200 points below the best

I have always held that the education system in our country is abysmal. Many like throwing facts and figures at me to prove the contrary but I hold my ground. And I have reason to as I have for the last 12 years seen things first hand. In spite of highfalutin and grandiose programmes launched time and again and in spite of the fact that education has become a constitutional right of every child born on this land, the reality is quite different.

I would have liked to be proved wrong but two recent studies sadly validate my take. In the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), conducted annually to evaluate education systems worldwide by the OECD India ranked second last among 73 countries. Even in maths considered India's forte they only beat Kyrgyzstan. In English reading too they were second last. When scores were compared an Indian eighth grader is at the level of a South Korean third grader in math abilities or a second-year student from Shanghai when it comes to reading skills. And that is not all Pratham's seventh Annual Survey of Education Report released last week tells a sorry tale: rising enrolment but declining attendance, over-reliance on private tuition, decline in reading and mathematical ability of children in the age group between 6 and 14.

And yet when Indian children are given a enabling environment they top the chart. So when one reads with profound sadness that an eight grader from India compares to a second grader in China one knows that the fault does not lie with the children but with the system and with each one of us. Just bear with me a little before wondering why I say that we are responsible too.

For the past 12 years we have been working with what one could call Children of a Lesser God: the ones born on the wrong side of the fence, the ones whose parents can barely afford school let alone tuition, the ones who often go astray, the ones whose childhood is hijacked for more reasons than one can count, the ones who start life with a huge handicap and run an unfair race in an insensitive world. They too have rights, education being one of them but here again things are not as should be. The schools they go to are fraught with aberrations: little or no teaching, abusive teachers etc. They move from class to class courtesy the no fail policy. We have students who have 'passed' class IV or V and can barely read. The immediate reaction would be to think that something is wrong with the child. Not all all. The same child with a little help and support not only makes up but goes on to top the her or his class. Over the years we have had many such examples, the most stunning one being a young girl who failed class VII thrice an went on to secure the 11th position in Delhi in her XII Boards.

So the fact that the Indian eight grader compares to a second grader from another country is not due to the child's ability but to the sorry state of affairs in our system. And this state has been aggravated over the years with the widening of the gap between rich and poor, a gap that has percolated to every field even education. Over the years we have seen the commercialisation of education. Education is now a lucrative business that answers  market demands. Hence we have schools for the uber rich, the rich, the not so rich and so on. On the other side of the spectrum, state run schools that now seem to be catering to the poor have seen their standards drop by the minute. Some of the stories the children tell us are beyond belief. Municipal schools in our capital city have no toilets, no drinking water, sometimes no desks. Teachers are indifferent and often brutal and uncaring. How children survive this ordeal and keep their smile and humour is ample proof of their desire to study.

It is time we looked at our state run schools and did something. These schools cater to the millions of underprivileged kids and need to be run efficiently. I have often mooted the idea of a common school for ALL children, schools that should be centers of excellence, schools that should really celebrate the much extolled  unity in diversity, schools were your children and their children would grow and learn together. But as I said earlier we too are responsible for the sorry state of affairs as we will never accept to have our children study with theirs! So a common school however good will remain a chimera.

And then let us not forget that schools now top the charts of lucrative business where the demand is much higher then the supply, and everyone wants a share of the pie. Even our politicians! And then of course let us not forget that poorly educated masses are needed to keep our version of our democracy alive. Till then Indian children will remain 200 points and more below the best.

We however have set in motion our own version of a 'common school' by sending 8 of the most deprived children in a good boarding school to prove that the most disadvantaged child can hold is on and outshine others. Till now they have validated our theory in every which way imaginable. They will one day prove indubitably that they are the best.