On 'The NDTV Dialogues', a look at the 'Role of the Classical in Modern India', an idea even more relevant in today's narrative and in a week where a first-of-its-kind initiative has been launched, the Murty Classical Library of India. On the panel are Dr Rohan Narayan Murty, founder of the Murty Classical library, Professor Sheldon Pollock, Editor of the Murty Classical Library of India and Manjul Bhargava, Mathematics Professor at Princeton.
Here is the full transcript:
NDTV: Good evening and welcome to the NDTV Dialogues, a conversation of ideas. Tonight we discuss the latest annual set of the education report or ASER Report by independent NGO Pratham, which looks at children studying in rural schools in districts across India. It's the largest survey of its kind in the world. What are the results? Well the big picture, 96 per cent of the children in India are now in school. The bad news is that many of them can't read or add or even do a simple subtraction. For instance 25 per cent of children in class 8 can't even read a class 2 text. For more on this is joining me tonight, Rukmani Banerjee of ASER. She is from Pratham and they of course have prepared this report. Also with me Prof. Abhijeet Banerjee, he is at MIT and he is the Ford Professor there and an economist and author of the book 'Poor Economics'; I am also joined by Pallam Raju, a former Minister of HRD in the UPA government, 2014, the year of survey when he was the Minister. Also with me is Sanjay Koul of the BJP whose interest is in the issues of education. Rukmani Banerjee, I said briefly in my introduction the big picture, what lessons do India's policy makers, educationists, parents need to gain from this report?
Rukmani Banerjee: I think if we look back over the last 10 years we see fairly steady trends. We see that school facilities, in terms of infrastructures, in terms of teachers, have been steadily going up. Now we are in the position that we think many schools have some of the basics that they need. Of course there is still more to be done. But if you look at basic learning, things like just basic reading, basic arithmetic, we are kind of stuck and in some cases going down.
NDTV: The decline is quite rapid in fact...
Rukmani Banerjee: The decline is quite rapid and much more for math. And for math I don't mean any high level math. Number recognition, number knowledge, simple addition, subtractions, things like this. So I think where we are at today is that we know how to solve our infrastructure problems. We know how to solve input issues. We know how to get children in school, because we have almost 97 percent children in school and staying in school. What we really need to focus on is how do we get children to learn better. And I think that is a big challenge that the country has to face for the next coming years.
NDTV: So Professor Banerjee, is it a travesty then, what education means in India today? Have you put the cart before the horse? Do you feel this is a necessary right of passage that first the Right to Education came with merit of fundamental right, gave the buildings and the learning came later. Or do you think we have actually got it all backwards?
Abhijeet Banerjee: I certainly think that we could have had a Right to Education. That was our education. Right to Education that's about buildings or Right to Education? I'm not at all saying that. We should have a right and the right should be based on measuring outcomes on whether children are learning. If we are going to promise education, we should promise education. In some sense this is a dangerous thing to do. Because you have the bunch of people whom are going to school and going to school with the right building, in the right toilet and all that. It constitutes education. Then they of course don't get a job; then at some point will get a blow back. This is creating a time bomb in my view.
NDTV: Pallam Raju, this survey is for 2014 when you were the HRD Minister. When you hear Prof Banerjee saying in a sense we are sitting on a time bomb; we have got 96 per cent of our children in school, but they are coming out uneducated as it were, what's the prospects that lie ahead for them for jobs, for employability? Do you think the RTE has been flawed, its vision that needs to change? You can be frank as you are out of the government.
Pallam Raju: Yes, I totally stand by the promulgation of the RTE. I think it was the measure that we had to do. And that has certainly accelerated the process. May be the learning outcomes haven't been to the expectation levels. But I think they are creeping along in the right direction. And I am certain that with greater focus from the states we will be able to make a bigger and greater impact in the coming years.
NDTV: What was the biggest challenge? For instance the sharp decline we saw, I think that was the big surprise in the last report, that the sharp decline in the quality of learning of how much actually class 3 and primary student should actually do in rural India. Whether it was simple reading or simple math. What was the big surprise? Do you think it was because testing was done away with? There is no measurement of what children are learning in the school.
