Report on Primary Education

Executive Summary

The number of illiterates in India is estimated to be over 400 million of which 75% live in rural areas. Of the literate population, a significant proportion lack basic vocational skills.

While India can boast a few world-class institutes of higher learning, such as the IITs, IIMs and medical colleges, they remain isolated from the larger community and society. Most of their graduates migrate to Western countries, providing them with a valuable supply of intellectual capital. The "top heavy" elitist structure of Indian education has left a weak and tottering foundation, which if not transformed and strengthened, will become a massive drag on India's social and economic development.

India's key challenge is to rapidly provide its rural population with opportunities to become literate, and develop basic leadership and problem-solving skills, to raise productivity, entrepreneurship and material standards of living.

The following is a summary of ongoing research into the critical issues of primary education in India. The research is based on in-depth discussions, interviews, meetings and workshops started in 1999 with educators, teachers, school level and higher education administrators, scientists, business leaders, parents and students.

The Positives

Indian children represent an excellent source of global intellectual capital.

- Foreign universities actively seek Indian students.
- Many do well and distinguish themselves outside India

* India has a huge untapped reservoir of productive and creative human capital. Properly stimulated, this 'unutilized brainpower' can be transformed to generate massive economic, social and cultural returns for the country.

* Given its low-cost education structure, India presents one of the best opportunities in the world for generating returns from investment in education. Modest injections of capital and resources can produce significant improvements in education quality and output.

* Quality teacher training can bring about quantum improvements in learning and increase the practical and creative output of students and teachers.

* There exist a number of effective low-cost teaching methods to educate and rapidly disseminate useful skills and knowledge to those that need them most.

Opportunities and issues

Rural Schools

* Many rural teachers demonstrate openness to new ideas and high innate levels of creativity, often of a higher level than that found among urban teachers.

* There has been little attempt by educators in the country to improve rural education, where the motivation among children to attend class is low because of such factors as negative parental pressure, poor facilities and uninspired teaching.

* There is high enthusiasm for learning and experimenting among children. Right stimuli can create an explosion in creativity and productivity in rural India.

* Urban schools with their greater resources can play a catalytic role in the growth of rural education. Urban schools therefore need to adopt a proactive community-building role.

* Given resource limitations a case can be made to focus on low capital-intensive skill-based education.

Given the real limitation of resources, e.g. lack of adequate physical facilities, books and materials, a case can be made to focus on skill-based education, which requires less capital and can be effectively and widely disseminated. At science workshops for 30,000 rural children sponsored by AGASTYA, over 100 experiments were demonstrated using low-cost everyday materials.

Urban Schools

* Education in most schools is one dimensional, with an obsessive focus on marks. The products of Indian school education tend to be narrow minded and even selfish in their aims and approach.

- Intelligence and potential are generally equated to the marks or grades achieved by the child.

- There is little focus on nurturing:

a) Behavioral skills - teamwork, leadership, community
b) Application skills
c) Creative-thinking skills

- Teachers generally have limited knowledge of how to spark creativity in children.

- The knowledge transmitted to children is therefore bookish. Few opportunities exist for children to apply their knowledge to real life situations.

- Children are rarely encouraged to participate in community-based activities such as working with disadvantaged groups or the environment.

* Quality teachers are the missing link in Indian education. Although pockets of excellence exist, the quality of teaching and the motivation to teach show a significant and potentially catastrophic downward trend. This problem is likely to be exacerbated if, as recent press reports suggest, the US imports large numbers of Indian science and math teachers to meet its own teaching shortfall.

* The shortfall of teachers is over 3 million. India needs 7 - 8 million primary/secondary schoolteachers, versus the 3 - 4 million available.

* Instilling the right type of skills in teachers and implementing a process to transfer such skills and knowledge effectively through the system would have a powerful 'multiplier effect' on the entire system of learning.

* Top day schools generally produce the best academic results. Boarding schools provide better "education", by which is meant a more rounded development of the student's personality.

* Teachers universally blame the syllabus for denying them the flexibility to be creative and involve students. This argument is diluted by the fact that the system offers teachers sufficient freedom to interpret the syllabus.

* Schools for the most part narrowly define their purpose, e.g., to produce the best exam results, number of students who join US universities etc. Most of them lack an overarching and inspirational vision. Given the increasing demand for 'quality schools' by the growing Indian middle class and the willingness of parents to invest significant money in their children's education, many schools are promoted as commercial ventures, rather than as centers of excellence.

* Urban schools would benefit greatly from:

- Closer two-way linkage with teacher education institutes
- More cross-fertilization between schools
- Greater interaction with the social, rural, scientific, artistic and business community

* There are no examples of culturally relevant world-class schools or teacher education institutions.

Issues in Indian Primary Education

"The focus on exams and marks in urban schools is like winning a 100 meter race on steroids. "

Rural Schools

* Private resources for promoting rural education are minimal to non-existent. Allocated public resources are more often than not, not effectively utilized.

* Single teacher schools, most of them with just a single room, are unable to provide even the basic environment for learning

* Lack of adequate classroom facilities means that children from different age groups typically sit in the same classroom, leading to boredom and disinterest.

* Driven by pressing short-term economic needs, most parents are reluctant to send their children to school. They often pose obstacles to learning. In some cases, the State has to offer incentives, such as subsidized rice through the mid-day meal scheme to attract children to school.

* Even a cursory interaction with naturally bright rural children and teachers reinforces the view that there is indeed a huge amount of unutilized talent and creativity, which if given even the most basic opportunity will produce major benefits for the community and country.

* Many rural teachers have the "hunger" and desire to learn and teach. They are interested in acquiring new skills and show high levels of innate creativity. Some are even so committed as to have spent money out of their own pockets to provide basic learning materials for their students.

* There is little to no transfer of technology, knowledge or ideas from better-endowed urban institutions to their rural counterparts. The reason for this is not lack of money as much as the lack of interest and concern for community.

* Even small injections of money and resources in kind, such as part-time volunteer teachers, can produce major improvements in the existing quality of teaching and learning opportunities available to rural children.

Urban Schools

* Teaching and learning methods used in most schools discourage questioning, learning, application and creativity.

* An education system focused on exams and marks ("factory approach") has produced few world-class creators and original thinkers.

* Teachers are the missing link in Indian education. Although demand for quality teachers greatly exceeds supply, the teaching profession has become a profession of last resort attracting either low caliber individuals or people for whom teaching is a hobby or only a supplementary source of family income.

* Teacher training and education institution standards have declined over the years and little effective knowledge and skill transfer takes place. Like much of the education system, teacher education has become pedantic and is divorced from application. A degree in teacher education is no longer therefore a guarantee of teaching skill.

* Teachers often lay the blame for lack of creativity in teaching on the syllabus. However, the syllabus does not prescribe a specific teaching method and provides enough freedom for interpretation and flexibility.

* Besides greater hands-on knowledge of specific teaching skills and techniques, teachers would benefit greatly from training in basic behavioral skills in order to deal effectively with the following types of challenges:

- Managing large class sizes
- Motivating "low performers"
- Interfacing effectively with senior administrators
- Showing initiative and leadership
- Co-opting support from peers
- Building teams
- Transferring newly acquired knowledge and skills to peers

There are no examples of truly world-class schools or teacher education institutions in the country. By world class we mean institutions, which can be ranked in terms of quality among the top twenty in the world.