“Path mera alokit kardo, naval prath ki naval rashmiyon se, mere ur ka tam har do,” Saidun Ahmed, 8, recited a Hindi poem by Dwarika Prasad Maheshwari, a twentieth-century poet, at top speed. “Light up my path, with the morning sunlight light of the new sun, overcome the darkness within my heart.”
But when asked to read some lines on the opposite page, the fourth grader, dressed in a button-up full-sleeved brown shirt and skirt-the school uniform of all government schools in Uttar Pradesh-said she had memorised the poem and couldn’t read well.
“Children don’t learn much in the government school,” said 37-year-old Iklakh Ahmed, her father, a driver by profession. “I will enroll her in the private school next year.” Saidun’s family lives in Fattepur, a village in the eastern Uttar Pradesh (UP) district of Mirzapur.
Like more than half (50.4%) of all primary school-age children in UP, Saidun attends a government primary school (providing free education to children between 6 and 14 years), and like many children in the state, she cannot read at grade level.
Even though residents in two districts of UP said education was important for the future of their children, only 2% of voters surveyed listed education as the most important issue during the ongoing state assembly elections, according to a FourthLion-IndiaSpend survey.
In conversations across the two districts, few villagers were willing to engage with the government system to improve the quality of education, in a state that accounts for 52 million or 21 per cent of India’s child population between the ages of six and 15 years.
The low quality of education in the state (and dearth of jobs) puts India’s future workforce at risk and is reflected in UP’s high unemployment.
In 2015-16, more people per 1,000 were unemployed in UP (58), compared to the Indian average (37). Youth unemployment was especially high, with 148 for every 1,000 people between the ages of 18 and 29 years in UP unemployed, compared to the Indian average of 102, according to 2015-16 labour ministry data.
As many as 20% of voters surveyed said jobs were the most important issue this election year, according to a FourthLion-IndiaSpend survey. Between 2001 and 2011, over 5.8 million between the age of 20 and 29 years migrated from UP in search of jobs, but, for most of these migrants, low educational attainment likely resulted in low-paying jobs in the informal sector.
Parents and children don’t think they can change the education system
Though there is almost universal enrolment in primary schools in UP — 25 million enrolled in grade I to V in 2015-16 — learning is challenged by the quality of education and high absenteeism.
In 2016, about half (49.7%) of grade I students surveyed in households in UP could not read letters, while 44.3% could not recognise numbers up to nine, according to the Annual Status of Education Report, a citizen-led assessment of learning in rural India.
On average, only half the students of six schools in two districts were in class when IndiaSpend visited.
Parents in Mirzapur district said they recognised their children were not learning much in school, but that they did not think they could change the existing system either through elections or by meeting local teachers and officials.
Teachers told IndiaSpend that low learning outcomes were mostly because of low attendance and little interest from parents to help their children at home.
“What should we say to education officials or candidates,” asked Ahmed, Saidun’s father. “No one cares or talks about it. If they come here, they ask for votes and then leave.”
“Citizens face constraints in influencing public services,” found a 2010 randomised evaluation of interventions to engage communities in education, conducted by researchers from the Abdul Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-Pal), a network of 146 professors trying to reduce poverty through evidence-based policy, and Pratham, a nongovernmental organisation.
Interventions that involve beneficiaries in improving public services have mixed results, the study further explained.
There were three interventions as part of the J-Pal study: The first facilitated meetings of villagers, teachers, and administrators, and disseminated information on the role of village education committees, a second also trained volunteers to administer literacy tests on children and prepare reports, and a third intervention trained volunteers to provide basic after-school reading classes to children.
Despite the fact that many parents attended meetings, and wanted to improve education levels, none of the three interventions significantly increased the village education committee or parents’ involvement in schools or improved school performance, the authors found. Children who were part of reading classes performed better than those who were not a part of the intervention.
Further, several parents are illiterate — UP’s literacy rate or, the ability to read and write one’s own name, is 70 per cent — and these parents say they don’t know how schools can be improved.
“I haven’t thought about how the school can be improved,” said Tukia Devi, a tribal living near the Bisunapur primary school in Bahraich district, and mother to a five-year old daughter. “I am illiterate, I don’t know what can be done.”
Easier to improve education opportunities outside the government system
The J-Pal study suggested there seemed to be a greater willingness of individuals to help improve the situation for other individuals, rather than undertake collective action to improve institutions and systems.
In April, at the beginning of the new academic year, Ahmed, Saidun’s father, said he would move her to a private school, costing about Rs 400 a month. Ahmed is a driver, and earns between Rs 4,000 and Rs 10,000 a month, depending on the jobs he gets.
About half of all children (46.5 per cent) in UP study in private primary schools — an increase of 80.6% from 2007, according to the District Information System for Education.
Even when officials recognise that the major issue is learning levels, steps to change the status quo fall short. For instance, district officials in Mirzapur district told IndiaSpend that goals this year included teaching students basic reading, math and writing.
For that, officials would conduct random evaluations and check the level of students compared to a pre-decided goal set by the district, officials said. Teacher training would be a focus with more trainings, but there did not appear to be a major redesign of the training itself.