Pallam Raju: See I think the biggest challenge has been the availability of teachers. And I think that has not been commensurate with which we expanded on the infrastructure of the schools. But having said that you know I have to also talk about the National Assistance Survey done by the Ministry, which has certain findings, which have little difference from what Pratham does. And we believe that a much more scientific survey is done in schools as against Pratham Survey which is done in the villages. Of course I don't want to say that everything is rosy, certainly there are shortcomings and we need to accelerate the process and the biggest challenge was the availability of teachers. I'm sure that it is a challenge for today.
NDTV: I want to get Rukmani on that, but Sanjay Koul, if you can come in to that, underlining the Prime Minister's whole Make in India vision, the thrust on manufacturing, the thrust on skill development will be a primary education. I mean that's really the building block. If you are failing at that stage, what do you think needs to be really done to fix that? What is this new government's vision starting from the very basic?
Sanjay Koul: Yes of course, I mean if you were to look at the entire life span and the productive life span of the human being you could end up at employability. But you will have to start at primary education and we know that this has been the blighted area for a long time. But I think it's also because to a large extent, despite the fact that the RTE intended to date finally, which is all very well. But I think input orientation of the act is basically proving, eventually going to be detrimental because the focus has to shift to the outcomes. It's really a repeat of the supervisory idea of how education should be delivered. Which is actually taking out a lot of energy, entrepreneurship and juice out of the system. If you were to bring that back, a lot of people would be actually able to find local solutions. Because at the end of the day I think parents are best equipped to evaluate that their kids are getting good education or not. If you get regulations to help, assist instead of obstruct you would probably get that much faster and now that's very important for us. Not a question of just filling in the numbers and having, for an instance, clocking higher degrees of admissions. But it is really what you are getting out of those schools that's going to determine whether they move up in class or whether they finally end up doing college and getting jobs. So I absolutely agree with you. And I think all of the things that we are planning, as far as the NDA is concerned, a solid foundation needs to be in place. But I also think that it requires not just infrastructure but entrepreneurial energies and application of mind in trying to simplify and to let the system sort of get off the ground and not become bogged down. For instance in Delhi, let me just put it, because I had spent some time looking at private schools; and we also learn from your survey that private schools are probably doing better that government schools. I also know that for instance private schools in Delhi are at the verge of closing down. They were to actually fit into the RTE paradigm. So I mean we have a problem, we have to understand a law cannot be imposed when its actually doing exactly opposite what you are intended to do.
NDTV: That's an interesting point because Rukmani I think that perhaps rather than giving a syllabus and having teachers teach that syllabus, having no idea of students actually understanding, perhaps look more at going back to teach them how to read, teach them how to add, teach them how to subtract, rather than fit into demand of syllabus having no idea of being done. Is that the kind of very basic re-think that needs to be done? It's not about the big picture here in that sense but changing it from the very bottom line.
Rukmani Banerjee: Yes, I mean I think that there are some fundamental building blocks we have to have in place. Whether you do it by the time you are 7 or 8. This is not HIV. This is not a disease. You can learn these things even if you haven't learned them earlier. And I think what our report does is to really focus on two basic things. One is can you read, because as soon as you can read, you can actually propel yourself through the system quite well. And the other is sort of a basic foundation of arithmetic. Do you have number knowledge? Can you do basic operations? If these two pieces are not in place then it's very difficult to make progress. Lets say I am in class 5 and I have a teacher and she comes to school everyday, what she will be doing is teaching from a 5th standard textbook. But I am still really at a much more basic level, and therefore what she teaches passes me by. And as a result of which the teacher feels disheartened. They feel they are working hard but it isn't having any impact. Children feel that this place is not for us and the parents get upset that school mein padhai nahi ho rahi hai (No learning happening in school). Really what it is, is that you are trying to fit in age grade curriculum, which may be great for middle class kids, great for other contexts, but not right for the reality where we are today. One of the thing about ASER is the tool is very simple, and when you take it, you do it in the villages, many of the parents will say acha padhai matlab ye. They think that schooling is equal to learning. And we now know that you can have very high rates of schooling in terms of enrollment, but we need to carry people along. We need to explain what it is that kids need to do and at what stage.
NDTV: Do you find a willingness to say what you are saying? Pallam Raju says that he prefers a government survey. He sees yours as a dipstick survey. Education of course is a state subject. So this is something you have to battle with bureaucracy and governments across states. Do you find a willingness to listen to what ASER is saying?
