Education at the bottom of the (Indian) pyramid

I, like almost everyone I talk to, am bothered about the state of affairs regarding education & skills. I’m not referring to the political agenda in England revolving around free schools, the promotion of academy status for schools, the education maintenance allowance, university fees or any such subject that’s being debated in our political media; rather I’m referring to the injustice of the 60million or so children who’ve never set their eyes on a school building. More so, I get even more vexed when I hear about the millions of children who do attend a school, but leave without learning anything! How comes that never comes up in our media?

The reason I mention this, is recently, I was fortunate to have met with Madhav Chavan, who in the mid-90s founded a NGO in India called Pratham. Later that evening, I attended a dinner hosted by their UK chapter where he laid out the challenge.

His argument was simple. One of the main reasons children fail in the Indian schooling system is because they lack basic literacy skills – they can’t read or write. As a result of this realization, Pratham’s dedicated itself to reaching the absolute bottom (of the famous Indian) pyramid to equip those children (and now adults) with these skills.

To assist their work, one the most valuable things that Pratham instituted and conducts with rigour is a national survey, called ASER, which has now become the de-facto study on education in India, as approx 720,000 people in 16,000 villages across the sub-continent are surveyed.

Chavan highlighted some of the following statistics, which made me sit up and think (read: pull my hair out):

• 97% of children in India are enrolled in a school – emphasis is on enrolled. They don’t necessarily attend or sit exams.
• After four years of learning, in class 5, between 40 – 50% of children can’t read or can’t write.
• In rural India (which is the majority of India), after four years of schooling, in class 5, 60% of children fail to solve a simple division sum.

If this is the case, regardless of where we live, we all need to worry.

If a quarter of the world’s work force is expected to reside in India within the next 15 years, where are all the skilled workers going to come from? Yes, India has a large, and young population that could be a massive advantage in its ascendancy to super-power status, but there’s simply no hiding from these facts.

Right now, it’d be quite easy to take a pot-shot at the role of government, but as Chavan explained, India is a very complex country, where there is a long term commitment in fixing this problem. I assume the challenge comes in dealing with the situation here & now – which if you’ve ever visited India is a challenge in most spheres of life.

As is so true, he explained that where good leadership exists, you find change. For example, some progressive state governments do recognise the huge hurdle that exists and are doing something about this. Bihar is a good example. It has 10 million illiterate adults, and to institute a programme to equip them with “employment ready” skills will require an army of volunteers, which Pratham is trying to marshal with the support of Nitish Kumar, their Chief Minister.

Similarly, Narendra Modi, Chief Minister of Gujarat, realizes as a result of ASER data on his state that in order to translate his success in attracting massive investment commitments he needs a skilled and educated workforce. He’s now mandated his Ministerial team to visit schools to assess for themselves the problems in their system.

If you read my first post in January 2011, you’ll see that I took my kids to a Pratham school in Mumbai. The thing that struck me was that Pratham’s model works because it’s so simple. Because it’s low-cost. Because they’re at ground level. But more importantly, because they can prove their method works.

At the dinner later that day, surrounded by ultra successful entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, and city professionals, Chavan conveyed his message with great effectiveness. His audience were positively agitated and somewhat pissed off at the situation in their beloved motherland. In typical fashion, wanting to put the world right several suggestions were offered by those assembled, but Chavan put it all in perspective, at least for me. He explained: in a country where almost 75% of the population defecates in the open, you need solutions that take into cognizance the reality of India, here and now, and build on them rather than building clouds in the sky.

He’s right. You & I know it. By offering our support to the likes of Pratham, we’ll be doing something about the challenges facing our future generations.