Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Schools need attention - not IITs

Whether one is OBC or not, private tutuions and coaching centres
play a role in finding a seat in premier institutes.

The following write-up by Jayati Gosh in today's newspaper (DC)
puts in perspective how the complete re-think is needed in the education side.




The increasing scourge

By Jayati Gosh

The room is packed with students frowning in concentration as they try to understand the problem being worked out by the teacher on the blackboard. There appear to be no shirkers or pupils mooning around and looking out of the window — everyone is full of attention and focused on the task at hand. Is this a model school? No, it is a private tuition centre, located in three small rooms cramped in the middle of busy shopping complex in one of our big metros. It has poor ventilation and limited facilities, and the teaching is of uncertain quality, but no matter. The parents of these students have paid significant sums for the privilege of this tuition, and they are acutely conscious of the need to take advantage of it as best they can.

Elsewhere, in all our other cities and towns across the country, children of school-going age regularly sit down with private tutors, either in their own homes or in the teachers’ homes. They typically pay much more for such tuition than they do for the regular school fees. The practice is now so widespread that, among the elites and middle classes, not going in for private tuition is seen as something abnormal. Even among poorer families, there are tremendous pressures on parents to engage in private tuition once the child starts doing "not so well" in school.

One of the more remarkable features of our school education system is the way it has allowed and even encouraged the proliferation of private tuition outside the regular school system. This is something relatively unique to India, as it is not found to this extent even in countries where education is completely commercialised and privatised, like Singapore.

Newspapers and handbills in urban areas regularly advertise the merits of different tutorial colleges; those who succeed in competitive examinations as well as in school board examinations proudly thank these teaching shops or their individual tutors when they are interviewed by the media.

In less privileged circumstances the pressures for private tuition are just as great. There are numerous cases where the school teachers themselves egg on students and parents to take separate and paid tuitions. Where these classes are conducted by the teachers themselves, there is obviously direct conflict of interest; but the incentives to encourage students to take on additional tuition are great anyway because that obviously relieves the pressure of teaching on the teachers in school. This is something which is very clearly evident in urban India, especially among middle class households, whose children are geared from an early age to take part in very competitive national examinations for admission into professional courses and much else. But the urge to invest in private tuitions, and the growing dependence of pupils upon it, seems to have spread even to rural areas.

Thus, the Annual Survey of Education Report 2007, brought out by the Pratham Foundation, found that at least one-quarter of all elementary school students in rural India rely on private tuitions in addition to attending classes at school. The problem is apparently most acute in West Bengal, where the survey found more than 80 per cent of middle school children in rural West Bengal taking private tuition. It is sometimes argued that this reflects the poor quality of education in government schools, such that children are forced to take on private tuition because they do not learn anything otherwise. But this cannot be the main reason because the same survey found that private tuition is just as prevalent among children attending private schools. Indeed, in rural West Bengal the survey found that the incidence of private tuition it is slightly higher among private school children in the lower grades as well as in Class 8.

While it is not as well documented, the problem is probably even more intense in urban areas. For example, a study by the Pratichi Trust (2006) of only government-run primary schools in Kolkata found even higher incidence of private tuition among children than the ASER 2007 survey. It was found to be 73 per cent in schools run by the KDPSC, 41 per cent in schools run by the KMC and 50 per cent in the SSKs of Kolkata. It is likely that the ratios are similar, if not higher, for urban children attending private schools.

The dominance of private tuition may reflect a peculiar academic culture, whereby competitive pressure and high aspirations combine to create a milieu in which it is seen as not only the norm, but even as a minimal requirement for any kind of academic achievement. It is true that primary school children without such tuition have been found to perform slightly worse by several surveys, but the differences in performance are apparently not very large. And at higher grades, the problem is self-reinforcing because school teachers tend to assume that their pupils are going in for such additional tuition, and change their teaching methods accordingly.

This practice is likely to be difficult to uproot simply because of the widespread acceptance, and even complicity, of all those involved. As a professor in a reputed college in Kolkata is reported to have remarked, "We are all like the characters of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

As a teacher I am against those colleagues of mine who indulge in private tuition. But as a parent I send my son to private tutors. I think all of us teachers and parents have to rectify ourselves first." (quoted in Times of India, June 21 2001)

Yet it is a problem that must be addressed, because it has so many negative effects. As Amartya Sen has noted, a dependence on private tuitions is one of the most important features militating against better quality in the school system, causing parents to expect and demand less in terms of actual teaching in school and reducing the incentives for teachers within the school as well. In addition, private tuition is obviously deeply inequalising, because better-off parents are able to afford "better" tuition, or even to afford it at all.

And it places a significant additional financial burden on parents even when the actual school education is ostensibly free.

The Pratichi Trust (2006a) study of government schools in Kolkata found that there were average additional costs of more than Rs 1,000 per annum for private tuition for school children even at the primary level. Even in the education centres (Shishu Shikha Kendras) that cater to less privileged groups, the average annual expenditure per child on tuition was more than Rs 850.

Significantly, even poor households in slum areas were found to be making resources available for such tuition for their children, often by restricting the consumption of necessities. As a result, education is effectively no longer free even for poor families in backward rural areas or urban slums

There have been public interventions designed to combat this tendency. For example, in West Bengal where the problem is especially acute, the state government in 2001 officially banned private tuition by permanent whole-time teachers in government and government-aided educational institutions from the primary to the university level. It also promised to take the necessary legal action to ensure the ban. This ban was also supported by the teachers’ associations.

However, obviously the ban has not been implemented effectively, as even the most recent survey evidence indicates the persistence of widespread dependence on private tuitions.

Obviously, if this is to change, we need more than legal measures.

We need a complete overhaul of not just the school system, but even more importantly, the examination systems of School Boards as well as competitive examinations. And, as the professor in Kolkata noted, we first have to change ourselves.

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