Education for all: Smriti Irani’s big challenge

Smriti Irani

 Smriti Irani

With the new government taking charge, there is a renewed sense of hope sweeping across the nation that has not been seen or felt for a long time. From the common man on the street to the civil society members in closed rooms, and of course our hyper-active media, all are animatedly discussing what the government’s next agenda should be.

But Narendra Modi is his own man. He is clear on not taking the usual path, and his appointment of Smriti Irani as the new Minister for Human Resource Development is one such demonstration. The Congress has wasted no time to begin questioning the decision, raising doubts about her educational qualification for the post.

There is no question about her being her own person, on the lines of Narendra Modi. She is strong, clear headed and is articulate in communicating her authority, all of which should help her rise up to the challenge that lies ahead. And it’s a big one.

India’s biggest challenge lies in educating our children, and this education has to include overall development of a child to think, understand and implement basic concepts. We are in the fourth year of the Right of the Free and Compulsory Education Act (RTE) being implemented and it’s time to re-visit its overall objectives and impact.

In 2009-10, the Sarva Siksha Abhiyan (SSA) was given the principle responsibility to implement the RTE Act across the nation. In 2009-10, the SSA had a budget allocation of Rs 12,825.44 crore. Post the RTE implementation, the budget was significantly increased by 53.10% to Rs 19,636.90 crore for 2010-11, highlighting the government’s priority for the program. The proposed budget for the 2014-15 is Rs 27,758 crore, marking an increase of 116.42% from the 2009-10 level.

The increase in investment in the area has had a big impact on student enrollment, with the enrollment climbing from 187.85 million in 2009-10 to 199.7 million in 2012-13. This is a significant improvement, given the fact that the school dropout rate of students before completing class VIII is 41%. The rate of dropout is higher for Scheduled Caste students at 43% and 55% for Scheduled Tribes.

Lack of Quality Teachers

The biggest challenge India faces in delivering quality education is the absence of adequate teachers and those that are on rolls, are mostly unqualified and untrained. Teacher recruitment is a state subject and therefore many states have recruited to satisfy political obligations rather than meet qualification criteria. The magnitude of the problem can be gauged by the fact that West Bengal has the largest number of untrained teachers at 1.97 lakh, followed by Bihar at 1.86 lakh and Uttar Pradesh at 1.43 lakh, as per 2011-12 data of the District Information System for Education.

Children have different levels of learning skills, and therefore require a different teaching methodology and approach that takes into account their interest and aptitude. With a large and untrained pool of teachers, most of whom lack interest and don’t possess the aptitude to teach, it’s the poor students who suffer.

States love to advertise the number of teachers recruited but totally fail to mention any benchmarks on the quality or training levels of the teachers. In the absence of well trained and motivated teachers, the problem of quality education in India cannot be solved through mere increase in investments.

Lack of adequate number of teachers

According to data released by the Ministry of Human Resource and Development, 63.44% of the sanctioned posts for teachers under the SSA are lying vacant. The highest number of teacher vacancies are in Bihar at 2,05,378, Uttar Pradesh 1,59,087, Madhya Pradesh at 79,110, West Bengal at 61,623. The situation continues for other states.

With this gap between demand and supply, how does India plan to move ahead in the 21st century and live up to its potential as an emerging developed nation?

Poor Infrastructure

The state of government school buildings can be best judged from the condition of state government schools located in and near highly developed cities of Noida and Gurgaon in the National Capital Region. One visit will tell you the story of poor state of buildings: little or no electricity, lack of furniture, broken blackboards, no toilets or very poorly maintained toilets, complete lack of any teaching aids or sports equipment, lack of playgrounds and worst of all, lack of proper drinking water facilities. This is the pitiable condition of most state government run schools across the country and we as a nation can’t stop talking about the progressive strides the nation has taken since independence!

While the centre has been allocating funds to the states, the optimal utilisation of the same is dismal for most states and unless this problem is addressed, the quality and levels of education will remain poor and ultimately cost the nation its future.

The solution

India needs a consistent level of education in terms of content and delivery and as long as we depend on human resource, the levels and quality will always be a challenge. This issue can largely be addressed with the use of technology that is now available for deployment over vast areas.

India is yet to wake up to the use of technology and modern teaching practices in government schools. With technology including internet, telecommunication and solar, it’s now possible to leapfrog the infrastructure gap and deploy the same in combination with the available human resource.

One cannot do away with teachers and that is neither desirable nor practical, but re-training of teachers and exposing them to the use and practice of technology as an aid, along with modern methods of creative teaching, is feasible.

One such example is the Open Distance Learning program in Bihar, organized by the Educational Research Training (SCERT) in association with the UNICEF that undertakes to re-train untrained teachers to impart teaching skills that use modern methods and includes understanding and handling of primary children with varying skill sets. The purpose of the initiative is to use the existing human resource and upgrade the skill set to make a difference at the micro level, where the quality of education is at its lowest. The program has been largely successful and is being replicated in other parts of India.

If this could be further augmented with the use of technology and funds to provide solar energy (to compensate the lack of electricity in rural areas), India could well see a significant improvement in the student attendance and academic performance. The nation can only gain.

The new HRD Minister, Smriti Irani has the party majority and with a pro-active Prime Minister to support her initiatives, this could well be India’s moment. Will she stand up to the task? The children of India await.

HRD ministry asks CISCE to justify its existence

The Council for the Indian School Certificate Examinations (CISCE) has been asked by the HRD Ministry to give reasons to justify its existence. The CISCE conducts the ICSE and ISC examinations. According to media reports, the HRD Ministry, which is under Smriti Irani, had asked the CISCE to reply to a letter sent in December 2014. In the letter the CISCE was asked to provide documents that showed the approval of the government regarding the memorandum of association and rules and regulations of the council. The ministry has justified the letter and the reminder by citing a court notice.

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