Education Policies and Systems in India: An Interview with Meeta Sengupta

Meeta Sengupta discusses the persistently low learning outcomes in schools, the pertinence of hiring tutors, the status of infrastructure in educational institutions, and more.

By Akshaya Ganesh

Education Policies and Systems in India: An Interview with Meeta Sengupta

Various education reports including the Annual Status of Education Reports (ASER) mention time and again that the learning outcomes in Indian schools continue to be poor. ParentCircle gets talking with Ms Meeta Sengupta, founder of the Centre for Education Strategy, Delhi, about her views on the issue.

1. ASER 2014 states that learning levels have been declining every year since the RTE Act was introduced. What do you think is the reason for this?

The RTE Act enabled and coincided with the huge push towards universal primary school education in India. With enrolments at over a hundred per cent, every student is now included in learning outcomes marked by schools, not just students who are interested. There is scant provision for support of the less able, including children with learning disabilities. A few, rare schools are able to support students who are lagging behind the class level. It needs exceptionally dedicated teachers to be able to lift each student to the expected grade level with no structural or institutional support. The RTE Act has made this even more difficult by mandating that students should be put in age appropriate classes rather than slotted according to their learning levels. So a child who lags in Maths or science and is say, a Level 2 - but is 12 years old - that child is forced to skip learning at Level 2, 3, 4, etc. and perform at Level 6 or 7. A child assessed for this is likely to demonstrate low learning levels. The RTE Act also requires schools not to detain students in grades lower than those appropriate to their age. This ’No Detention’ policy does not give students a second chance at learning - obviously outcomes suffer. Other reasons not related to the RTE Act also exist – shortage of teachers and resources, for example.

2. According to the 2014 Report private school enrolment figures are up, but learning levels have remained stagnant. Why?

Private schools allocate their time and priorities differently and this helps them deliver better outcomes in areas that give mobility in later years. But there is no incentive for private schools to improve further- as long as they are beating local competition they have no reason to stretch. The RTE Act again has a small role to play - in tens of thousands of budget private schools across the country, senior teachers, heads, owners and educators have spent huge amounts of time and effort to ensure that their schools survive. Yet, many are to be shut down under sections 18/19 of the RTE Act. Schools are unable to pay attention to quality in their bid to survive. As a head said to me once, “Even if we provide the best quality, even if we are better than any other school, if we do not meet their rules as are written in their books, they will want to shut us down.”

3. The report stated that about one-fourth of all children in rural India pay for private tutors. What do you think drives this trend, and do you think it will help improve children's learning abilities?

Tuition is about better marks and grades; it is not necessarily about better learning. There are some tutors who do enable better understanding and application of the content, but that is not the norm. Schools suffer from teacher shortage, classes are often disrupted for various reasons and governance is poor. The local community should engage with the school to ensure that progress is made, but school management committees have been formed only in a small fraction of schools. Even where such a committee has been constituted, the community needs to be trained in school governance to ensure that proper teaching and learning is happening in the schoolrooms. As it stands, tutors reliably deliver on grades and help the child progress in the limited ways that they are tested in. Such tutorials clearly improve nominal learning outcomes, the results of the child and the schools - and everyone in the system is happy. Better learning will have to wait its turn.

4. Is infrastructure adequate in government and private schools in India? If not, what is needed?

No, infrastructure is not adequate. We are now in a day and age where the classroom is less important than connectivity. Schools need to facilitate and enable self-learning environments with teachers energising students to engage and apply shared knowledge. This means more than a simple textbook, posters on walls and a cotton carpet on a floor - though a roof overhead is certainly welcome! Even the buildings are not maintained well. Play areas are designated, but not maintained. Only in some areas have community spaces and resources been shared with the school. School spaces too need to engage communities. Power connections are paramount, as is safety. Schools need to access better quality resources on time – ASER Report has estimated that much of the infrastructure fund is released at the end of the financial year, at a point in time when it must be spent within a few weeks - so it is used to repaint the buildings and other such activities, rather than allocated with due thought.

5. What do you suggest the government does to improve the situation of learning in India?

Big question! The government needs to invest in better teachers and allow these better teachers freedom to engage and energise their classes while holding them accountable via better governance systems. So: better teachers, flexible content, school autonomy, head-teacher accountability and community governance. Each of these is a huge task - and some say that it needs to ride on technology. Technology is just a tool - the Government needs to tackle the teacher crisis with a will and help them to regain their respect by delivering more competent students.