Rukmani Banerjee: We find actually a great deal of openness in the states. I mean the Centre has a different role; the state has a different role. As Pratham we work in collaboration and we have done in many states. And I think that states are now doing their own state level surveys. And one other thing we find several states have done in collaboration with us; and some on the role, is fundamentally if children can't read you can't give them a pen and paper test. To answer a pen and paper test, you have to actually be able to read what the questions are and then do it. Now Bihar recently has done a state level assessment in which they have done an oral reading test, an oral math test along with a pen and paper test. Rajasthan has been conducting what they call a sambalan, which also has a reading component. In Gujarat, Gunotsava had the whole variety of things, which they did including being able to ask kids to read. I am not against the fact that you need to test kids at grade level. There are a bunch of kids who are at grade level. But a huge majority are well below grade and without the basics. So if we start where the kids are we are likely to make far more progress that if we start from a curriculum base and then get to the kids.
Sanjay Koul: Also I think that the two kinds of problems we have is of course the status that we have now and how to remedy that. Also that doesn't stop us from developing a much better model, which is freed of all the errors of the past. And I think that is something we need to look at. Or are we going to only live in the corrective stage of just the anomaly of the system or are we able to put in place something that really works across the border? Just as the matter of interest I believe Gujarat has the model based on outcomes as compared to the other states.
Rukmani Banerjee: I think that in Gujarat, one of the great things that they did under Gunotsava is actually a lot of people visit schools and have an assessment and evaluation that went on, both from within the school and from outside. But in terms of learning outcomes, actually Gujarat is not very different from most of the other states.
NDTV: And there is of course a politically sensitive stage that is starting. I just want to get in Professor Abhijeet Banerjee on that. I mean we did go on some of these figures in the beginning. They are still starting, when you say that in standard 3 only 25 per cent can read, in standard 8 only 25 per cent can read a standard 2 text. Math is such a serious challenge. Only 25 per cent in class 3 can actually do a two-digit subtraction. How can you reconcile the contradiction when on one hand we claim to be proud of our IITs, IIMs, you see people educated in India rising at top levels around the world. And almost this kind of divide that seems to be growing. A whole generation of children are being left behind because it really ought to close that gap as well, because centres of excellence of some schools at the top level are doing extremely good, they are the creamy layer. And what happens to the rest?
Abhijeet Banerjee: I think the part of the problem, if I may say so, is exactly that. We have a sense that education is that big thing which is, you know, has excellence and there are these norms. If you talk to educationists they will tell you that how can you tell us that you have to teach children to read in grade 3? They are supposed to know how to read in grade 3. Now they are supposed to do other things. Now if you tell them they don't know how to read, somehow the conversation stops. They have no space for the conversation, which says that look it doesn't matter where the ideal education is. We need to deal with the reality here. And I think this conversation is partly inspired by this contradiction. It's partly inspired by the fact that we have a sense that we want excellence. We talk to teachers, that if we don't teach them the syllabus how will they get through the syllabus and all that? And the point is that actually children catch up very fast. If we focus on them, which study in a Pratham programme did in UP, which basically is teaching kids for 40-50 days a year to focus on basic skills. The number of people who can read in grade 3 to 5 goes from 24 per cent to 50 per cent. So it doubles. So it's very easy to do it. And schools where you don't do it, it basically doesn't change. So it's really a massive, massive increase.
NDTV: Would you put the RTE Act in the dustbin and say lets start again? Lets just look at what we want to achieve and start again.
Abhijeet Banerjee: In case I would, probably I think at least I would start by rethinking what the, I think what he said was exactly right. The priority has to be, I think, lets say the goal post. Having one of the things that RTE does is it takes away the goal post. As you said parents need to judge what they are getting. If you remove the goal post there is no evaluation. Basically children are not supposed to be assessed. Then basically you have no idea of why, whether your children are learning or not. At that point the idea of whether the parents can drive the achievement of the children, can force the school system, doesn't go away. First thing I would do is to bring back testing. Rajasthan has been talking about this, to bring back testing. Testing doesn't have to mean telling the child that you failed. It just has to tell that the school failed. And I think that level of testing is essential. We need to know and this has to be the objective. It cannot be the teacher doing it. It has to be outside tests so that we can use them. Parents can use them, so that you can get the assessment if the system is working for you or not.
