Literacy and numeracy - Why are India's students getting worse at reading?

7th February 2014 at 00:00
Attendance is high, survey finds, but basic skill levels are low

More Indian children are enrolling in school, but a declining number of them are learning basic skills, a new report has found. In fact, half the children finishing primary school cannot make sense of a textbook intended for a seven-year-old. A similar number cannot perform basic subtraction.

The Annual Status of Education Report (Rural) 2013 (ASER) examines the state of rural education in India by surveying more than 320,000 households in almost 16,000 villages across the country. In addition, the survey's researchers visited more than 14,700 schools.

The survey shows that school enrolment among children between the ages of 6 and 14 is actually very high: 96.7 per cent of village children attend school. Roughly a third of these children attend private schools, which vary dramatically in cost and quality.

There is barely any difference between the numbers of girls and boys in school, but boys are more likely to go to a private school than girls.

The findings on poor literacy and numeracy come after serious concern was expressed last week about progress towards global goals to improve educational access for all children. A report by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) estimates that 250 million primary-aged children around the world are not learning the basics in reading and maths.

In India, school facilities are improving each year, and students today have much better access to toilets, libraries and midday meals than they had three years ago, the ASER annual survey shows. But, in keeping with some of Unesco's concerns, these improvements have not been reflected in the actual education being given to children.

By the time they reach Standard Two, at the age of 7, more than half of India's village schoolchildren are still not able to read simple, everyday words in their mother tongue. One in four seven-year-olds is not yet able to recognise the letters of the alphabet.

Most Indian textbooks for Standard Two classes assume that children will be able to read simple words and phrases. But, in fact, only 47 per cent of 11-year-olds are able to read the basic sentences in Standard Two textbooks. This figure is even lower once private schools are discounted: in government schools, only 41 per cent of 11-year-olds can read text intended for a seven-year-old.

Rukmini Banerji, head of the ASER Centre, said that teachers in Indian schools were often insufficiently trained to offer help to those children who had fallen behind in class.

"If you're a teacher, it means you come every day, you pick up your textbook, and you teach from that," she said. "But who are you teaching? You're teaching the top of the class. You need to teach the children, not the textbook. By teaching the textbook, you're denying many children the opportunity to learn."

Standards have dropped considerably since 2009, when 53 per cent of all 11-year-olds, and 50 per cent of those in government schools, could read a Standard Two text.

By 2013, attainment in maths was not much better than reading. Only half of 11-year-olds surveyed could complete basic subtraction problems, compared with 70 per cent in 2010. And while more than a third of 11-year-olds were able to tackle division in 2010, by 2013 this figure had dropped to only a quarter.

Although teachers and educationalists in many developed countries complain about government testing regimes, Dr Banerji believes that the introduction of such tests would help India's schoolchildren.

"If the majority of kids are not reaching the level for their age, you need to think of other ways to make sure kids are progressing," she said. "We need some alignment of what children need to know, and how you are making sure you're delivering it to them."

Jayshree Mangubhai, of the Delhi-based Centre for Social Equity and Inclusion, said that the rise in school enrolment had led to many new schools being opened in remote areas. However, the teachers in these schools had not been properly trained.

"If you're a second-generation learner, if you're a family with a little bit of money, you're going to put your child into private school," she said. "Then you leave people who are first-generation learners, the disadvantaged communities, in the government schools.

"You have this ridiculous system with a hierarchy of different schools, and that's just being exacerbated at the moment. There doesn't seem to be any real innovative thinking about how you deal with that."

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