When would our Indian education system change?

Tremendous challenge

In India, more children are now going to school than in the past, but primary schools are still poor, especially in rural areas. The author of this article belongs to the Santal - one of the many Adivasi tribes in India.

At the UN conference in Dakar in 2000, education for all by 2015 (EFA - education for all) was declared a goal. Since then, a lot has happened in India in terms of basic education. According to a national EFA evaluation from 2014, an additional 14.6 million children have attended primary school in the past five years, so that almost all children in the age group six to ten now attend school. 98% of all Indian settlements have at least one elementary school within one kilometer.

One reason for the new additions is the free school meals, which are primarily provided by the state program Sarva Sikha Abhiyan (SSA). It provides lunch for 108 million children on school days. The new law on the right to education of 2009 is also important. However, much remains to be done.

The bottom of reality

Not only are there more six to ten-year-olds now going to school, there are also fewer dropouts. This must now also be achieved with the eleven to 15-year-olds - and in secondary schools. According to government statistics, 9.1 percent of first to fourth graders dropped out of school in 2009/10. In the fifth graders it was 15.9 percent.

It is now evident that free school meals and the like are not enough for older children to keep them in school. They are plagued by concerns about the future after school and the pressure to earn money - not least to be able to buy cell phones and fashionable clothes.

Thousands of young people from West Bengal leave their homes before they graduate to work in other states. The state government of West Bengal is doing a lot to motivate them to continue attending school, and entice them with gifts such as school books, cash, silver bracelets and bicycles. This works in the short term, but many early school leavers are mostly related to the socio-economic situation of the families. Usually the young people have to contribute to the living.

It is alarming that more and more children are switching from state schools to private schools (see also D + C / D + C article by Roli Mahajan). Almost a third of six to 14 year olds went to private schools in 2013, according to the 2014 Annual Education Report (ASER). In 2006 it was just under a quarter. In the northern Indian states of Haryana and Uttar Pradesh, more than half of the students are privately taught. Obviously, parents mistrust state schools and are prepared to pay school fees - which poor people can hardly afford, however.

It is frightening that even poor families raise enormous sums of money for private schools. Bimol Baski from our village Bishnubati in West Bengal sends his two daughters to a school where they are taught in English. He is critical of school meals in state schools; instead of teaching, teachers are now busy organizing lunch.

Bimol wants his daughters to learn English well. It is problematic, however, that most children from linguistic minorities are not taught in their mother tongue. This affects us Santal and all other Adivasi tribes - around eight percent of the Indian population. Many adivasis find that formal education threatens their language and culture.

Given all of this, the success of India's EFA efforts is questionable. High school enrollment rates are not enough. Education policies are confused and unbalanced, and the reputation of state schools is suffering.

The success of village schools depends on the local community. Parents' councils have to control the teachers. Unfortunately, many people in the countryside do not get involved because they think the state is responsible. In addition, politicians who are primarily concerned with party interests often dominate the parents' councils. In the countryside, better coordination between teachers, parents and school administrators would be useful.

According to UNESCO's 2015 EFA Global Monitoring Report, India has made tremendous progress, but has a long way to go. The report points to persistent inequality. Some Indians are rich, but the masses remain desperately poor. Some groups are marginalized because of caste, race, belief and other reasons and have little access to quality education.

Alternative schools

In addition to state and private schools, there are a number of innovative schools run by non-governmental organizations, foundations and philanthropists. Many are located in villages and are aimed at those who have poor educational opportunities.

One of these schools is the Rolf Schoembs Vidyashram in our village. I have already read about this in E + Z / D + C (Print edition 2012/09, p. 333 f.) written. We teach on Santali and have created our own textbooks. The curriculum also includes music, myths, dance, folklore, and Adivasi history. In a rapidly changing world, our roots are important to us (see also my Essay in E + Z / D + C e-Paper 2015/07, p. 21 f.). We are supported by German donors.

I know many other NGO schools in India (see box). Most have proven themselves for at least two decades. They are all non-formal, which in India means students don't have to memorize the state curriculum. The alternative schools cater to the needs and interests of the children and use a wide range of didactic methods. They are similar to state schools in rich countries. Evidence shows that non-formal schools in India often produce better formal results than state schools. This is especially true for disadvantaged population groups.

It is wrong that many alternative schools are now being pressured to comply with the formal requirements of the Education Act of 2009, although regulations on window sizes, school clothes or teacher salaries for non-formal schools in rural areas make little sense. Some NGOs are now overwhelmed. There is resistance to overly strict enforcement of the law, but fear of legal sanctions does not make the demanding teaching profession any easier.


Primary education is not an isolated matter. Rural communities need education - but their life has many other social and cultural aspects that need to be considered. UNESCO therefore rightly calls for an integrated approach with a holistic concept.

India still has many hurdles to overcome. Non-formal approaches must not be suppressed because they correspond to the multilingual and multicultural structure of the country. The experiences of the non-state schools should form the basis of future educational policy.

By the way, money is not the problem. In the 2011/12 financial year, the SSA only spent 43 percent of its budget, and more than half was not used at all. This money can be invested wisely. India needs well-trained, motivated and sensitive teachers who work with passion and zeal.

Boro Baski works for the community-based organization Ghosaldanga Adibasi Seva Sangha in West Bengal. The self-help organization is supported by the Friends of Ghosaldanga and Bishnubati e.V.
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