack of quality teaching resources available to teachers in under-funded state schools, and the general lack of awareness that these resources can be found online for free. Online education portals like TES India have more than 5,01,339 lesson plans, worksheets, and study guides available to any teacher/parent/or student in the country. They were all made by teachers, academies, or institutions, specifically with the development of children in mind. And there are no costs associated with downloading or using any of them. Reducing the amount of time inspiring young teachers need to spend spend preparing lessons will allow them to spend more time individualising their attention for the needs of each student, and in the process create an environment more conducive to learning for everyone.

    on May 28, 2013
  • Dr.a.jagadeesh

    Thanks to the proliferation of corporate schools in the country,the primary education has lost its value. Here are very interesting comments on the subject by Jayanta Chatterjee : “The quality of education being imparted in Indian schools has proved to be far below average in an international rating system for schools from 74 countries. The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), introduced by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OCED), is an internationally standardized test that tests 15- year-olds in the domains of reading, mathematical science and science literacy10. India’s debut at the PISA included about 16,000 15-year-olds from schools in Himachal Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. Tamil Nadu, often lauded for its work in the education sector, has done only marginally better than Himachal Pradesh and ranks way below the average OECD score on all counts. Himachal Pradesh was at the very bottom of the list whereas Tamil Nadu ranked near the bottom in all categories, outscoring only Kyrgyzstan and Himachal Pradesh. The Annual Status of Education Report for 2009, compiled by Delhi-based nongovernmental organization (NGO), Pratham Foundation, has revealed that nearly 65% of class five students in rural areas of Tamil Nadu cannot read even a class II textbook in their mother tongue, 45% do not know subtraction and nearly 81% cannot read simple English sentences. The situation deteriorated even further in 2011. Another rather surprising trend in the same survey indicates that government schools perform better than expensive private schools, at least in rural India. Here we need to keep in mind that about 72.1% of Indian students attend government schools, whereas 25.6% go to private schools. With a literacy rate of 75.6%, India compares poorly with not just industrialized nations, but also several much poorer economies such as Iraq (78.1%), Congo (81.1%), Kenya (84.2%), Vietnam (92.8%), Sri Lanka (94.2%) and Mongolia (97.5%). India now ranks 78th out of 123 countries, in terms of literacy, according to UNDP report (2011). India’s human development index is now ranked 134th out of 187 countries. We need to remember that there are clear differences among the terminology – literacy, education, knowledge and wisdom. Though some Indian policymakers wish to create a knowledge-based economy, in reality, India is stuck at the first phase itself, i.e. literacy(Primary and secondary education reform should be the top priority for India, Jayanta Chatterjee, CURRENT SCIENCE, VOL. 103, NO. 4, 25 AUGUST 2012)”. In our school days there used to be classes in Moral Education,Craft,Scouts and Guides. These need to be revived. Here Mahatma Gandhiji’s views on Primary Education are still relevant today. Nothing turns out right so long as there is no harmony between body, mind, and soul. — M.K. Gandhi (a) to apply a holistic approach to the education of our pupils. The holistic approach, which is derived from the noble Vedantic dictum tat tvam asi — oneness of life — should be reflected in the methods and methodology of the school; (b) to bring out and foster all the potential in the child and help it express these through ahimsic channels; and (c) to make school a happy adventure of discovery for the child. Gandhiji advocated for free and compulsory education for all-boys and girls between 7 and 14 years. Education should be imparted in primary level in the student\'s mother tongue. A free primary universal education is to be imparted to all the children in the village. This will make the backbone of a country strong. Place of vocational education: A love for manual work will be injected in the mind of children. This is not a compulsion but the child will learn it by doing. Being free from mere bookish knowledge, a student should resort to manual work. He, thus, put emphasis on vocational and functional education. “Earning while learning” was the motto of this education. This wills increase the creativity in a student. As Gandhi wanted to make Indian village’s self-sufficient units, he emphasised that vocational education should increase the efficiency within the students who will make the village as self-sufficient units. Emphasis on morality: By education, Gandhi meant the improvement of morality within a student. Without being bookish, a student should adopt certain moral ethical codes like truth, nonviolence, charity and so on which will illumine his character. Thus a character building through education was a prime concern for Gandhi. Non-participation in politics: Gandhiji wanted to keep the students away from politics. If students will participate in politics, they will be pawn at the hands of the politicians who will utilize them for fulfilling their desire. This will hamper the development of a student and his education will suffer a setback. So, he advised the students to keep themselves completely away from politics. Dr.A.Jagadeesh Nellore(AP),India

    on May 27, 2013
  • Dr.a.jagadeesh

    Very good article. Our current education system selectively discards talented students with inquisitiveness, ability to ask questions and dream to do something challenging, something better for the society. Now we only produce private tuition and coaching enabled, mugging-up grade technicians who are great to do routine jobs (as in IT or BT) or imitating others

    on May 27, 2013