The fifth-grade boys and girls at school in Sultanpur — a village about 40 km from the Indian capital, New Delhi — are laboring over their lessons on a Friday morning. Eleven-year-old Kiran alternates between chewing her pencil and copying the English text that was the morning’s task. She writes down the sentences, arduously capitalizing the first letter of every word. The children have not yet grasped the basics of English grammar, the teacher explains. But they should have – at least three grades earlier.
“I cannot read English very well,” Kiran mumbles, keeping her eyes firmly fixed on the ground. She adds as an afterthought, “I know my tables till 20 in Hindi though.”
As a new World Bank study has found, there’s a literacy problem in Indian schools, and not just in English. A third of all grade-three students can’t read at all in their native language. Roughly half of all grade-five students cannot manage a grade-two text, which is also too difficult for a quarter of all seventh-grade pupils.
This decline in standards, experts say, is paradoxically because of the rush to build schools and bring back children to the education fold. India managed to bring down the number of out-of-school children from 32 million in 2001 to 1.4 million in 2011 as part of a program to make elementary education universal. The landmark Right to Education Act of 2009 guarantees every child in India between the ages of 6 and 14 free education at a neighborhood school.
And yet, amid this headlong drive, little attention has been paid to what children are learning in classrooms or how well. Absenteeism (the World Bank study pegs average attendance to be at least 15% to 30% lower than enrollment rates) and misconduct (recently, about 20,000 teachers were found to have forged their degrees in the eastern Indian state of Bihar) are big contributors to poor standards of education. “India will have to invest more, starting with pre-service teacher education and professional development of teachers,” says Poonam Batra, a professor in the education department at the University of Delhi and a member of the Justice Verma commission, which has suggested sweeping reforms in the education sector.
All this is in stark contrast to India’s lofty goals of becoming a nation of call centers and technology parks, and to the image it enjoys overseas as a powerhouse of learning, turning out English-speaking engineering and science graduates by the tens of thousands. Despite the fact that private schools, promising world-class education in English, have been mushrooming in the country over the past few years, standards of English are also on the wane. “The average Indian adult cannot yet write business letters in English or speak spontaneously at a business meeting in English,” Minh N. Tran, director of research and academic partnerships at Education First, tells TIME.
Enrollment in private schools in rural India increased from 19% in 2006 to 29% in 2013. In urban India it was about 58% in 2005 and likely to be much higher now. But it is in the state sector that the real battle must be fought. “Countries that have done well economically have had robust state schools and teacher-education systems,” says Batra.
New Delhi has raised government spending on education from 3.3% of GDP in 2004–05 to 4% in 2011–12 (China spends about the same, but Brazil and Russia are well ahead). But facilities remain woeful. In Indian state schools, children have to sit on the floor until they reach grade six. “My feet goes off to sleep sometimes, and I lose track of the class,” says Kiran. “A desk and a chair would be very nice.” For most Indian children, the battles are that basic.
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