NDTV: In fact Pallam, as an ex- HRD Minister, I mean, too little attention some would say, in fact the media's effort as well is on controversies around higher education at IITs, IIMs you faced as HRD Minister. The new HRD Minister faces it as well. And little seems to be paid to primary education in rural areas, in government schools, in improving the outcomes. We have of course the PISA Survey when you were the Minister. It showed that India, and again when we take pride in saying Indian students being the best in the world the reality was we were the second last. Now they are liberating. Do you really think we need to, would you advice the current HRD Minister to be there? Listen to the Survey, whichever you want, but listen to the Survey and do something about it.
Pallam Raju: At any point education is a very responsible subject. And I disagree with some of the observations that the RTE should be done away with. I think the RTE should be there to accelerate the whole process. I think there is scope of trucking with it. There is scope of change for the betterment of the system. There is certainly a scope, and I hope that the government feels like, to certainly act in it. And like I said earlier the most critical point is the availability of good teachers. Certainly am most bothered about the learning outcomes rather than the number of students who come out. And there you know one of the ingredients of the Act has been the role of the school management committee, 75 per cent of which is supposed to be constituted by the parents. And unless there is participation by the parents, by the society at large towards the quality of the outcomes, you can't say there will be automatically a process, just because there is input from the teachers. So I think that is where the society has to mature to if we have to have meaningful outcomes of schools.
NDTV: But are governments focused on outcomes? Because I mean this is accusation, whether it is NDA or UPA. The grand schemes are announced but who actually follows up and what actually is coming out of it?
Pallam Raju: I'll give you a little example. I went to a little school recently in Hyderabad, because an NGO had invited me to the school in Hyderabad, and you know, the teachers naturally were curious to talk to me and walked around with me in the school. When I went in the staff room, they had computers and monitors; it was very good that they had all these. But they said they don't use it. So we are focusing more on the infrastructure, the capital expenditure, rather than the outcome of the expenditure that we are making. So, in a school in Hyderabad if that's the status, I would say that the situation would be far more acute in rural areas. So at least the focus has to be in the learning outcomes, quality of the inputs, greater participation by the parents, greater focus by the state governments and the society at large.
NDTV: Final quotes for Dialogues tonight, Sanjay Koul you go ahead.
Sanjay Koul: No, I said yes, absolutely you have to be, I think the, you have to invert the pyramid completely and I think that is the fundamental change. So to that extent I don't know, to what extent it can be called tweaking the RTE or reinventing it. Whatever it may be, the fact is that if you are going to focus on outcomes then you have to let and allow a lot to free space. Possibly stand there and say the size of the hall has to be this much, the bathroom has to be this much. It's not possible. In a city like Delhi for instance, by those standards you can have no more schools. And in fact, the fact of the matter is that there are more schools closing down, both in terms of private and government schools, and that is why you have the crisis that you have. And coming back to the question about it....
Pallam Raju: I'm so sorry to interrupt you, but there is whole aspect of governance. Wherever you have the aspect of the law that is inhibiting the growth, we certainly should tweak it or alter it.
Sanjay Koul: The whole idea is to not to customise it to such an extent, because you know it is not deliverable in that sense. The law has to be flexible enough for the people to be able to innovate. And you are taking that innovational energy out of the system if you are going to predict how exactly it will happen. It will not happen. There is elastic enough. Situations are different. How it works in a city like Delhi is not the way is will work for cities, which are tier 2, tier 3 or a village or a small town.
NDTV: So Sanjay, so far the HRD Ministry, the whole effort doesn't seem to be liberated. It seems to be the opposite.
Sanjay Koul: No it isn't because you are talking about higher education. You do understand that it's all about prioritisation. Its about what comes to the table first. The fact of the matter is that the bottom of the pyramid, as far as I am concerned, is very critical. Because I think we have major issues and one of the reasons that you are talking about such few top colleges which feature in the top 20. That's an issue of equal concern for a country, which is actually looking for 'Make in India' and stuff like that. It's not about just one piece of the cake.
NDTV: Prof Banerjee final words, what advice would you like to give to the new government perhaps on this, the RTE or education? What do you need to fix fast?
Abhijeet Banerjee: I guess I agree with the idea that there is, you know, there is something to be done at the top. I do feel there is no contradiction here. I think we have a huge talent pool. We lose 80 per cent of it. If we found the kids drop out at the 7th grade, who have the talent, our higher education will be better. All words will be lifted if we lift the, don't deprive children at a very early age from their chance.
NDTV: Prof Banerjee, Pallam Raju, Rukmani Banerjee, Sanjay Koul thank you very much for joining me tonight. Thank you.